Nippon Ichi Software America bring a Experience Inc.’s collection of Generation Xth games to the west providing hours of labyrinth-exploring enjoyment despite some archaic design and mechanics.
World-building & Story
Operation Abyss is set in modern-day Tokyo and uses this to establish a number of fairly grounded elements before introducing more supernatural and sci-fi touches. At the centre of the story is the Xth Squad – a group of teenagers working for the Code Physics Agency (CPA), a secret organization within a high school.
But these aren’t your everyday high-schoolers – they all have Code Rise abilities (see: magic) that makes them stronger than average humans and able to fight ‘Variants’ – strange beings that inhabit ‘Abysses’ (see: dungeons). If that sentence confused you, don’t worry – I was confused much of the time too as the game has a habit of coming up with weird names for fairly simple ideas, making following conversations a bit of a chore.
While the story starts out as fairly clichéd anime fare, it does improve as you make your way through the campaign. What can be slightly jarring is that Operation Abyss is basically two games mashed into one – in Japan they were originally two separate releases on PC, but for this Vita version they’ve been duct-taped together with the explanation of a change of semesters in between. It’s not detrimental in any real way, but you will notice that one plot thread will resolve fairly promptly before a brand new one starts.
The first half of the game is mainly scene-setting – introducing you to all the characters and terms you’ll need to know and generally sees the Xth Squad battling the Tokyo Peace Foundation, a strange cult with ties to the Variants. The second half sees the introduction of the Wizars – powerful beings with unknown intentions; as well as the proliferation of ‘Sprawl Terror’, a phenomenon that’s causing chunks of Tokyo (people included) to disappear.
I have pretty conflicting feelings about the plot on the whole, because on the one hand it’s a fairly cool concept that on the flip side feels under-baked and often just thrown in to connect all the dungeons you’ll be travelling through. Yet in spite of this, I did find myself invested in the overarching story as it handles the mystery elements well and mixes a number of different genres with skill (switching between slice of life; horror and sci-fi easily), making it engaging and worth seeing through.
But particularly key to my enjoyment were the characters who are bare-bones like the plot, yet inherently likable. The Xth Squad’s commander is Alice Mifune, a powerful Code Rise user with an equally strong personality; while Noriko is a timid girl who befriends the team and undergoes some interesting development. Even fairly minor characters like the class clown Johnny are enjoyable to interact with and help flesh out a roster of engaging people that you’ll enjoy chatting to.
Sadly due to this being a ‘build-your-own-party’ game, the controllable cast have no personality whatsoever. What’s particularly jarring is how they’re handled – despite being a group of six people, they’re treated as one being – meaning things like Noriko asking if ‘Abyss Company’ (their default name) would like to take her on a date. It’s jarring and really stands out as a bad design decision.
World-building is generally strong – the locations you visit are eerie and have character to them and although the exposition often gets a little much, it is very easy to get swept up in this world of sci-fi in modern Tokyo.
Presentation & Sound
As a grid-based dungeon crawler, Operation Abyss is far from being one of Vita’s prettiest games. In fact it can be downright ugly in places, but there are certainly bits of flair here and there. (Please note – my play-through of the game was using the ‘new’ visual style, the game does offer the opportunity to play with the original PC release’s graphics if you prefer).
Upon booting up you’re given a decent introduction to the systems at play – you explore a tiny part of a dungeon before a CG still of Alice fighting off a Variant. You’ll be treated to numerous scenes like this throughout a play-through and they’re generally the high points of the presentation – colourful; well drawn and pleasant to look at.
However, the dungeon you’re exploring is less attractive, which is a precursor to the rest of the labyrinths you’ll encounter. These are drab and lifeless with enough repeated tiles to make your head spin. In the game’s defense, the locations themselves are fitting with the game’s tone of supernatural elements in modern Tokyo – so you’ll explore sewers; abandoned high-rise buildings etc., but there’s generally nothing noteworthy about any of them. Even Demon Gaze managed to throw in a visually striking outdoor area from time to time.
Character designs are better – brimming with colour and the kind of OTT design that Japanese games are known for. Even fairly minor side characters in the school portions of the game have interesting (although in some cases borderline offensively stereotypical) design, which means that conversation scenes are enjoyable to look at, even if they aren’t fully animated.
Monster designs are pretty cool too, running the gambit from unrecognizable blobs to towering god-like beings. Keep in mind there are a lot of repeated beasts here and you’ll be seeing the same things over and over, but when new foes are encountered it’s always interesting seeing what the illustrators have come up with for the Xth Squad to fight.
The final major part of the presentation is the menus, which sadly are nothing more than functional. While games like Persona had fun making unique looks for navigating around, everything here is bland and forgettable, with nothing really noteworthy. There’s nothing objectively wrong with them, but they’re the very definition of “just good enough but nothing more”. It doesn’t help that text size is fairly small which makes the experience less than ideal when playing on a handheld screen.
Sound is fairly weak too – the English voice acting here feels fairly forced and there’s far too little of it compared to the size of the game. It doesn’t help matters that sound effects all begin to grate after a while due to repetition (in particular the attack sounds during battles) and music is fairly subdued and certainly nothing that I found myself wanting to listen to outside of the game.
Gameplay & Content
Split fairly evenly between labyrinth exploring and turn-based battles, Operation Abyss plays as you’d expect for a game of this genre. In fact, it plays things by the book almost perfectly, containing every feature you’re likely to have come across in similar games, for better and for worse.
Upon starting, you’re tasked with selecting a squad of six from a number of portraits and classes, along with being given a recommendation of what to pick. I was a bit confused at first with the phrase ‘bloods’ which gets thrown around a lot, but I quickly discovered this was the game’s class system as each is based on the blood of a famous person from history, which is a neat idea. Each class levels up and gains new skills and there’s not a whole lot more to it than this, other than changing the class of one of your members to run a new setup.
The one way you can customize your team is with equipment, which is picked up in dungeons. The first hurdle to actually getting this loot is that much of it will be booby-trapped. In order to get at the prize you’ll have to successfully disarm it – each member of your team will have an opinion about what the trap is and then you’ll have to choose one option. The problem with this system is that if you have an Academic in your squad they will always guess correctly making them a necessity in your squad and taking away any chance in the equation. Once you have your loot, more often than not you’ll have to identify it – this can be done for a fee but an Academic can do it for free – again making them arguably the most essential member of your team.
There’s a fair bit to do in your home base of the academy, including buying and selling items; resting & leveling your characters and talking to the members of the school. There’s a fairly in depth item crafting system involving obtaining plans and materials from your adventures and using them to create various things which I enjoyed messing around with, but annoyingly you’re not given a preview of the item you’re going to create. Most of the actual game involves taking missions from the CPA and heading to the Abysses to complete these, which invariably involves slaying a monster or reaching a certain point in the level.
Each Abyss is set in a certain theme – one is set in a high rise block of flats, another in an abandoned theme park ride etc., but they’re all effectively twisting labyrinths that require various skills to overcome. You’ll have to map out each square individually on the grid to figure out where everything is, quite often flicking switches or diving into portals in one area to get to another. Thankfully once a grid has been explored, an auto-travel option is available to make return visits to each dungeon a little less stressful (or you can purchase items allowing you to teleport to already-explored squares at will).
What is stressful, however, is the amount of tricks that will get thrown at you while exploring and you’ll have to come fully prepared if you hope to make any progress. Various genre staples like trap squares; blocked pathways and areas where map isn’t available will pop up regularly and you’ll need to use a combination of items; spells and trial-and-error to overcome. While I would definitely say the game isn’t beginner friendly, the difficulty is fairly manageable for the most part – where the game stumbles was during some obtuse puzzles with no obvious solution and I have to admit to looking online for help with during my play-through.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a gridder without some turn-based combat and Operation Abyss features a layered system that sadly had a few frustrations. Your squad will be composed of six members in two rows – three in front and three in back – meaning that only front row members can attack with melee weapons, but they also take more damage from being closer to foes. It’s a tried and tested system that works. At the start of each turn you’ll choose commands for each team member – ranging from buffs to heals to attacks – and then combat will play out with enemies based on speed, with all animations being played out through the static portraits.
The game adds a few neat features – such as a unity meter which builds whenever your squad acts together, allowing access to special powerful buffs and attacks. The main issue I had with the battle system is difficulty – it seemed like enemies were either smacking my squad for all of their HP, or barely scratching them – meaning either way encounters were over rather quickly. This is exacerbated by a lack of auto-battle for the easier encounters, meaning you’ll have to manually input commands every single time. Game balance does feel better in the second half, but you’ll have already played a good 20 hours by that point.
In terms of content, Operation Abyss is a meaty package – there’s two games here, each with 15-20 hours of content.
Objectively, it’s difficult to speak too highly of Operation Abyss – it plays things by-the-book far too often; has some frustrating puzzle design and is complicated to get into if you’re new to the genre. Yet in spite of all this, I found that I kept coming back to it – the story provides just enough mystery to make it engaging and there’s something addictive about uncovering these labyrinths bit-by-bit. There’s also a lot of content here for the price and as such I’d recommend giving it a shot if you know you’ve loved playing gridders in the past, you just might want to look elsewhere for your first try at the genre.