I really didn’t know what to expect from Orphen. The box makes the game look like, say, a Tomb Raider game, while everything I’d heard about the game had been rather bad. So, I picked it up on rental, brought it home, and popped it my PlayStation 2 to watch the introduction and see what all the fuss was about. The game loads up, and it’s easy to see straight off that a lot of effort has been put into the graphics. The background for the main menu is a beautifully lit temple-like structure, with Orphen in the middle amidst dancing, glowing lights.
So far, everything looks promising. So, I take a brief run through the handy tutorial (which is actually rather helpful) to learn the battle system, which I’ll touch on later, I start the game, and am greeted by an anime cutscene. It’s very close to the style of Dragonball Z, and given what I’ve seen of the in-game graphics from the tutorial, the cutscene looks worse than the actual game – I don’t quite see the point in that, myself. The main storyhook is set up here – Orphen and his apprentices, Sephy and Magnus, have been tricked by Volcan (a small, rather dwarf-life kid) to sail to Arvanramafor some easy money.
The personalities of the characters are also set up here, and it’s should be noted that some of the characters have a goodly amount of characterization. Orphen in particular delivers some very good attitude and lines – a sort of borderline Squall / Lina Inverse and proud of it, both insisting his apprentices do everything menial for him, cocksure whenever enemies appear, and attempting to be the tough faintly aloof guy.
Unfortunately, the courtesy of large amounts of personality is something really not extended to a large part of the cast – Sephy is whiny, Magnus is… well… a bit of a wuss, to be honest. Zeus is Big Wise Barbarian Guy, Sephy is the Mysterious Young Woman (of course, in true tradition, she’s not wearing much.)
So, the group get onto the ship, and this is where the game proper sets in. It is very pretty – there’s enough detail on the models to easily make out the character’s faces, and while some of the in-game speech is enough to truly make you cringe (“Maaaaaaagnuuuuuuuuuuusssss!”) some of the voices, like Sephy’s and Orphen’s, are fairly good. Soon, as you were all expecting, the ship gets attacked by monsters and starts to sink. The first ‘dungeon’, then, is running around the ship in an attempt to find your way up to the deck and either stop the monsters or just get off the ship.
Making your way slowly around the ship, the first thing you’ll come across is a chest. Opening the chest, you find… a healing potion! The problem is, healing potions can only be used out of battle through the extremely simple inventory screen, and there’s no point having healing right after the battle because your HP are used for one battle and one battle only – you have a certain amount of Hitpoints for the battle, and if there’s no Healing Elements around, that’s it for that battle – hit 0, and you’re dead.
The number of different items you get is fairly large, for such a Spartan system – different forms of healing, ways to stop enemies moving round, to kill flying enemies, or to freeze enemies in their tracks – especially when they are, by and large, utterly useless. Finding a monster out of battle is extremely rare, and you can’t use them in battle because the game won’t let you.
Well, alright, I lied. The first thing you encounter is a cutscene. And then another cutscene. Something to note – Orphen loves it’s cutscenes. There’s lots of motion blur, pretty effects, talking, monsters crashing through walls, that sort of thing, but it’s nonetheless really annoying to walk along, hit a cutscene, walk another two steps or so and hit another. Especially when the effects on the cutscene are often totally overdone. A little motion blur is pleasant. The amount used in Orphen is often enough to make you queasy.
After making your way through most of the suspiciously convoluted ship (complete with helpfully placed wreckage so you know which way you have to go – it’s the only way you can go) a giant crab smashes through the hull of the ship and starts coming for you, and the game drops into battle mode.
The way this works is at both once intuitive and so simple it’s bad. By default, you are equipped with a lightsaber, sorry, sword of magic, a Projectile Weapon and an Elemental Weapon, each of which (apart from your sword) conform to one of the 5 elements used in the game – Fire, Lightning, Ice, Light, and Dark. Each gets assigned to a different button – pressing that button makes you respectively swing your sword, or run up and swing your sword, if the enemy is further than an indeterminate distance away – too many times I’ve died because Orphen refused to move – fire off a small bolt of fire/lightning/whatever, or summon large amounts of fire/lightning/whatever.
Holding the relevant attack button down will cause an upgraded version of the attack – your sword will extend the longer you hold the button down (no jokes, please), you’ll fire off multiple projectiles at everything around, or by holding the elemental button down an ungodly amount of time you’ll summon an elemental, which will do big damage to everything in the battle. In addition, there are often ‘extra targets’ around, say, a Dark Element. Hitting this will do a ranged attack centered on the Element, damaging all enemies around. Finally, there are Healing Elements, which give you an often much-needed recovery.
The trouble is this hit point system I mentioned earlier. With absolutely no healing unless the game allows it by having a Healing Element in the battle, you have to be extremely careful. There is a Defence button, but it requires a fast eye for attacks, and also a lot of luck – if you notice an attack while you’re charging one of your own, then by the time you finish charging and have cast the spell, you’re going to be knocked over well before you even get the chance to defend.
In addition, making one single mistake on a battle can cost you the entire battle – a notably difficult battle was one with a giant spider that hid behind webbing. You had to knock the webbing out the way to be able to hit the spider. Meanwhile it was firing webbing straight at you – and if you didn’t block a single one, you were inflicted with the status effect of being unable to dodge, at which point you would be barraged with attacks and die extremely quickly. There’s no continuing – if you die, you’re dead, though pausing and changing your equipment will cause any battle – even boss battles – to restart. This makes Orphen at once easy (you have infinite lives) and immensely difficult (on many battles, that life won’t get you very far).
The story is both long and short – multiple paths through the game are chosen by deciding who you wish to take with you at certain, predetermined points – for example, at the end of the ship you’ll see Mar, Sephy and Zeus, and Magnus and Sephy, in groups at different points along the ship. Choosing to talk to and go with one of these groups will start that character’s path. Completing all three paths leads you towards the ‘true’ ending. Each path, however, is completable in about 5 to 10 hours of gameplay, with the vast majority of ‘gameplay’ in that time being the aforementioned cutscenes – quite a deceptive way of seeming to have more gameplay than it actually does. In addition, the story’s practically the same in each path – no matter what people’s motivations and story, Orphen figures out the scam/whole story… and proceeds to beat stuff up until it’s resolved.
Within the cutscenes and fighting are the puzzles and traps which are… rather simplistic, to say the least. The first type is the jumping trap – something simple, like jumping across floating boxes. Something to learn about characters in Orphen – when they jump, they bounce like a madman. Jumping height is very high, while jumping distance is extremely short for the height they reach. The subsequent camera problems as it shoots up to follow the camera leave you wondering where the tiny little platform you’re meant to be landing on is, and thus Orphen will not-so-happily plummet to his death, and appear back on whatever solid land you were on last – and a number of times you’ll have to survive 5 or 6 pinpoint jumps to actually be able to reach the other side of wherever you are. Control doesn’t even improve when you’re running around – many areas in the game are walkways and pathways, and Orphen has a nonexistent turning circle. Miss your footing or swerve a little too much, and, you guessed it, you plummet.
The traps are frequently irritating – while there are no instant-death traps, there are extremely difficult traps that will allow you only 2 hits before your character keels over. You can often tell when traps are coming up because one character (normally Orphen) will run ahead on the pretence of ‘making sure everything’s okay’. Once you’re past the traps, your other companions will mysteriously also have made their way past the traps and caught up to you without so much as a scratch on them.
The background music was never particularly invasive, but also never really had much of an impact – the tunes are too soft to really create any tension or excitement, while the majority of the spell sound effects are the same ‘kcch’ sounds that you can hear anywhere. The speech is nice, but some of the accents and shouts, especially, are very cringeworthy, while the projectile weapon chants (being your primary weapon) get very repetitive very fast. (Haaaaand of Pyro! Haaaaaaand of Pyro! Haaaaaaand of Pyro!)
As stated previously, the graphics are wonderful, but given the lack of polish in other areas, it’s more a veneer than anything – a definite case of using the PlayStation 2 to make a “good” game by only having good graphics. Looking under the graphics, there’s not a lot there – a too-simplistic battle system with so little gameplay that there’s only about 15 battles per path, no form of advancement or change beyond equipping different elements, and far too many one-dimensional characters. Ultimately, it’s one of the more disappointing launch RPGs.
Personally, I feel that if you’re looking for an RPG on the PS2 right now, go for Summoner or Dark Cloud. Only pick up Orphen if you’re a diehard adventure RPG fan who also doesn’t mind an overflow of cutscenes.