A party of silent heroes descends into a trap-laden sewer maze, encountering myriad otherworldly foes at every turn. Their hearts alight with the passionate flame of justice, these stoic warriors press on, yearning for — whoops, they stepped on a teleportation trap. Regaining their bearings, the party sees a treasure chest in the distance. Hastening their pace, they — oops, someone stepped on the wrong tile and now there’s poison gas everywhere. Also, the floor is lava, and not the kind you imagined in the schoolyard sandbox as a child. Oh, and you’re out of MP. And healing items. And hope that this nightmare will ever end. A droll battle theme loops in perpetuity. Welcome to Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy.
While the scene I’ve described is not unique to this game, it is representative of the kind of experience many first-person dungeon-crawlers provide, and Operation Abyss sticks to this harrowing formula in all aspects aside from its narrative. Operation Abyss trades medieval fantasy for sci-fi horror, chronicling the travails of the Xth Squad (pronounced “zith squad”) as they plumb the depths of dilapidated apartments and dimensional rifts alike in futuristic Tokyo. The player-created members of the Xth Squad pose as ordinary high school students by day and take on dangerous monster extermination and search-and-rescue missions by night. Recruited by the headstrong Alice Mifune, these elite fighters clash with members of a mysterious cult who claim to seek world peace but secretly convert their followers into monstrous “Variants” that terrorize the populace. While this world is intriguing, the game fails to present its ideas in a compelling way, suffering from tepid writing and jarring thematic shifts. In one moment, the characters encounter dismembered corpses and terrifying monsters, and in the next, they’re having inane conversations with cliche-riddled anime stereotypes at school. Neither storytelling approach is effective, leaving the core gameplay systems with the task of impelling the player to progress onward.
And yet nothing about Operation Abyss made me want to play by its sadistic rules. Upon beginning the game, the player can choose either Basic Mode, which automatically generates a balanced party of heroes with unique portraits, or Classic Mode, which offers considerably more control over character appearance at the cost of a less striking visual presentation. Both modes allow full customization of characters’ stats, although to such a degree that I immediately found it overwhelming and off-putting. It’s definitely more Wizardry than Etrian Odyssey, and my tastes fall firmly in the latter camp; the tedium of adjusting and monitoring so many stats for a party of six characters is not my idea of fun. A further aspect of character creation necessitates the selection of their Blood Code, a Fate/stay Night-meets-Persona-esque representation of their connection to a fabled warrior from real-life history. Faces like Hattori Hanzo, Jeanne d’Arc, and more are accounted for here, and their presence determines what kind of abilities characters have access to as they level up. Although they do not manifest visually in battle, Blood Codes have lush, striking portraits drawn by a variety of well-known game and manga artists. Their inclusion is probably the game’s standout element.
Operation Abyss has a nasty habit of resorting to dull text exposition in lieu of graphically representing what’s happening to and around the player’s party. I am certainly not averse to using my imagination, and I devour sharp writing, but the text in Operation Abyss is anything but. If the game intends to rely on its writing instead of its visual assets, I’m going to need more than “the Variants returned to their normal bodies and died” after a grueling battle. Likewise, the high-resolution art present throughout the game contrasts with its otherwise minimally-animated presentation. Unique monster designs and character art lose their luster when you realize that they’re nothing more than colorful pieces of paper. The UI is tiny, dense, and difficult to navigate. Attacks lack impact, sound effects are cheesy and flat, and the entire game exudes a low-budget sensibility.
Battle and exploration should have been Operation Abyss’s strong suits. They are not. Its turn-based battles are unremarkable at best and tremendously repetitive at worst. Unity skills — cooperative attacks between team members — add a layer of strategy to the mix, though this feature is nothing particularly novel. There’s a strange disconnect between the surface-level simplicity of combat and the huge amount of stats/variables at play. Traversal of the game’s punishing dungeons is an even greater battle unto itself. The very first dungeon is an apartment complex inexplicably full of teleportation tiles that jump between its three floors. These tiles can be automatically detected when the player draws near if a character with the correct talents is in the party, but if not? Good luck manually examining every single square on the map until you find the right spot, and then repeat that process about ten more times. This early section alone was enough to make me want to quit the game right then and there. While characters continue to gain access to exploration-related abilities as they become stronger, dungeons remain frustrating throughout. Characters must return to the home base in order to “turn in” experience points and level up, so sustained exploration is discouraged. Even post-battle item acquisition, a routine normally automated in RPGs, is a several-step process that requires far too many button presses, and most items require appraisal before they can be used. Inventory and character management is a nightmare; I couldn’t find a way to compare my equipment to store stock before spending my money, it’s too easy to accidentally unequip gear, and the party’s formation must be readjusted manually in the inevitable event of death. Punishment arises in unexpected places, with little reward to balance.
Operation Abyss tried my patience from the very get-go, wasting my time with obtuse systems instead of drawing me into its world. If only there was a worthwhile story to keep the player invested…! (There isn’t.) If only the acquisition of new items and equipment wasn’t such an obfuscated mess…! (It is.) If only the game looked better in motion than it does in screenshots…! (It doesn’t.) Dungeon-crawlers are so plentiful these days that it’s hard to recommend Operation Abyss when all of its contemporaries are better in some way or another.