Operation Abyss Raises the Question, "How Old-School is Too Old-School?"

Operation Abyss Raises the Question, "How Old-School is Too Old-School?"

Don't let the shiny anime art fool you — NIS America's new Vita dungeon crawler is as classic as they come. Too classic, perhaps?

Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy has surprised me. For starters, I'm surprised by the fact that NIS America is publishing the game in the U.S., yet it's surprisingly light on the company's trademark anime wackiness and fanservice. Aside from some too-revealing generic character portraits and a recurring character who aspires (poorly) to be a comedian, Operation Abyss is decidedly nuts-and-bolts in its presentation.

Despite its slick sci-fi patina, Operation Abyss is a straight-up old-school Wizardry clone. Developer Experience Inc. has changed around some words and terms to give the adventure a near-future setting, but in practice it all works out the same as the swords-and-sorcery of classic dungeon crawlers. You control a military investigation team rather than a guild, you journey through skyscrapers in Roppongi Hills rather than dank dungeons off a swamp somewhere, and everything revolves around "data discs." But look beyond the smokescreen of the anime-style future and it all functionally works the same as the dungeon crawlers of the early '80s.

Anyone spoiled by all the niceties of more contemporary first-person RPGs like Etrian Odyssey may have a tough time immersing themselves in this unrepentantly anachronistic take on the format. Its interface employs an obtuse approach to role-playing, offering little explanation of its mechanics outside of a stack of dry tutorial files. Even navigating basic menus can be a chore thanks to the way highlighted items barely stand out from everything else.

Like most games of this style, Operation Abyss allows you to go with a pre-rolled party or build your own six-member team from a pile of palette-swappable character portraits. This is the point in the game where both the outlandish sci-fi and the anime fanservice elements bubble to the foreground. This character design, for example...

....is presented as an assassin, born of the lineage of the legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo. Which is odd, because she looks like nothing so much as a raver, a skinny kid wearing a vinyl bikini and rollerblades, whose only concession to a life of combat appears to be razor disks attached to elongated glowsticks. OK, sure, whatever. Operation Abyss' assassins really amount to nothing but your typical RPG thief class, even if the associated portrait looks like her inventory should consist of nothing but Ecstasy tabs and pacifiers with a bag of holding in the shape of a backpack in the shape of a cute animal. And that's kind of the entire game in a nutshell: Anime boobs hiding a staid, by-the-books role-playing experience.

Anyway, the character portraits are just suggestions; they actually have no bearing on a party member's skills or stats. Abilities here are entirely determined by "blood type," which — surprisingly for a Japanese game! — doesn't have anything to do with the standard A/B/AB/O positive/negative rubric and instead denotes that warrior's heritage. Your team descends from legendary heroes, heroines, and gods (from Oda Nobunaga to Amaterasu to Joan of Arc), and the blood traits you assign each character locks down their combat abilities and attributes, as well as their moral alignment. So while the game presents our raver girl as a stealthy assassin, you can also assign her willowy, underdressed character portrait to your tank. Or use the beefy guy with the heavy armor and tower shield as your mage. Or set the portrait of the girl with the energy bow-and-arrow setup as your specialist in swords and maces.

Beyond that flexibility, though, Operation Abyss plays very much by the rules — and they're old, old rules indeed. When your party first ventures into the "dungeons," you don't have enough cash to buy your team new equipment worth owning... and even if you did, gear is gated by character level, so you wouldn't be able to put on anything but starter gear until you level up a few times anyway. Leveling up in Operation Abyss, by the way, is not simply a matter of gaining experience — you also need to return to the academy and rest, at which point you'll be able to "cash in" your maxed out experience meter into a new level and the stat gain to go along with it. Camping to gain a level isn't just old-school, it's "proto-RPG first-edition Dungeons & Dragons" old-school.

Girl, I can thrill you more than any ghoul would ever dare try.

But that also means that at the outset, your party is stuck with six characters spread across two rows, all using short-range weapons. The first few hours of play consist of your front-row members attacking, while your back-row characters can basically do nothing but defend: Their short range weapons can't hit anyone from back there, you see. Granted, you can bring along spell casters, but at level 1 a mage (whether focused on offensive, defensive, or support magic) can only cast three spells before needing to rest. Those spells are admittedly powerful; in the first few dungeons, a single attack spell can destroy pretty much any single mob. But they're single-targeting abilities, and you only get three spell charges — yes, Operation Abyss uses the classic tiered spell charges rather than a mana pool, because it's old-school — so that doesn't offer many opportunities for your casters to do anything but defend.

The utter and complete waste of time that results from this clunky design decision speaks to the dangers of slavish adherence to tradition. Every round of combat drags and drags as the game informs you that your back row characters are sitting there defending, and you end up needing to sit through twice as many rounds as you should because your dead weight members aren't hitting bad guys, so those enemies take more rounds of combat to destroy (and therefore have more opportunities to attack). Equally annoying: The game doesn't offer any fine-tuning for how you target your attacks; ranged weapons and spells can be directed toward a row of enemies, but you can't specify a particular monster within that row. The game automatically determines which enemy you hit within a row.

Alas: Unlike in, say, Dragon Quest, your party members lack the A.I.-driven common sense to focus on a single target and thin the enemy ranks. Instead, your warriors seem determined to take a communist approach to battle by dividing their actions equally across all monsters in a row, which also helps slow things down. Enemies live longer since your team doesn't like to pile onto a single monster, meaning they get to take more turns and create more text for you to advance through. And since they stick around longer to take more actions, your party takes more damage, meaning you need to retreat to heal up more often. That in itself is a drag, since there's no way to view an entire dungeon map at once, only the local mini-map, meaning you need to wander through the repetitive environments to find the exit again. And of course, healing costs cash ("GP"), which scales by character level, and the growing costs of your frequent trips back to heal up after a few inefficient battles forces you to spend more time grinding for money in order to be able to afford better gear.

I would say Operation Abyss has the time-wasting mentality of a particularly nefarious free-to-play game, but that would be backward. King and Zynga games channel the numbing repetition of old PC RPGs into a monetization model, and Operation Abyss simply copies the template of 30-year-old games with an almost religious zeal. Its design doesn't really feel deliberate or considered, but rather the result of designers who did it that way because that's the way it's always been done. It's the kind of game that grows on you over time in large part because it seems so impenetrable and unfriendly at the start; there's really nowhere to go but up. Once your characters can afford and equip weapons that better suit them and start to gain skills to diversify combat, it picks up a bit. But like so many games of this kind, the hardest part of the adventure is just finding the will to get started and suffer through its rigid, unforgiving opening hours.

Static character portraits? Check. Attacks that mostly whiff? Yep. Active hostility toward the concept of accessibility? Ah... it's a Wizardry clone, alright.

Operation Abyss is a strange creature. Its visual style seems geared toward fans of flashy anime, but the game itself plays out as anything but. It's unrepentantly archaic in its design, and there's certainly an audience for dungeon crawlers that do away with all the niceties of contemporary RPGs in favor of a faithful reproduction of '80s PC RPGs. But I have to wonder just how big the Venn diagram of classic CRPG fanatics, anime nuts, and Vita owners actually is. Something tells me it's a lot bigger in Japan than here in the U.S. — so kudos to NIS America for taking a chance on it. And I'll return the favor by gambling that it can eventually overcome the rote, dated design of its opening hours. Here's hoping.

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