Game Description: WWII Strategy RPG with Werewolves, Vampires, and Zombies!
Enter an alternate WWII era world where history and fantasy collide. Leading an army of ruthless officers and unearthly creatures, Adolf Hitler marches through Europe, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. With his powers on the rise and his armies on the move, it falls on you and your team of elite soldiers to cut deep into the heart of the Third Reich and strike a fatal blow to Hitler’s ever growing legion of evil.
The truth is that all reviews are subjective. Critics, reviewers, and gamers all bring the weight of their experiences and tastes with them to every game they play. I point this out because Operation Darkness nearly overwhelmed my critical reasoning skills. It's a game that hews so closely to my tastes that it might well have sprung wholly-formed from my own mind. Had I been asked, one year ago, what the absolute best premise I could imagine for a game would be, there's an 80% chance my answer would have been "A gothic-horror themed League of Extaordinary Gentlemen battle Hitler's undead army." So how can I possibly look at a game fairly when it seems to have been created for a market of me?
Operation Darkness belongs to that most Japanese of genres, the Strategy Role Playing Game (or SRPG). SRPGs are generally set in fantastical or futuristic settings, and replace the simplified combat 'two lines attacking each other' of JRPGs with methodical turn-based gameplay that focuses as much on strategic movement as it does on powering up characters. It's a niche genre even in Japan, and its fanbase is so small outside of Japan that a new, sub-'niche' word needs to be coined to describe their size and fanatacism. Operation Darkness takes this slow, static gameplay and uses it to create a game with a fantastic premise: What if Hitler had teamed up with vampires and the only hope of defeating them lies in the hands of a team of SAS werewolves?
The genius of the game's presentation, and this is something that characterizes Japanese games far more than their North American counterparts, is that every situation, no matter how ludicrous, is offered with a completely straight face. This is a game where a main character says, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Oh no, the Nazis are summoning zombies! It looks like we're going to need Jack the Ripper's help!" No plot development is too ludicrous, no twist comes too far out of left field for inclusion. Of course, the idea of a game where multiple unrelated strange things co-exist is completely alien to North American gamers. The fact that the game is willing to throw in so many different bizarre ideas is a breath of fresh air. That all of these different characters and stories fit so well together is just a wonderful bonus. As I said in my preview last month, this is a game that allows werewolves to fire rockets at dragons. How much more interesting does a game need to be?
Luckily the game doesn't have to coast on its premise because the strategy combat is extremely solid, with only a few minor mistakes and quibbles keeping it out of the realm of greatness. The battles are handled in the classic SRPG manner, with each character having two possible options in every turn: they can move then attack, or attack then move. Where the game differs from the normal setup is in how turns are handled. Instead of each side getting a clearly-defined 'turn' in which they move and attack with all of their characters before letting the other side do the same, every character moves in a constantly-updating sequence based on players' speed rating. This is a good idea in theory, as it allows spry werewolves and melee fighters a chance to get an advantage on the hordes of foes they're always facing, while enemy tanks, which have a nasty tendency to show up unexpectedly, barely get to move at all.
The other great idea is the new 'cover system', which, despite the suggestion of its name, has nothing to do with the trees and broken walls that litter the battlefields. Instead, it allows characters to forgo their turn in exchange for the opportunity to attack any enemy that enters into their field of fire, no matter how many enemies that may be—so a character with a sniper rifle and a keen eye can deal out far more damage than they could just firing once per turn. Like the speed-based turns, this cover system is an interesting innovation, and for the vast majority of the game, it provides a great new wrinkle on strategy that allows the player to battle overwhelming odds effectively.
While the setting remains captivatingly mad for the entire length of the game, and the strategic combat works well, the game is not without its problems. One of the most notable is that the inventory system is about four times more unwieldy than it needs to be. I understand why individual characters have a weight and inventory limit, but I can't imagine why the items sitting in a warehouse back at base should have one. It's 2008—I shouldn't be spending five minutes between every mission throwing out old items so I can buy new better ones. What's far worse than this is the game's refusal to let players salavage German weapons and items from corpses at the end of missions. Sure, for plot reasons a few of the missions end with the players fleeing, but the rest of the time there's absolutely no reason I should be forced to run from body to body looking for guns while enemies are still shooting at me.
The game's biggest problem, by far, is the way its difficulty curve kind of hits a wall right at the end, and it's entirely because of a bad design decision. For the entire game, the enemies' difficulty level is very well scaled. As player characers pass levels, getting more hit points and more powerful attacks, so do the enemies. It moves at a matched pace, ensuring a constant level of challenge. While everything else is moving at a steady rate, though, the enemies' speed increases far faster than the main characters'. Towards the end of the game, the enemies move so quickly that an average soldier gets two moves for each one of the players', while bosses get between three and five! It's so bad that by the end even tanks move faster than the player.
In theory the players should have enough special abilities to deal with these handicaps, but because the two most important weapons in the player's arsenal, the cover system and their magic powers, take up an entire turn to use, the player has to waste an entire turn at the beginning of each fight just getting into position to use their abilities, while all twentysomething enemies have between two and five opportunities to hit the players as hard as they like. Add the fact that in the last few missions the player can't re-arm between missions (or salvage from corpses), and is asked to fight multiple ultra-fast bosses at once, the game reaches a point of near-impossibility. Every flaw is heightened by the lack of in-mission saving, meaning the slightest mistake can result in nearly an hour of wasted effort.
Operation Darkness succeeds for the vast majority of its 40-hour length. The audacious premise is incredibly fun all the way through, and right up until the last few missions the gameplay more than holds up its end. It's just too bad the game gets so frustratingly difficult right at the end. Beyond my insane, utterly irrational love for everything about the premise, I really enjoyed the vast majority of the game's levels, and the craftsmanship that went into building them. I was all set to recommend this game without reservations, only to have second thoughts when it so utterly dropped the ball. I experienced about 35 hours of good gameplay here, followed by five of hair-pulling, controller-throwing frustration, before I finally gave up, one mission before endgame. That's a ratio I can live with, but anyone who likes consistency, and, you know, actually finishing games, should think long and hard before diving into the most wonderfully ludicrously insane title to come along in years.
The fact that Operation Darkness currently sits at a shameful ranking of 45 on MetaCritic is quasi-commentary on the state of games reviewing today. As if there was any doubt that graphics and flash are more important to the average reviewer than substance and creativity, the handling of this game confirms it.
Getting the most obvious things out of the way, I'll be perfectly honest in saying that the camera in this game is horrible. It's atrocious. Personally, I don't think that it should have been released in such a state, and I'm sure that the skittish and twitchy view controls have turned off players who would have otherwise fallen in love with this game.
Additionally, it's absolutely true that the graphics in Operation Darkness are well below average. Sporting none of the typical bells and whistles that most current-gen games come equipped with standard, this isn't a title that will wow friends.
With those two issues noted, let me be absolutely clear in saying that the rest of the game is pretty fantastic.
Dan and I are on the same level when it comes to our mutual adoration of the supernatural-meets-WWII premise. Given Hitler's widely-known dabblings in the occult and the rise of urban fantasy in popular culture, a more perfect blend of classic and timely elements couldn't exist.
Although the thought of werewolves savaging SS troops or zombies firing Lugers may seem somewhat absurd at first, Dan's comment that the game handles its subject matter with an absolutely straight face is on the mark. Briefings before each mission are interspersed with actual footage from WWII, and certain historical events are interwoven with the game's fiction to create a revisionist history that's not hard to find believable in context.
Besides the engaging military plot, the writers have done superbly with the game's characters. Rather than taking the easy way out and going for cheese, dramatic elements in Operation Darkness are unexpectedly thoughtful—even poignant at times.
For example, it's always been a pet peeve of mine when a "normal" character in a game receives some new ability or special power, and then proceeds along their merry way as if that life-altering event was a humdrum, everyday occurrence.
In Operation Darkness, the writers actually take the time to establish a proper dramatic arc; the first few missions are standard WWII affairs, with the supernatural slowly being worked in. When the main character receives his powers, there's actually a fairly substantial cut-scene that deals with his emotional struggle, and whether or not he wants to continue in his role as a soldier. Other events are touched on such as personal loss during wartime, and brief meditations on the common German's role during the rise of Nazism. This isn't War and Peace by any stretch of the imagination, but it goes a lot further towards crafting a respectably legitimate story than most games do.
Enhancing the great writing, the voice actors for every character turn in admirable performances. Each one distinct, yet restrained and always delivered with the proper emotion and flavor, the vocal cast deserves a commendation.
In addition to the noteworthy character work, the technical presentation of Operation Darkness is somewhat different than the average Strategy-RPG. Although it is indeed a turn-based game, the camera (when not player-controlled) takes dynamic angles and jumps around the battlefield. Additionally, the game often portrays enemy characters as if they were taking their turns in real-time, giving a very action-oriented feeling to what is usually very dry, static combat. It's a lot more exciting to see three Germans rushing towards you with rounds from their machine guns chewing up the dirt than it is to see each one moving orderly like robots on a grid, the way most SRPGs do.
I'm not going to make excuses and say that this is a perfect game, but I will say that the positives in Operation Darkness's favor far outweigh the negatives. The quality of the story and characters in addition to the unusual subject matter make it quite noteworthy for anyone who can appreciate the genre—we really don't need any more carbon-copy Knights and Magicians taking sides in the usual mess of confusing SRPG politico-babble, so I applaud Success for taking a risk in a genre that's been plagued by a severe lack of creativity.
But, next time... fix the camera.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Violence
Parents might want to warn their children away from this one. For a mature-rated game, it's not especially big on brutal or excessive violence, and it really seems to be the Nazi-themed setting that earned it the M. Besides a risqué costume and the presence of Jack the Ripper in a heroic role, there's nothing even borderline inappropriate here, unless your children are sticklers for historical accuracy.
Strategy RPG fans will find a few neat twists to their beloved genre, with the slightly more realistic setting and speed-based turns. Of course, the way those twists screw up the late-game difficulty curve may have you wondering why they fixed something that wasn't broken.
History buffs might want to give this one a pass. While the game certainly features the guns, tanks, and settings that WWII obsessives love, the werewolf/vampire twist might try their patience even more than the gameplay issues.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should be fine. Seeing as this is a strategy game, there's no need to respond quickly to audio cues, and all key information is helpfully offered up in onscreen text and a helpful mini-map. The only thing you'll be missing out on are the fun fake accents.
So anyway, there's a mistake in my review of Operation Darkness. Well, that's not entirely accurate. The review is a perfectly honest accounting of my experiences with the game, and my analyses of them, both qualitative and quantitative. The problem is that I was playing the game incorrectly, and that mistake coloured my opinions about the experience, which led to me being unfairly harsh to the game in one important area, the difficulty level.
If you've read the review, you'll notice that I clearly state that I found the game so difficult that I was unable to complete it, due entirely to what I perceived as an imbalance in the game design. Specifically, that my characters seemed to lumber around like stoned koalas, while the enemies, even tanks, zipped about the map like ostriches on methamphetamines. Since I was playing an advance copy of the game, I was unable to just check the manual for help. Someone on the team was nice enough to respond about the speed differential in electronic mail format:
"The speed difference between you and the enemies is designed to make you be selective about what to take and, more importantly, NOT take. It forces you to plan ahead for long battles, while at the same time, learn to minimize your load, make what you brought into battle last you for as long as possible, and learn to obtain additional items from fallen Nazis in a pinch."
While I appreciate my correspondent's attempt to assist me with the problem, I didn't find his advice especially helpful. Why not? Because he didn't come right out and tell me that the only way I could have asked such a silly question is if I'd been playing the game incorrectly. There is no speed difference between the player and the enemies, my own misunderstanding had created one.
I'll explain. Like many strategy and role-playing games, Operation Darkness' characters have load limits that keep them from carrying ridiculous amounts of weaponry into battle. In OD, these limits take two forms: A maximum of five weapons and five items may be carried by a character at a given time, and each character has a weight limit based on their strength. It's the second one of these that got me into trouble.
You see, when unencumbered, a character's weight stat is given as a blue zero. As items are added to the inventory, that number rises, but stays blue. Once a certain threshold of weight has been passed, the number turns yellow to signify overloading. If the player continues loading the character up, that number will eventually turn red, which is never a good sign.
My mistake, and I hope it was an understandable one, was assuming that encumbrance only started affecting a character's mobility once the number changed from blue to yellow. It turns out that no, speed penalties begin the second anything is added to a character's inventory. This is what created the perceived speed imbalance. While my characters were equipped with a gun, some grenades, and ample healing and ammunition, the enemies carry almost nothing, so even though all have the same speed statistic, they have very different mobility.
After the review was published I discovered my mistake by asking other fans on Atlus' message boards, I went back and tried the game again, and discovered it much easier the second time around. Suddenly my characters had just as many moves as the enemies, and my werewolves were no longer slower than zombies. I wound up playing the entire game again, enjoying the experience far more now that I knew the rules.
It seems like a foolish thing to have missed, but it was the result of a confluence of little problems. My assumption that the colour change was significant, the fact that the game (nor manual, which I later procured) never explains the rules of encumbrance, the lack of a line on the character stat screen showing encumbered speed, and my contact's suggestions of ways to work around the problem, thus reinforcing my impression that the problem actually, you know, existed.
Sill, even with all of the contributing factors, in the end, I'm the one who made the mistake, and possibly discouraged people from trying a wonderful game by describing it as more difficult and unfair than it actually was. I apologize to the developers for printing any errors or mischaracterizations about Operation Darkness.