Dungeon crawlers are a funny old beast. With all the developments in gaming seen since the release of genre classics such as Dungeon Master you’d have been forgiven for thinking that these seemingly outdated beasts would have been abandoned entirely, existing only as curios in the collections of the most hardcore of gamer. Instead they’re still here, still entertaining us, still innovating and bringing outside elements into the genre. Crawlers may not be to everyone’s tastes, especially in this age where the market craves instant gratification and accessibility, but it’s heart-warming to see these links back to when gaming was new still being developed and released.
Talking about heart-warming, if you were one of the genre fans that were chuffed that you were getting another release so close to Demon Gaze then you should be doubly glad with Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, as instead of one game it’s actually the combination and re-release of two older PC games from the Generation Xth series. Initially released in 2008 neither Generation Xth: Code Hazard nor Generation Xth: Code Breaker were officially released outside of Japan, thus giving Vita owners with a taste for the niche their first chance to sink their teeth in.
In a break from the norm, Operation Abyss casts us in the present as members of a secret government agency tasked with fighting the hosts of evil variants that have begun to pop up all over the place. The members of your squad have been lucky enough to exhibit the ability to use a skill known as ‘Code Rise’; this allows them to tap into the spirits (‘blood codes’) of long-dead heroes, manifesting their powers and their skills to destroy the endless waves of zombies, flying robots and elemental shard things that you will be facing. Even with all this in mind, your party still manages to be high school students living a secret double life, so at least that particular Japanese gaming trope is safe.
To be frank, there’s not a huge amount of story past these basics, and the plot developments that do show up are full of deus ex machina and, quite frankly, holes. With your squad acting mainly in a reactionary fashion and simply questing along as directed, it’s down to the cast of supporting characters to provide some grounding, and you’d struggle to really connect with any of them. A collection of stereotypes with overall passable voice acting don’t provide any kind of compelling hook to drag you in and keep you here, and you may well find yourself tapping away during some of the dialogue trees just to get back out into the grinding.
And grind you will. You’ll grind for blood code levels, for gear, for materials, for keys and for pretty much anything else that makes an appearance in the game. Throughout the game much of this grinding is extremely repetitive – your characters will be taking the same action each and every battle, and you’ll spam the action button over and over again until all the variants are slain and the loot unlock screen is past. Spell casters utilise an old school Dungeons and Dragons style of casting, with each ability or spell only having a certain number of uses before you have to go back to base to rest. This is especially frustrating in the early game, with your back row support often adding nothing of value to the majority of battles as you save your skills for the potentially more challenging battles ahead.
Indeed, for much of the game the only real challenges your characters will face are the insane damage spikes that seem to unfairly pop up in the most inconvenient of times. As resurrection spells are incredibly rare and expensive, these are often followed immediately by a base visit and dungeon restart. You could be exploring a dungeon with relevantly levelled characters equipped with fully boosted gear, and yet neither of those factors stop the gods of luck from sending a weak point attack your way and incapacitating one of your characters. In more difficult fights (and certainly in end/post game) cascade failure is very common, and it’s very tough indeed to be able to win a difficult fight without a full complement of characters.
Yet, behind these fairly shallow and stereotypical genre standards there does lay a deep and interconnected upgrade system that in many ways blows the socks off of the lazy loot mechanics we’re used to seeing in most RPGs. Each piece of gear you can acquire has a level – the current blood code of your character of choice has to be equal to or above that level to equip the gear, and generally speaking the higher the level, the more powerful the gear. So far, so basic you say – but hold on. You can boost the level of that item a number of times equal to the item’s level, so you can turn a level 3 dagger into a level 3 dagger +3, for instance.
Here’s where it really begins to get interesting. The number of relevant loot drops per blood code isn’t really all that high, so to get through some of the difficulty spikes and more dangerous variants you’ll need to ensure that you boost your gear as much as you can. But, of course, boosting isn’t free, and you’ll need to gather materials in order to fuel your rapidly developing boosting obsession; luckily for you, you can also strip items down to their constituent parts, with many of your junk drops suddenly transformed from shop trip sales to a ready stream of parts. Often you’ll have to make a call between whether or not to keep an item with the potential for a more powerful final form, or to strip it down now to increase the power of what you have equipped in the here and now. This tinkering is addictive, and you can easily find yourself spending hours at a time setting up your active party with the very best gear you could provide at that given moment. The only real downside here is that the UI is criminally painful to navigate, and while you may enter the process with a clear goal in mind you’ll almost certainly have to painfully scroll through a number of text menus to actually get there.
Equally important to a dungeon crawler has to be the design of the dungeons themselves – after all, you’ll be spending many, many hours travelling through them. In this regard Operation Abyss is at its most outdated; the dungeons can be horrifically unforgiving, expecting you to travel through screens and screens of convoluted paths searching for the single floor square that would hide the hidden door required for progression. Great if you manage to find it the first time, utterly soul destroying if you miss it and find yourself retracing your steps, checking every last square as if you were playing Treasure Island Dizzy and looking for coins. There’s one dungeon in particular in the first half of the game that provides a couple of these moments, and you’d have to expect that all but the most dedicated would fall out in the face of such frustration.
We mentioned earlier that Operation Abyss is the combination and re-release of two earlier games, and unfortunately the passage from what was the first game to the second isn’t entirely seamless. Armed with fully boosted weaponry and gear from the end of the first game, you’ll find yourself set for much of the rest of the storyline. When clear loot upgrades do finally start dropping, the amount of grinding to gain upgrade materials makes it almost pointless to even try to use them – those strong, connected loot and upgrade mechanics of the first half of the game are gone almost completely, called upon only a couple of times before you end the long slog to the post-game.
Overall Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy clocks in at around forty to forty-five hours, although you can whack on a lot more to that if you want to explore the post-game for all it’s worth. There’s real potential here, nearly enough for it to be worthwhile for fans outside the genre to check it out. But nearly enough isn’t quite enough, and too many instances of archaic dungeon design combined with the poor story and insta-death combat situations means that it’ll stay far away from the mainstream. However, if you like your crawlers then feel free to jump right in – you’ll recognise the rough edges, and the innovations in mechanics will prove worth the price in admission alone.