Review: From the Abyss (Nintendo DS)

From the Abyss
Genre: Dungeon Hack
Developer: Sonic Powered
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: 08/26/08


Japanese dungeon hacking action RPG’s, despite sharing many of same characteristics of their Western counterparts, often tend to be completely different in their designs and implementations. Rugged, battle-worn warriors in battle-worn suits of armor are often replaced with super-deformed anime characters, the Western focus on building up an impressive-looking battle machine is often only marginally adhered to, and in many cases, the point of Japanese versions of these products is the storyline of the experience and the act of the grind itself, not the end result. Arguably the king of these sorts of games is Shining Soul 2, a game that maintained many of the Western sensibilities of the genre (building awesome weaponry, multiplayer gaming, character classes and special abilities) while still being its own animal (what with there being odd multiplayer mechanics, super deformed character models and foes, and item forging that was in-depth and, in many cases, bordered on being significantly frustrating). More than a few attempts at the genre have, in some form or another, either directly or indirectly mimicked that product since then, and From the Abyss is certainly among them. That’s not a bad thing, in theory; an updated version of Shining Soul 2 would certainly be every bit as awesome as one would hope, and more, and From the Abyss manages to get more than a few things right in the attempt… but not everything.

The basic story of From the Abyss is very much as you would expect: the country of Rubenhaut is besieged by evil creatures, pouring out of a door that leads into, well, the Abyss. The queen of the land (Rubenhaut is a matriarchy) seeks a strong adventurer to help defeat the menace, and your character (which you create when you first start the game) rises to the task. Most of the story revolves around the queen and the various residents of the town and the effect the Abyss has had on their lives, as well as those who have already entered the Abyss and have yet to return (hint: they ain’t coming back, either), and as such, is about what you would expect. The dialogue is told entirely through text boxes, and generally does a good job of conveying the story, and the characters are decently fleshed-out enough that you can empathize with their plights to a point, but it’s not anything outstanding; if fills a need, and does a decent job, no more.

The graphics in From the Abyss are generally cute and colorful; your characters and enemies are usually represented as super-deformed sprites of various types, with boss monsters appearing as (usually) significantly larger monstrosities. The animation of the various sprites is decent, all in all, though the player characters are generally better animated than the monsters, as they have more animations to work with (several for each different weapon type, for instance). The game environments are also generally vibrant and lively, and each level of the Abyss tends to look different from the last. On the downside, the entire home town is represented as a basic menu screen, recolored enemy sprites pop up here and there as “new” enemies for you to battle, and the fourth level of the Abyss looks like a recolor of the first level, which hurts the visuals somewhat. Aurally, the music is solid and fits the tone of the game well enough, though it’s not anything special, while the sound effects are generally acceptable in most cases, though a few (like the sound of striking the kobold-like monsters you see throughout the game) are kind of grating after the first few times you hear them.

The gameplay of From the Abyss is largely simple, as most all of it takes place in the Abyss itself, which amounts to braining every monster you see. The d-pad moves you around, while the A button unleashes your regular physical attacks with whatever weapon you have equipped at the time. The other three face buttons can have various skills mapped to them at any time, which can be used in battle for various effects (magical attacks, improved weapon attacks, healing, dodging, and so on). The top DS screen displays the game world, while the bottom screen shows one of four screens at any time, which you can cycle through with the bumpers. The Map shows you the map of the Abyss floor you’re presently on. The Items menu shows you all items and equipment in your inventory (up to thirty six items), ranging from health and magic potions to statues that teleport you back to town to crafting items and equipment and beyond. The menu allows you to use consumables by tapping them with the stylus (sadly, you can’t hotkey potions), to heal yourself as needed. The Status menu shows your character level, experience points and stats, and allows you to distribute stat points (four per level) among six categories: ATK, which affects physical attack damage to monsters, DEF, which affects physical defense against attacks, INT, which affects magical attack damage to monsters, MEN, which affects magical defense against attacks, AGI, which affects your physical and magical attack speed, and LUK, which affects critical attacks and item drop rates. Finally, the Skills menu shows what skills you have on your person (twenty seven max) and allows you to set which skills are hotkeyed to which buttons on the DS (three total).

When you initially begin the game, you will choose one of four character models, and one of four colors for that character (though this choice only changes your appearance, not anything gameplay related), before the game opts to ask you a series of questions. The questions influence what stats will be boosted for your character at the start of the game, so some answers might make you stronger, while others might make you more intelligent, and so on. After this, you can customize your own stats as you see fit, so while your initial answers might modify your stats in an undesirable way, a few levels earned in the Abyss will fix that without too much effort. You’re offered five types of weapons to choose from (swords, spears, axes, bows and staves), each with its own positives and negatives (bows attack at range, swords are fast, axes are more powerful, and so on), as well as a bevy of skills that work with those specific weapon types (except for staves, which instead improve your magic casting abilities). Acquiring skills can be done by either buying them from the shopkeeper in town or by using a skill acquired early in the game called Soul Capture, which basically allows you to steal the ability from an enemy at the cost of about ten percent of your magic points. Skills pop up earlier from the vendor, however, meaning that you might find a skill you want that will make your life easier in his shop that you might not find until two or three stages later in the Abyss, which may or may not be more beneficial to you, depending on your cash situation.

The Abyss itself is divided into eight sections, each of which has four floors that, depending on how far you are into the game, can take fifteen minutes to half an hour to complete. Each of the first three floors is chock-full of enemies (who respawn if you leave a zone and return later), while the last floor is the home of the boss monster of that Abyss section (which the game helpfully warns you about prior to fighting the boss). You’re also offered a two-player mode, which allows you to take on dungeons with the aid of a partner, if you know someone else with the game. The game also allows you several save spots, so you can create different characters of different proficiencies (one who is a spellcaster, one who fights mainly with swords, and so on), and completing the game once allows you to play it a second time against enemies who are much stronger, as well as to collect items and weapons that are more powerful.

So, there’s lots to go through and lots to do in From the Abyss. Unfortunately, most of the depth is largely superficial, which is probably the single most prominent problem with the game; despite the illusion of there being a lot to do, there really isn’t.

For one, right in the early sections of the game, you will find crafting items which describe themselves as useful for making weapons, items and accessories, and you will most likely think that this means you can make things to be used in battle. This is incorrect; the only use for these items is to sell them to the vendor for cash. There is no item manufacturing system in place, nor does selling items to the vendor open up new equipment paths; you simply sell consumables and buy new gear as the game moves on. Further, there’s not really any spectacular gear to find; the vendor sells various gear as the game progresses in improving stages of quality, but you won’t find anything special for sale in the shop, nor will you find anything spectacular for sale on the field of battle, either. There are no plus one swords or armors, no special pieces of gear of any sort, nothing you really can’t find from the vendor, until you’re so far into the game that there’s no point to having such an item, anyway. This is further compounded by the fact that almost every floor of the Abyss has dead end corridors with treasure chests in them; in other games, these chests would have some type of item in the that would make the trek worth the effort, but in From the Abyss the chests almost always contain potions of various sorts that are nowhere near worth the effort spent locating them.

Beyond that, the game lacks any sort of reason to motivate the player to really want to delve into it after the first few hours. There are no different character classes or jobs, meaning that any characters will be differentiated only by their appearance and skill/stat maps, and while that’s fine to a point, it essentially makes building up more than one character largely redundant. In most games in the genre, there are either completely different job classes or, at least, different directions for a character’s growth to move in that will make the character marginally different from any others, but in From the Abyss, every character can acquire the same skills as any other, meaning there’s never any reason to make more than one character or, alternatively, play the game over again. The game opts to point out as one of its features the fact that the maps of each floor of the Abyss are randomly generated, but since this does not, in any way, change the actual monsters and items that will be appearing in the floors themselves, it doesn’t honestly matter in the grand scheme of things, save for the fact that it means you can’t map levels for later replays or to assist friends. Multiplayer is also exceptionally limited; you and a friend can brave the Abyss together to kill monsters and search for treasure, certainly, but the actual mechanics of multiplayer aren’t very friendly. When one character changes screens, both characters go to the new zone instantly, meaning any loot not collected or enemies not killed are abandoned. Characters only gain experience points for enemies they land the killing blow on, meaning that if one character is significantly stronger than the other, unless said character is power-leveling the other, weaker character, said weaker character won’t be gaining much experience in battle. Also, as a further annoyance, while the game does give you healing spells, they’re practically useless in multiplayer since YOU CAN ONLY HEAL YOURSELF, meaning that magic-casting character is generally far less useful than you might think. Fortunately, healing isn’t a very big deal since the enemies are dumber than dirt, and you can literally run through an entire floor of the Abyss without taking any more than a couple of hits from enemies (and yes, I did in fact actually do this, so this isn’t hyperbole), and many enemies won’t even attack you until you’ve had a good chance to lay into them with your attacks. Bosses at least make a decent attempt to attack you, but if you consistently spam your skills and heal yourself a couple times, you can generally make it through most battles in a few minutes with little to no effort, and since a second playthrough of the game only makes the enemies TOUGHER, not SMARTER, the only reason to bother is if you want to level your character as high as possible.

This isn’t to say that From the Abyss is bad, so much as it is to say that it’s very limited and falls short of the mark its aiming for. If you’re a fan of the genre, the gameplay is solid and there’s more than enough to do with the game to keep you interested, so long as all of your interests revolve around the decent presentation values and solid gameplay alone. Anyone looking for the next Shining Soul or something equivalent will want to look elsewhere, however; aside from the weak multiplayer, lack of difficulty, and limited replay value, there simply isn’t a significant amount of depth to the product to merit playing far into the game if you’re at all experienced with the genre to speak of. As an introduction to the dungeon-hacking action RPG, From the Abyss isn’t bad, and as a light experience it will amuse fans and newcomers perfectly fine, but anyone with more than a passing experience with the genre will find the game to be shallow and limited after about an hour or so.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: POOR
Balance: POOR
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
From the Abyss is a fairly amusing, inoffensive attempt at making an interesting handheld dungeon hacking action RPG that will entertain those looking for a small diversion, but won’t occupy those looking for anything more involved. The game largely sticks to its roots, and between the acceptable presentation values and generally solid, easy to manage gameplay elements, it’s a decent amount of fun for someone looking for a game that isn’t very involved, either as a distraction or as an introduction to the genre. That said, anyone craving a little more depth will be hard-pressed to find it here; the multiplayer is spotty, enemy palettes repeat, there’s little variety to character creation and equipment, and the game lacks anything significant to keep the player involved beyond the first few hours. From the Abyss is a fun, acceptable diversion, but as there are other, better options available to someone interested in the genre that a DS owner could acquire, there’s no real reason for this to be anything more than a rental, at best.

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