Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: June 24, 2008
Microsoft should be applauded for managing to turn its Xbox brand into a juggernaut in such a short period of time. Despite going up against both Sony and Nintendo, Microsoft has managed to carve itself a healthy share of the console kingdom. Unfortunately, as good at the Xbox 360 is, it does have a few weaknesses, such as the overall lack of RPGs. Oh, you get a few here and there, ranging from the lackluster Endless Arms to the fun Lost Odyssey, but they're the rare oasis in the 360's RPG desert. Thankfully, popular niche company Atlus, who is known for releasing obscure but often excellent RPGs to the American market, is taking its first shot at the Xbox 360 with Operation Darkness.
Operation Darkness opens in the early days of World War II with two British army soldiers, Edward Kyle and Jude Lancelot. When their first mission goes sour, Edward and Jude are the only survivors of their unit, and Edward is critically wounded by a surprise attack. At the last minute, he's saved by a passing Major James Gallant, who gives Edward a blood transfusion to save his life. However, Edward's salvation comes with a side effect because Major Gallant is a werewolf. Gallant is part of Winston Churchill's elite supernatural task force, the Wolf Pack, that's been assigned to counter Hitler's own supernatural forces. Since Edward has a bit of werewolf blood in him now, he also gains a bevy of supernatural powers, and he and Jude are promptly assigned to Wolf Pack. Before long, they end up battling their way behind the scenes of the biggest events of WWII, doing everything from stopping Victor Von Frankenstein III from helping the Germans launch an atomic bomb to preventing Hitler's elite vampire squadron from resurrecting the deceased Count Dracula.
The story in Operation Darkness has all the makings of a classic pulp novel. Most of the characters come from popular fiction; beyond the werewolves and vampires who populate the game, you'll also encounter Jack the Ripper, Frankenstein's monster, zombies, and even the sword-wielding descendent of the Professor Van Helsing, who originally slay Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's infamous novel. At the same time, you'll also encounter historical figures ranging from Adolph Hitler to General Patton, and alongside the Allied forces, you'll fight off a bizarre mix of supernatural monsters and Nazi soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, and other famous World War II battlefields. If you're expecting a somber title, this may not be right for you, but if you're interested in seeing Jack the Ripper use a sword to battle a five-story-tall dragon, well … read on.
Operation Darkness' basic gameplay isn't too complex. You have a group of eight to 13 Wolf Pack members that you can bring into battle, and you move around the battlefield in turn-based combat, hoping to slay the enemy before they can slay you. However, the WWII setting adds a few twists to the concept. First and foremost, your primary weapon will be guns, which are long-range weapons with hefty strength, but they have a few drawbacks. A gun is not an ensured hit, so if there are obstacles between you and the enemy, or if they are simply too far away, you'll miss or hit the ground, wasting both your turn and your ammunition. The same weakness can be turned against the enemy, allowing the Wolf Pack to use the local environment to its advantage to avoid being caught in a wave of machine gun fire. Ammunition is also a concern; each weapon has a certain clip size, and once that runs out, your character has to be stocking extra ammunition, or else the fancy machine gun is nothing but excess weight.
Wolf Pack has weapons to spare, but that isn't its only source of combat strength; weapons come second to their incredibly collection of supernatural abilities. Each member has his own set of Military Spirit (MS) attacks that stem from supernatural origins. Fire Starter Witch Cordelia, for example, can toss fireballs and create burning infernos to immolate her enemies. Irish sniper Cynthia has the ability to supercharge her sniper rifle to do insane amounts of damage. Less exciting, and yet more useful, is the Reanimator Herbert East (who is, of course, similar to, but legally distinct from Herbert West, Reanimator). East doesn't really have combat skills, but he has a variety of healing abilities, such as the exclusive power of bringing the dead back to life; he's often the only thing standing between a lucky shot from an enemy Panzerfaust and a Wolf Pack member's demise. Each of these supernatural abilities is powered by the character's MS bar, which serves as the game's magic meter. The MS bar regenerates as your characters take damage, so you're not completely helpless if you've spent all your MS right before enemy reinforcements arrive.
While most of Wolf Pack only has Military Spirit attacks, there are two members who have a little something extra. Gallant and Keith, the founders of Wolf Pack, are both werewolves, and in addition to their MS attacks, they have the ability to shapeshift between their human and lycanthrope forms. In werewolf form, these two are stronger, faster, and more durable than they are in human form, but it comes at a very significant cost: Their MS is constantly draining, even when it isn't their turn. Furthermore, you can't shift out of werewolf form until all of the character's MS is drained. It's a brief inferno of power that can change the tide of a battle, but cautious players will know to save their wolf-out sessions until they really need it.
The Wolf Pack is more than a motley collection of supernatural powerhouses; it's also a well-trained and highly-skilled team that has mastered working together. In gameplay, these honed battle skills come in the form of Cover abilities, which can be used instead of taking an action during your turn. Cover Move makes your chosen character hold his own movement until another character of your choice makes his own action. The benefit to this waiting is that your character gains a significant boost to his movement range, and you can choose to let a character move after your enemies have. You must give up your ability to attack after moving in order to do a Cover Move, but when used properly, it can be the difference between life and death.
Cover Attack allows the Wolf Pack to overcome its toughest foes, but if you plan poorly, you might end up in the path of a tank cannon or a vampire's deadly magic. When using Cover Attack, your character chooses a weapon, and its range determines the radius within which you can carry out a Cover Attack. If any of your allies use an attack on an enemy within that radius (as long as it isn't a MS attack), your Covering character will also attack with its chosen weapon. If your Bazooka-wielding werewolf seems a bit slow, set him to Cover and have your other party members attack the target, which will allow him to get four to five attacks in the space between his turns. Such a powerful ability does have some downsides. For instance, you can't control when the character does or doesn't Cover Attack, so if you don't want your hero wasting his rare bazooka shells on weaklings, you'll have to be very careful about when and where you choose to initiate a Cover Attack. Also, if your Covering character is hit by an enemy attack, he's knocked out of his Covering stance, rendering him useless until the next turn.
Cover Ambush is sort of the reverse of Cover Attack. You pick a weapon that sets a radius, and you enter into a Covering stance, but it activates on your enemies' movements, rather than on those of your allies. Any time an enemy moves within the radius of your Covering character, that character will launch an ambush attack on the unfortunate foe. Like the other Cover abilities, there is a time and place, and using it in the wrong place can ruin your day. The radius of the gun isn't set to places where your character will likely hit, but instead set to the farthest possible range. That means with a machine gun or sniper rifle, you'll be able to ambush clear across the board, but it doesn't take into account the chance of hitting that enemy. If you don't plan your Cover Ambush carefully, be prepared to see your character wasting a lot of ammunition on foes that he could never possibly hit. Also, like Cover Attack, you can't control when he fires, and that includes if the enemy happens to wander near one of your allies. If you use a heavy machine gun or bazooka for a Cover Ambush, you might find yourself blowing the crap out of your allies as well!
You'll need all of Wolf Pack's formidable abilities in order to take on the Nazi forces because most of them have some supernatural strength. Regular German forces are fairly weak and will fall to whatever weapon you happen to have nearby, but once the war begins to ramp up, you'll see a number of new and more difficult foes. Tanks, for example, are heavily armored and require either magic or bazookas to take down. Skeletons are equipped with swords instead of guns, but due to their lack of skin and organs, are functionally immune to long-distance or shrapnel-using weapons. Bazookas, or close-range weapons such as knives and swords, are your only hope against these undead foes. Each enemy tends to have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that you must exploit, and the only weapon that works against everything is the reliable bazooka, but bazooka ammo is both limited and extremely heavy, so learning to strike at weaknesses instead of blowing them up is essential to preventing Wolf Pack from becoming just another war statistic.
Operation Darkness' story mode will feature 27 distinct missions that take you from the early days of WWII right up to the fateful day when Adolph Hitler meets his demise in a hidden bunker. Beyond the plot missions, there will also be a number of optional side-quests to complete, including a series of missions that must be unlocked by finding hidden reports on defeated enemies. Gamers with Xbox Live can draft a friend to play these bonus missions together online in co-op mode. Both gamers select one of their save files and can use any of the soldiers they've built up in the campaign in the bonus missions. While there isn't a prize for doing so, playing online is a way to unlock a number of Operation Darkness' achievements.
British werewolves fighting Nazi vampires during World War II: Is there a concept that can better describe video games? I think not. However, far more important than the unique concept is the fact that Operation Darkness is a much-needed addition to the Xbox 360's rather lackluster RPG lineup. While it certainly doesn't have the kick of Final Fantasy or even Persona, Operation Darkness is going to be a much welcome relief to Xbox 360 owners who are desperate to sate their RPG hunger. Perhaps people who normally wouldn't normally touch an RPG will find the supernatural and World War II elements interesting enough to give Operation Darkness a try.
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