Review: Operation Abyss: New Tokyo legacy (Sony Playstation Vita)

Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy
Genre: Dungeon Crawler RPG
Developer: Experience Inc
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 6/9/15

There are plenty of reasons to remake a game, especially if the first time around the game was made on a shoestring budget as a way to get your name out into the world. That’s how we ended up with Corpse Party, after all; the original game was made with RPG Maker on the PC, built a cult following, and saw a PSP remake that ended up making its way stateside to some success. This is also how the subject of our current review, Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, came about. The developer, Experience Inc, got their start on the PC with a trilogy of dungeon crawlers under the Generation Xth moniker, and after attracting enough attention to get some publishers behind them, they remade the first two games from that franchise into one Vita title, Operation Abyss. In theory, this can be amazing if you handle it right; you can expose new fans to your old work, but also update that old work in a way that it can appeal to those new fans, because you’ve learned new things now and can fix the flaws in your old games before rereleasing them. In practice, Operation Abyss takes none of the lessons learned from Demon Gaze into account, as while it’s still a dungeon crawler, it’s essentially Wizardry with an anime bent, overly complex mechanics and a whole lot of pacing and structural problems.

The Future Is Now, Sort Of

Operation Abyss starts off, narratively, with a decent amount of promise; you find yourself dumped into a sewer to be devoured by monsters before a random dude in black saves your life and a young lady in magic armor takes you in. Said young lady, Alice, explains that you’re one of a small group of people who can use what the game calls “Code-Rise,” a skill that lets you use the Blood Code of dead heroes to manifest their skill and strengths through yourself. From here you’re recruited into the CPA, a somewhat underground organization devoted to using Code-Rise for the purposes of defeating deformed monstrosities called Variants and protecting humanity from Variants and Abysses, locations in the world that have been warped by Code. As the game is very much a Wizardry-style game, the narrative is somewhat depersonalized; while there’s a story here, it mostly revolves around your entire team as a whole, and while you’re the primary actors in the game, most of the people around you are the stars of the show. The main characters you meet, like Alice the veteran (to the extent that an eighteen year old can be a veteran anything) Code-Rise user, Noriko the student body president with a secret, Kaito the genius vice-captain who walks you through missions and so on all have their own importance to the plot, and it’s their stories that drive most of the game. This is generally fine, in the same way it’s fine in similar games, though the lack of agency here is more noticeable than it is in something like Might and Magic X because you’re interacting with the same characters constantly and following their paths from beginning to end, so your narrative path being stagnant is more noticeable because of it. The plot is also pretty by-the-numbers in a lot of cases, and while it’s fine, it rarely manages to be more than that, which doesn’t help the experience.

Visually, Operation Abyss mostly uses a mashup of the artwork from the original game and the new artwork style that was used in Demon Gaze, though it mostly meshes well together. The one area where this is noticeable is when you choose between “Classic” and “Basic” character models; the Basic option lets you choose one of the variable character portraits on-hand, similar to Demon Gaze, while Classic gives every character a default template and changes their appearance based on the equipment given them. While that sounds cool, the actual artwork looks pretty awful and generic, so it’s more of a novelty than anything you’d want to use. The game also does many of the same things Demon Gaze did aesthetically, meaning that the backgrounds are fully 3D and varied, while the enemy models are 2D and mostly static images, and conversations are all done with static half-sprites that change based on the mood of the conversation, which is all fine, even if it’s not taxing the Vita technically. Aurally, the game mostly sounds fine; the in-game music is fitting to the experience, the combat effects all sound solid, and the game’s audio has a natural ambience to it that mostly works. That said, while most of the voice acting is pretty solid, some of it (such as the weird “redneck hick” voice used for Johnny Sakuraba) is outright offensive, and given the kind of quality work NISA is known for (Danganronpa for example), it’s kind of odd to see multiple poor castings this time around.

On Crawling Dungeons and Summoning Heroes

Operation Abyss is a dungeon crawler in thought and deed, though unlike Demon Gaze, which made itself accessible and varied its content up a lot, this game is basically a straight-up Wizardry homage that changes up the behind-the-scenes mechanics rather than the core gameplay. From the beginning, you create a team of six characters (or use the ones the game gives you), and choose their Blood Code, gender, name, starting stats and so on as needed to fill out your roster. From there, the game alternates between the spending time in the city and dungeon crawling. When in the city, the game is almost entirely menu navigation, between visiting different locations and performing actions once you’re at those locations. Each location generally gives you the ability to speak to someone there or dispatch to a dungeon if one is unlocked, save for your home base locations, which all serve specialized functions. Moving between locations is as simple as selecting them from the menu, so it’s easy to swap between your main base and investigation zones as needed. When crawling dungeons, movement is handled in first-person, and the game automatically maps any squares your team travels across. As you move around the dungeons, you’ll occasionally find treasures lying around or be accosted by random groups of enemies who force you into combat, which is more or less what you’d expect: turn-based battles where you choose your actions from a menu, and everyone goes in order according to their initiative. If you’ve played a dungeon crawler before in your life, you’ll be at home with Operation Abyss quickly, and if you’ve played Demon Gaze in particular this will feel instantly familiar in a lot of respects.

That said, while the game feels very much like a Wizardry title, it’s definitely got a few tricks up its sleeve. For one thing, character and inventory management is much different from what you might expect. Your characters aren’t so much powerful warriors as they are channeling the souls of powerful warriors, and have capabilities based on the skills of said warriors. What this means is that each team member equips a Blood Code, which acts as a job in essence, giving them a specific class in battle, such as Knight (tank that can fight), Warrior (combat class versed in many weapons) or Physician (healer). Your class is one of many things that influences what you can equip and how your character performs, but interestingly, unlike other games which lock a created character into a class, your party members can change Blood Codes at any time. There are some caveats, however; the character is dropped back to first level immediately in the new Blood Code and has to level up all over again, they can only equip Blood Codes that match their alignment (most Codes have an alignment associated to them), and their bodily stats remain the same no matter what Blood Code they change to, and they can’t earn more points until they reach their highest level Blood Code level with the current one.

Inventory management is also complex on a few different levels. For one thing, the game features a full crafting mechanic, where you’ll often get Junk Weapons and Junk Armor, rather than fully-formed gear, and you’ll be able to craft the gear from the junk parts if you want that particular piece of gear for your team. Conversely, if you get a fully formed piece of gear you don’t want, you can also strip that down into its component parts instead of selling it, which gives you the parts for building other things, and also lets you sell the junk part for a smaller profit. This is often the better choice, since upgrades for your gear can also be made from these parts, and stripping gear to get parts, then selling the junk, is often much more profitable than selling the gear and buying parts. Upgrades themselves, since we’re on the subject, encompass the traditional damage and defense pluses, but can also allow for adding damage types to weapons or stripping their current bonuses and negatives. Later on in the game, you can also get codes that allow you to “roll the dice” on an item to make a (potentially) better item, or craft upgraded versions of tools, keys and other items by combining the lower level items together, so you can always have better tools so long as you have a surplus of lower level stuff. You can also just buy things from the lab in your home base, though many items have a set stock and it rarely replenishes, so you’ll need to balance purchases with the amount of items available.

Your home base also has a mission central area, which allows you to modify your squad and take on missions, as well as a medbay for healing people up as needed. The game is wholly mission based, so you can accept normal and submissions when you’re there, and report completed ones, as needed to advance the plot or (for most submissions) simply collect your loot. You can also build new team members here in addition to the aforementioned Blood Code swapping, which is useful, partly because two Blood Codes aren’t unlocked until later in the game, and partly because permadeath is a thing here (sort of) so if you lose a party member you may have to replace them and start from scratch. The medbay, meanwhile, allows you to heal party members, both of status ailments and damage, though some stats have a chance of failing, and if they do, that party member is lost. Healing damage works as normal, mostly; you can choose to either pay a little bit and replenish magic, a normal fee to heal, or a high fee to heal and cure exhaustion (if needed), as well as heal characters who suffer from other stats independently. Characters who are afflicted with heavy status ailments (such as paralysis and death) will be carted to the ICU, as well, so you’ll find them here when you get back to base, ready for treatment (at a cost) and slotting back into your team. You can also pay money to simply add experience points to a Blood Code, if you wish, in case a team member is lagging behind or you’re flush with cash and want to accelerate leveling a bit.

Dungeon crawling and combat also have some of their own novelties. The dungeons are generally what you’d expect, though they shift a bit between modern themed worlds high tech tunnels, depending on the location. They’re also laid out like you’d expect, with lots of hidden rooms and traps and such, but how the game handles this is interesting. Each dungeon generally has hidden doors and such, some of which are optional, some mandatory, and characters can occasionally discover them on their own, or else through hunting like a crazy person. Traps are a bit more limited; they mostly come down to dark tunnels where you can’t see your path, one-way doors, shock panels that hurt when you step on them, directional panels that send you in a set route, and dispel panels that dismiss enchantments you might have on. The game uses them in creative ways, though, so you might find that there are one-way walls in hallways to punish you for not paying attention, or paths where you need to cast float magic on yourself to move forward, and banishment panels to punish you along the way. Finally, dungeons also have various set icons around them, which can indicate places that offer information, hidden items (such as dead bodies, souls or containers), and stationary enemies to fight, depending on the icon, so there are added benefits and punishments to look out for as you move forward.

In combat, the game mostly works as you’d expect, though you have a few things that need to be considered. For one thing, your team has a Unity gauge in the bottom left corner which replenishes as you deal damage to enemies, and can be used to unleash special techniques in battle as needed. You’ll want to use them constantly, though, because using Unity skills is the main way you’ll increase the size of the Unity gauge, allowing for more powerful techniques. Further, while most combat techniques act as you’d expect, the game takes a more Dungeons and Dragons perspective to magic usage; instead of having a set magic meter, you instead have a set amount of spells per level based on your current level, meaning that at, say, level fifteen you might have eighteen level one spells, twelve level two spells, and so on. You can cast any spell from the list so long as you have a spell at that level left, but it’s not the same as using magic points at all since you’re limited by level, not cost, so you’ll need to rethink your spell usage. It should also be noted here that the normal experience points system most RPG’s have is in place here, but when you reach your level, you don’t automatically level up; you instead have to head back to base and rest before you’ll level up as normal. Finally, the game also throws a whole lot of enemies at you sometimes, and I’ve seen battles featuring upwards of forty enemies in one battle, or battles that went on for five or six cycles because more enemies kept showing up. It’s challenging, is the point here, so you’ll need to be wary of that.

On the Downside

Operation Abyss is a game you can probably complete in around fifty to sixty hours, roughly speaking, and there’s plenty of reason to come back to it if you love this sort of game. Swapping up your party composition is a big lure in a game like this, and the game allows for all sorts of party layouts so those who love this sort of experience might find that appealing. There are also a fairly large amount of options available mission-wise, so if you miss some sub-missions you can always come back and try to complete them all. The game also allows for a lot of item and character development after a while, so those who love doing everything they can do in a game like this might find that enjoyable. That all said though, while there’s plenty of reason to come back to the game, games generally rely on being able to convince the player that they’re worth the invested time for a first go-round, and Operation Abyss completely fails at this task.

To put it another way, due to a myriad of poor decisions and terrible mechanics, I cannot in good conscience recommend Operation Abyss to anyone.

Let’s start at a simple, all-encompassing example. About sixty percent of the way through the game, during the second semester, a sequence of events occurs where your team is hit with an effect called “Code Breaker.” This effect completely robs the target of their ability to use Code-Rise; in short, you can’t use anything Code-based, including items, weapons, or skills, and all of your stats are nerfed. You’re basically a walking target, in other words. Conceptually, this is fine, and had the game introduced the effect, then healed it to show you it was scary business, it’d simply be a scary skill. Instead, the game then spends a long amount of time going through narrative before dumping you in a subway car where you must fight two mandatory battles, AT LEAST, and gives you three healing items you can only use at the end of battle. Each battle is against robots that miss often, but hurt like hell when they do hit, and while you hit constantly, you deal one and two points of damage every time. This leaves each of the two (again, mandatory) battles to take about fifteen minutes apiece, for little profit, at maximum risk. It is one of the single most boring and excessive sequences I have seen in a video game ever, and it is purely by the grace of God that I didn’t put the game down entirely at that moment. Instead, I went onward through another mission, which revealed where our next target was, at which point… nothing happened. Searching the Japanese wiki revealed that I needed to complete a entirely optional submission that was literally in no way related to the main mission before it would unlock. After recycling the submission six times (it wanted items I didn’t have and couldn’t easily get), I was finally able to complete the submission and go onto the next main mission, at which point (after beating the boss of the prior mission handily) I watch two characters instantly get one-shotted by the first enemy I encountered in the zone, because it was fifteen levels above me.

If that sounds fun to you, Operation Abyss is your game.

To be blunt, there are a lot of flaws in the game beyond the above. Blood Code swapping is completely useless as a mechanic and there’s no obvious reason why it exists; since you can’t reassign your stats you’re locked into a limited number of options (unless you want a healer who punches everyone), and since the Code starts at level one it takes forever to level. Leveling in general is a colossal time-sink, even beyond that; it takes around one to two hours to grind a single level after about level ten if enemies spawn consistently, which I can definitively tell you they do not, and the game basically forces you to grind a whole lot towards the latter half of the game if you want to stay competitive. Oh, and God forbid you lose a character, because you will (at a rough guess) be spending twenty hours plus trying to get the new recruit up to a comparable level, in addition to massive amounts of cash. This is 1980’s level old-school, and it’s borderline draconian in 2015. Oh, yeah, and because the game is technically two games rolled into one, literally halfway through the game you run headlong into a mandatory level cap of level fifteen. Level FIFTEEN. You’ll basically spend about six hours at that level cap and smite two or three bosses under it, all of which pay out experience points you will never see again, right before the game says, “Here’s the second half, have fun grinding for ten hours.” It’s insane. The game, for all its flexibility, also gives you no compelling reason to ever use anything but the default party it gives you, Blood Code-wise. You basically need a Wizard, Academic and Physician if you value life and not spending thousands of dollars per dungeon run, so the entire back row is spoken for, Paladins are needed after a certain point to keep the team from dying instantly in many battles, and there’s no compelling reason to use anything but a Samurai and Warrior in the front DPS slots.

The game is also massively and needlessly complex, to a point where it defies all logic. Item and weapon creation involves swapping around through four or five different menus, and there’s no unified front-end that just says “Here’s what you can buy or create, do you want to do that?” to speak of. It’s also annoying gear-wise when you have to try and understand why the gear simply doesn’t work the way you’d expect; some gear can be equipped but ends up “glitched,” which seems to do nothing but make it hard to remove, while other gear can’t be equipped, which could be due to level, job, alignment, gender or even your starting stats, which crosses the boundary from “complex” to “bizarre.” Healing is also poorly thought out because there’s never any reason to use the mid-tier option if you have a healer, when you can cheap out to replenish their magic, have them heal everyone, then replenish their magic again. If a character dies you’re better off dropping out of the dungeon because if they fall behind in experience by a lot they’re screwed, and the one time I tried using an item to resurrect a character was the only time I lost a character so that’s basically useless. Also, for a game that offers you six character slots, the fact that it basically says, “Oh, and if you don’t being an Academic with you, you’re beat,” is kind of limiting all over again. It’s not that the Academic is a bad class (assuming you like status effect classes) so much as it is that it just seems limiting that your options are “Bring an Academic,” or “Have fun hunting for hidden doors, unlocking chests safely (which you have to do CONSTANTLY by the way), unlocking doors at all, and spending money on identifying items and leaving dungeons early.” Finally, the game is often just too obtuse for its own good. Quests won’t let you advance without having done some random unrelated subquest you barely knew about, levels often have secret doors that don’t trigger a prompt and are mandatory to progress, and there’s an entire section where you have to spend an hour hunting for clues to answer questions to statues, and each time you mess up you’re dropped to the lower floor. Oh, and to get back upstairs you have to burn two floating spells/items because the entrance to the floor has a shock row, a dispel row, and another shock row.

The bottom line is this: God bless NISA for bringing games to the US that we wouldn’t be playing otherwise, and their translation job was good, but this was a terrible choice to bring to the US, and as remakes go, Operation Abyss seems like it was remade to make more money, not to actually improve its many, MANY problems. If you’re really up for a challenge, the plot, visuals, audio and base gameplay are generally fine, and there’s a lot of content to see here. However, the game really feels like a first attempt at making a new dungeon crawler, because a third of the systems barely work, a third are needlessly complex, and a third are overly simplistic and restrict your play style, which is not at all good, especially in a REMAKE. Blood Code swapping is useless, traditional healing is mostly useless, and resurrection items can induce permadeath making them borderline useless. Item creation is overly complex, gear restrictions are overly complex and make no sense and most of the menus in your home base are needlessly overlayered and complicated. Grinding is mandatory, permadeath means an extra ten or so hours of grinding (at a minimum), the level cap halfway through the game is blatantly stupid and wasteful, customizing your party is basically useless, mission progression and level design can be needlessly complex, and there’s a two hour sequence in the latter half of the game that will almost certainly make you want to throw your Vita. Put bluntly, unless you really, REALLY, REALLY love dungeon crawlers there is absolutely no upside to Operation Abyss, and lord love NISA for trying, but this is a game they should’ve left in Japan, as nearly anything else would’ve been a better option for translation.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Assuming you skipped the entire review to get to this point, I would first recommend that you go up one paragraph and read that; it should tell you everything you need to know about this game, and whether it’s for you. If not, if you enjoyed Demon Gaze but thought it was far too accessible and easy, then Operation Abyss might be the game for you. For everyone else, however, this is arguably the worst RPG available for the Vita (yes, I’m saying Mind Zero is better than this), and as remakes go, if you didn’t know it was a remake, every single broken or poorly executed aspect of the game works very hard to convince you it’s not. I absolutely respect NISA making the effort to bring the game stateside, and their work on translating it was wonderful, but Operation Abyss is a game that no one ever needed to bring to the US (though its sequel Operation Babel and spinoffs Labyrinth Cross Blood might be). Those looking for a dungeon crawler that’s borderline oppressive at times might find this to be fun (assuming you’ve already beaten The Dark Spire), but everyone else will find it to be a bit too much past the halfway point, and that’s coming from someone who loves the genre a whole lot, so if that doesn’t say something, I don’t know what does.