Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Release Date: February 7, 2005
Buy 'CHAMPIONS: Return to Arms': PlayStation 2
After reviewing so many Japanese action RPGs lately, Champions: Return to Arms is a nice change of pace. Champions is a hack n’ slash-style RPG, light on story but long on action. It comes out of the same game design traditions as ASCII dungeon crawlers like Rogue and Nethack, but splashes in the multiplayer appeal of the arcade classic Gauntlet. The way Champions updates this old formula is entirely satisfactory, if not exactly a stunning exercise in originality, and the result is a very fun party game. It can be played either on its own or as a sort of “expansion pack” to the previous Champions of Norrath game, letting you send your old characters on new quests for even more loot.
Return to Arms doesn’t have a story so much as it has an excuse to go out and slaughter things. Once you’re through the character creation process, which also involves selecting how many players will be in your game and the difficulty level, you’ll be transported to the Plane of Tranquility and get a lecture about the backstory from Firiona Vie (y’know, the half-naked chick from the EverQuest boxes). Rallos Zek, the Prince of Hate, is making trouble in the Planes, and Firiona wants you to go out and stop him while she stays behind and runs the horribly overpriced item shop. You agree and head out to the Plane of War to get started, and while you’re there, bump into an extremely evil (and therefore seven-eighths naked) priestess named Natasla. She makes fun of you for being Firiona’s champion and asks you to join the cause of evil. You can choose to agree with her and be evil, or refuse and go about your heroics in peace.
The decision you make when you speak with Natasla will pretty much determine what you’ll be doing for the rest of the game. If you opt to be evil, then you’ll become Rallos Zek’s henchman and start assisting him in his rampage across the Planes; if you pick the path of good, then you’ll be running around through the Planes to stop him from doing whatever villainous thing he’s up to at the time. The differences in gameplay between the two paths aren’t very drastic, although there’ll be different maps and nominally mission goals. The basics will remain classic hack n’ slash either way: kill everything, get as much treasure as possible, cash in your plot tokens, and then move on. Still, getting to choose whether or not you’re allied with good or evil adds some nice flavor and some replay value to Champions.
Character design in Return to Arms, if you don’t just import your old Champions of Norrath character, is very much in the traditional D&D vein. There are seven race-class combinations, five of which allow you to pick a male or female character model: the Human Barbarian, Wood Elf Ranger, High Elf Cleric, and Erudite Wizard. The two race-class combinations unique to Return to Arms, the Iksar Shaman and Van Shih Berserker, only come in male varieties. I found this slightly disappointing, as I’d love to see what the Frank Frazetta-ish approach to the female designs would result in with an Iksar lizard woman. Still, it’s a pretty good spread, although there’s not a huge difference in the way that different melee or range-oriented classes will play. A lot of what you choose will come down to aesthetics and personal preferences.
As you progress through the game, you’ll get to customize your character in a million different ways. This is the real fun of Champions, and it’s easy to lose hours upon hours to pushing just a little further to see if you finally find some better armor or stat-boosting items. As you amass experience and level-up, you’ll get to increase your stats and spend points on unlocking more powerful skills. Generally, about ¾ of the skills on any particular character’s skill tree will actually be useful, and even the ones that aren’t usually help unlock some better stuff. Experimenting with different builds for the different character classes is fun, and there are a few that can be played in legitimately different ways depending on how you spend on skills. This is especially fun in multi-player games, where a wider variety of character builds will become viable.
While the gameplay is simple, a good interface does a lot to make playing Return to Arms a pleasure. Use of the analog sticks is typical, left to move and right to rotate the camera. The cross button is for attacking, R1 for blocking, and L1 from toggling between your equipped melee and ranged weapons. Using potions for restoring health or mana is keyed to the R2 and L2 buttons (respectively), and you can assign any two of your special abilities to the triangle and circle buttons. This makes casting spells, using powers, and shifting weapons on the fly smooth and absolutely easy, and is a big part of what makes Champions such a good party game. Even someone who doesn’t play video games much will be able to grasp these controls quickly and start having fun with the game.
The only real weakness of the combat engine at all is the lack of any sort of auto-targeting system, which makes using ranged weaponry frustrating. A lot of the time ranged shots will miss due to facing a millimeter too far away in either direction, which can make characters burn through mana and arrows ridiculously fast. The problem is bad enough to make range-oriented characters not very viable in single player mode. In multiplayer, there will ideally be a few brawlers on hand to keep the casters from getting mobbed as they try to set up a shot, and this makes all the difference in the world. In multiplayer games, bowslingers and magicians may lag during the exploration parts of the game, but can make all the difference in the world during boss fights.
The graphics and sound for Champions are both functional but not great. The OST alters between sweeping Hollywood-style orchestrated pieces, and simple ambient sounds. Voice acting for the different NPCs is present but rather hilariously cheesy, and mostly good for a laugh. Each of the level maps is nicely detailed, but quickly starts feeling very similar to each other despite the different Planar gimmicks. There’s a surprising about of detail in each individual map, but only some of the larger boss enemies are very visually impressive. In single-player games you can zoom in on the map to see things in more detail, but doing this is usually very foolish from a gameplay point of view. You can also zoom out to view more of the map at once, but this makes your character almost too small to follow. In multiplayer games, you won’t be able to alter camera at all, although the default angles are perfectly serviceable for gameplay purposes.
There’s a certain sense in playing Champions: Return to Arms that the developers didn’t want to mess with the hack n’ slash formula too much, but also didn’t want the game to come off as being too simple. There are a lot of bonus missions meant to help increase the game’s replay value, things like the “medal rounds” where you can hunt for Bloodstones, and some sidequests that crop up as you explore the different Planes. There are even a few levels that call upon things like block-pushing puzzles to advance. For the most part, these gimmicks feel a bit out of place, and for good reason: at heart, Champions is just about pure hack n’ slash. If you enjoyed the first Champions of Norrath and are still eager for more, or if you’re just looking for a good fantasy-geek party game, then Return to Arms is a great title to pick up for your PS2. If you’re in the mood for anything other than a long hack n’ slash level grind, though, this is about the last game you want to play.