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Release Dates: October 11th, 2007 (Japan), June 24th, 2008 (N.A.)
Cover art for Operation Darkness.
What Is This Game?
Operation Darkness is a Strategy-RPG featuring traditional, grid-based tactical RPG battles, but with full 3D graphics and a 3D camera. However, the highlights that have given it a strong cult following and small, but dedicated, fanbase, are its wildly original and wonderfully bizarre setting, story, style and characters, and the joyfully imaginative glee with which it handles them. Operation Darkness’ gloriously ludicrous blending of well-researched World War II history, with elements from just about every facet of supernatural horror, fantasy and Nazi exploitation and occultism, topped off with its anime-style visuals, creates a game entirely unique in its insanity.
Operation Darkness follows a British SAS unit, the Wolf Pack, as they battle the Nazi forces of darkness during World War II. Edward Kyle, the main character, is a British soldier who enlisted in the army after losing his loved ones to the Nazis. Rising to the British Special Air Service during the war, he is partaking in the North African campaign when an encounter with Nazi Troops leaves Edward nearly dead. He is rescued by James Gallant and his fellow members of the Wolf Pack, and after recovering, is persuaded to join their ranks.
The catch? The Wolf Pack is actually a unit of soldiers with supernatural powers. And its lead members? They’re werewolves. Wait, why does the British military have a secret unit lead by werewolves? Well, because the Nazis are actually in league with vampires. And not just that, the Nazi vampires come with a force of magisters, zombies and even giant dragons in tow! That’s right, in addition to the Gestapo, the S.S., and deadly Panzer tanks, the Nazis have an army of undead and occult forces in league with them. But the Wolf Pack has some aces of their own up their sleeves; on top of werewolves, those joining forces with the Wolf Pack include a descendant of Van Helsing, Jack the Ripper, a semi-mad doctor straight out of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, and the hulk-ish Frank, who’s origin story is a wonderfully ridiculous surprise. Top this all off with a charmingly regal, Dracula-esque Nazi-vampire as the main villain, his busty assistant, who’s straight out of a Nazi-sexplotation film, and a good dose of documentary-style WWII history before each mission, and you’ve got one of the most wildly original and delightfully insane video games you’re likely to ever play. Fans of the strange and obscure, or of mercilessly tough strategy gameplay, read on: this game is one hell of a crazy ride.
Edward and his comrades prepare to battle the forces of Nazi Germany.
Operation Darkness is one of those oddball, low profile, low budget releases that seems almost destined for both obscurity AND cult status. As mentioned, Operation Darkness has a very particular type of appeal and insanity. It’s over-the-top (though thoroughly original) concepts and choice of the strategy RPG genre, which (at least outside Japan) is a niche genre to begin with, combined with its low-profile release and low budget, almost ensured that it would both live in obscurity, but also attract a certain love and attention from a very specific, if small, crowd.
Needless to say, I was a member of that small crowd. As a fan of alternate history storylines, anime-style visuals, RPGs, and the Shadow Hearts series (another RPG series dealing with alternate histories and the occult), as well as a World War II history buff, Operation Darkness was almost uncanny in what a perfect fit to my tastes and interests it was. Once again, not exactly mainstream, but absolutely refreshing in the originality and imagination of its concept for those interested. After being pleasantly surprised that Atlus had picked the game up for a North American release, I made sure to pick the game up on day one; regardless of critical reception or technical flaws, this game was absolutely my speed.
Indeed, Operation Darkness is a truly original concept, and a satisfyingly grueling challenge, too; as refreshing in its sometimes merciless difficulty as it is in its joyful creativity. While its unforgiving difficulty was, in fact, even a point criticism from some, it was simultaneously refreshing in its tough and unforgiving game design; requiring the player to, in fact, be careful and strategic; an element missing in far too many easier strategy RPGs. Operation Darkness is a relatively low-budget game, and one with a few very obvious technical issues. However, these could hardly detract, at least for me, from what proved to be an incredibly satisfying, challenging, creative, original and just downright fun and likeable game.
Operation Darkness is filled with crazy and imaginative ideas.
History, Release and Reception:
The project which became Operation Darkness originally began early development as a PS2 game in 2003. With the PS2’s reign over the console world in full swing at the time, the console was the obvious choice for most RPG developers, with the strong performance of the genre on the PS2, and the popularity of the console in all major regions.
Ken Ogura, producer of Operation Darkness, was a fan of 19th and 20th century adventure novels, war stories, and horror, and was looking to incorporate all of these elements into a single story; the idea that sprung from this is what would become Operation Darkness. Incorporating concepts and ideas drawn from a multitude of books and movies, Ogura came up with the concept for Operation Darkness: a World War II story that would take historical settings, events and people of the time, and flip them on their head with the inclusion of a supernatural, horror and fantasy elements.
There is much depth that can be delved into while exploring the numerous inspirations and concepts which make up and influence Operation Darkness; a long list of historical, horror, fantasy and sci-fi inspirations make up the list, from novels to films, to the actual war journals and history books researched by the team.
Among the inspirations are, of course, all manner of modern and classic horror, sci-fi and fantasy sources. While the main villain, Alexander Vlado, is a self-proclaimed former servant of Count Dracula himself, his sexy assistant, Carmilla, draws inspiration not only in her design, which is clearly drawn from Nazi sexploitation films like “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S.,” but also in her name and tempting vampiric personality, inspired by the 1872 vampire-horror novella, titled “Carmilla.” Likewise, another character, Elisa Van Helsing, one of the game’s protagonists, is a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing from the original Dracula novel, while Herbert East, the party’s healer and only character capable of resurrecting other party members, is a direct reference to Herbert West; a doctor from H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator;” the story of a doctor who finds a way to reanimate the dead through injection (Herbert East even holds a syringe in reference to West’s method of reanimation.) King Arthur’s Excalibur sword makes an appearance as well, as a special secret weapon, while the Nazi’s mechanized “Panzer Demon” soldiers pay homage to the “Protect-Gear” armor made iconic by the Keroberos saga films, most notably of them the anime film, “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.” Hitler’s well-known obsession with the occult and Christianity is a driving point of the story, and in particular, his real-life obsession with the Lance of Longinus comes into play, in the “what if” scenario that Hitler, in fact, found the Lance and, through it, gained magical powers of the occult.
Operation Darkness draws from a long list of inspirations, both fictional and factual. Among its inspirations are Nazi exploitation films, classic horror and fantasy literature, anime, and classic World War II films and books.
Simultaneously, the game is still quite dedicated to the real history and people of World War II; and while it strays far into fictional territory, documentary-style sequences with narration and real footage from the war are included in large doses, giving the player the real history of the war, even as it alters scenarios with its fantastical approach. On that note, many real historical figures make appearances in Operation Darkness; some sticking close to their real-life personas, while others are more exaggerated or altered to suit the game’s fantastical elements. Among them are Jack the Ripper (who appears as one of the main party members of the game, and a dashing, cool-headed, young gent, to boot), Heinrich Himmler, Michael Wittmann, Erwin Rommel, and Adolf Hitler himself; in addition to many more. Likewise, (non-fantastical) weapons and vehicles are historically accurate and once again go to show that, even though the creators were going for a fantastical, bizarre angle, they still were well-researched and knowledgeable in the history surrounding the game’s story and setting.
Documentary-style sequences fill the player in on the real history of the war.
This is all just a small beginning; to list and thoroughly examine all the inspirations and influences, both fictional and factual, in Operation Darkness would take pages, and would also spoil some the game’s best surprises. Needless to say, Operation Darkness is bursting at the seams with the type of material that fans of alternate histories, horror, fantasy and scifi, as well as World War II history buffs, will devour, and it all comes together to create something both insane and special.
A host of real-life World War II historical figures make appearances, to varying degrees of historical accuracy. A few examples include (pictured left to right) Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Micheal Wittman, and Erwin Rommel.
However, the original idea for Operation Darkness had it as a more serious drama; Ogura compared the idea to “Band of Brothers” with bit of gothic horror similar to W. Paul Wilson’s novel, “The Keep.” Things changed a bit after Success gave the project a green light, and the team upped the supernatural elements and decided to go in a more wild, over-the-top direction. It is well known that Hitler had a certain obsession with the occult, and the core idea driving Operation Darkness became: “What if Hitler’s obsession with the occult came to fruition?”
Originally, in fact, Operation Darkness was to be the first game in a trilogy; Ken Ogura stated that, had Operation Darkness met with greater success, the trilogy would have spanned three separate wars, with the first game taking place during World War II, the second during the Cold War, and the final installment during the modern-day War on Terrorism. The thread binding the three installments together would, then, be the near-immortality of its key villains and protagonists; the vampires and werewolves. The trilogy would see them live through these different stages of history, experiencing and taking part in some of its greatest conflicts. An ambitious concept, for sure, but Success, as Ogura himself points out, is a company capable of publishing out-of-the-ordinary games and taking chances with them because of the lower budgets for said releases. Ultimately, Operation Darkness would not be a trilogy unless it met with popularity and financial success, and was to be made on a smaller-than-average budget.
Equally ambitious were the original game design concepts. While about 80% of the story itself had already been conceived by 2003/2004, there were also a number of elements originally intended for the game which never made it to the final cut years later; mostly as a result of time and budget. Among them were about twenty stages, characters and weapons which ultimately didn’t make the cut, in addition to concept of full co-op play throughout the main campaign.
In any event, Ken Ogura and his team at Success had the first draft of their game development plan completed by April of 2003, and by March 2004, had a green light from Success and a development team organized, ready to work on the upcoming PS2 game. By the end of 2004, however, the new generation of consoles was looming on the horizon, and Microsoft came to Success with details on their upcoming next-gen console, the Xbox 360.
Ogura and company had to decide if it was wise to stick with the Playstation 2, or move the project to the next generation of consoles. Ultimately, the decision to go the Xbox 360 was based on a number of factors. With a new console generation on the rise, the team felt it might be harder to market the game for Playstation 2, especially considering that, by the time Operation Darkness would be complete, the new generation would have already begun. Xbox 360 was the only next-gen hardware with which they had been presented with specs and a development environment for at the time, and it was showing promise with strong online capabilities, powerful technical specs, and a good development environment. Although the original Xbox had performed poorly in Japan, Ogura’s team felt confident in the Xbox 360, and with Microsoft pushing for Japanese developers and publishers, and a strong software line-up for the console, Ogura and his team were predicting that the Xbox 360 would sell at least one million units in Japan between December 2005 and the end of 2007. Aside from that, they knew the console would see strong support and sales in North America. After weighing the pros and cons, they decided upon the Xbox 360 as their best option, and switched Operation Darkness’ platform to that system.
Operation Darkness went into development for Xbox 360, and Success officially announced the game in July of 2005. The game saw a brief appearance at the Tokyo Game Show in September 2006, but the public didn’t get a real glimpse of Operation Darkness until TGS 2007, the following September. Presented at Microsoft’s own booth, attendees were allowed to go hands-on and get some play time with the game; and impressions were positive from members of the press who played it. With the game scheduled for a Japanese release just the following month, in October 2007, only a Japanese release was scheduled, with no current plans or publisher for a release outside Japan.
Operation Darkness was playable at Microsoft's booth during the 2007 Tokyo Game Show.
Atlus came to the rescue soon thereafter, however, scooping up the rights to Operation Darkness, alongside two other little-know Japanese strategy RPGs, Spectral Force 3 and Zoids Assault, in November 2007, just weeks after Operation Darkness’ Japanese release. While the Xbox 360 had already seen a slew of Strategy RPGs released in Japan, none had yet come overseas, and Atlus ambitiously planned to bring Xbox 360 strategy RPGs to North America, beginning with these three titles.
Operation Darkness saw some positive press leading up to its U.S. release on a system which, at the time, was still starving for RPGs. However, upon release, Operation Darkness fared poorly with critics and the mainstream gaming press. In addition to a lukewarm reception upon its October 2007 release in Japan, most major North American websites hammered Operation Darkness when it release stateside in June 2008. While Japan’s Famitsu gave it relatively middle-of-the-road reviews (three editors giving it 6’s, and the fourth giving it a 5), most mainstream North American sources weren’t even this kind, even despite previously positive impressions of the game. IGN gave Operation Darkness a swift review ending in a score of 2.5 out of 10, Official Xbox Magazine gave the game a 2.0 out of 5, and EGM gave the game just a 28 out of 100. General complaints included the dodgy battle camera, low-budget graphics, and high difficulty of the game. Gamespot was one of the few to view Operation Darkness in a more positive light, awarding the game a 6 out of 10, with an overall positive review, stating that in spite of the technical flaws, there was a game well worth playing underneath them.
Much as a result of the negative reception, in addition to a general lack of awareness, Operation Darkness never sold very well, and after the similarly negative reception of Spectral Force 3 and Zoids Assault, Atlus quickly put the axe to any idea of bringing more Xbox 360 strategy RPGs stateside. Likewise, Operation Darkness never saw the subsequent release, or even planning, of its creator’s desired sequels, and the game would have been entirely lost, if not for a small handful of dedicated fans who discovered the game and found themselves surprisingly enthralled with the game’s unique concept and challenging gameplay. While mainstream critical responses were negative, gamers who played Operation Darkness took a far greater liking to it; out of the three user reviews on GameFAQs, two hold 8’s out of 10, and the other a 7. Likewise, Operation Darkness has both an above-average overall score on Amazon .com (a 3.8 out of 5), as well as a slew of highly positive user reviews. In general, the game, while meeting with lackluster sales and critical failure, found love amongst curious gamers looking for something different; and with good reason. While Operation Darkness has its flaws, it is a truly creative and unique game in spite of them; one that eclipses its technical shortcomings with a genuinely fun and original idea, and challenging, strategic and exciting combat.
So, Operation Darkness is an extremely fun and original concept, filled with great ideas and tough but rewarding combat. What could be bad? Unfortunately, the greatest issues with Operation Darkness, which ultimately lead to a poor critical response, come in the form of technical issues, in particular a lack of polish in certain areas and a number of issues that make the game in general less than user-friendly, which are no doubt due largely to its smaller-than-average production budget.
Most noticeable and damaging of Operation Darkness’ technical issues is its problematic camera, which takes some real time and acclimating to get used to. In all honesty, it is probably the camera difficulties which took the heaviest toll on Operation Darkness critically, and there’s no skating around the issue, even for somebody who loves the game: the camera has some big issues.
The big problem with the camera in Operation Darkness is that it makes it tough to plan your actions precisely because of how it works in the planning stages of the player’s turns. Battlefields in Operation Darkness are very big; much larger than those found in the average strategy RPG, and while the 3D camera lends a lot of added excitement to the battles, when trying to examine the battlefield and plot your actions, it can be very problematic. While battlefields are very large in Operation Darkness, when the player is given control of the camera during planning phases, it does very little to accommodate the player or the size of the environments in which battles take place. There is no easy way to get a good overview of the entire battlefield (aside from the minimap on the screen, which is still an imprecise tool when it’s your only resource), and so the easiest way to look around and assess the battlefield is by entering a character’s movement stage (which brings the camera out to a fully rotatable 3D view), and then moving the camera around in this view to look around the area and assess the battlefield, locations of allies and enemies, etc. While you have the ability to zoom in and out and move the camera around, it’s hard to get quite as clear a view and as accurate an assessment as you’d like easily and quickly.
The camera makes for dynamic and exciting battles, but can act strange and be tough to manage, as well. Pictured here, the camera caught inside the nearby wreckage of a vehicle.
Instead, since the camera doesn’t zoom out quite as far as would be preferable, and because enemies and objects can often be easily obscured by objects and parts of the environment, and trying to see around them with the camera can be a difficult task, it can be very tough and time consuming to accurately assess the battlefield and, as such, can lead to small but costly errors in judgment; like when an enemy pops out from behind a building you just positioned yourself next to, or a tree ends up in the line of fire between you and an enemy you thought you were positioned perfectly to attack. While time and patience is key in a heavily strategic game like this, and is the solution to these camera issues, it’s still not an excuse for them, nor is it what said time and patience should have to be put towards, and the game would really have benefited from a more intuitive and user-friendly camera.
Character movements are plotted through a larger grid-based view of the battlefield. The view presented by the movement phase provides the easiest way to assess the battlefield with the camera.
The camera isn’t the only aspect of Operation Darkness that is unintuitive. Moving beyond the camera, the games menus could have used work to be both more concise and presentable, and during battle, the lack of an ability to go back after confirming a characters move or attack can be frustrating and is telling of the lack of polish on the game’s technical side. There were a number of times when I accidentally confirmed a character’s movement or action, and, even though it was still during my turn, I could not go back to that character and correct things. Once again, being careful and thoughtful of your actions is key to a game like Operation Darkness, but worrying about accidentally making a misstep and not being able to go even one step back in your planning to correct this is still a flaw, and will, similarly to the camera, have the player expending said care and thought toward addressing technical issues with the game itself, as opposed to comfortably planning their actions with a good set of tools.
Likewise, menus can be unclear or unpolished at times outside of battle, during your time spent on the world map, in the status screens, or while shopping for items, weapons and equipment. One obvious flaw is that, while buying and selling items/weapons/equipment, you can only select one at a time. So, if you want to, say, buy or sell 10 med-kits, instead of just one, you’ll have to buy each of them one at a time; there’s no way to buy more than one at once. Status and equipment screens can also be a bit confusing, especially at first, and more explanation of some of their aspects and the stats provided on them would have been helpful; especially since many of them will play a larger and larger role as you move through the game, and at a certain point, not managing aspects like your weapons, stats and weight before missions will become a costly mistake.
Operation Darkness also took a big hit from many critics for its lack of graphical prowess. While the graphics are not as distractingly bad as some have made them out to be, they are indeed sub-par, even compared to most first-generation Xbox 360 titles. From a technical standpoint, character models and environments often come off as dull and lacking in detail, with a low polygon count, and some character animations look stiff or clunky. The game has some nice draw distance effects, and its stylish approach and decent attack and action animations (most of the time) save the graphics from being downright ugly. Still, there is no denying that Operation Darkness’ 3D graphics are well below the standards of the current generation. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that Operation Darkness is a hideous beast of a game; there are many positive aspects to the visual presentation that save the game graphically, which I’ll go into more depth about later; still Operation Darkness’ graphics are not technically impressive, and aside from a few “next-gen” effects, look like a moderately competent PS2 game.
Operation Darkness took some big hits from critics for its graphical presentation. While by no means as awful as some have made them out to be, graphics are still decidedly last-gen.
There are other complaints that have been leveled against Operation Darkness, but many of them of either small or subjective; in particular, many complaints about the game’s unforgiving difficulty and mercilessly hardcore game design choices were cited in many reviews. However, most of these, I feel, were conscious game design choices rather than actual flaws, and proved to be aspects which I and, as it appears, other fans, appreciated. Still they are worth mentioning as they will undoubtedly deter many players.
Among these complaints was the length of battles, which can at times last even a couple of hours (one particularly nasty battle near the end of the game even took me around four hours to complete), and the lack of ability to save during them. Granted, this means you’ll need to be prepared for a potentially long play session when you sit down with Operation Darkness, but at the same time, I feel like the lack of a save ability and the grueling length of battles added something to the experience and its unforgiving difficulty. Still, even a quicksave feature during battle would have helped address this issue, and would have gone a long way towards, again, making the game more user-friendly.
Another aspect that was much-bemoaned of Operation Darkness was the “permanent” death of party members, and, in addition to that, the presence of just one healing character capable of reviving party members during battle. Essentially, if any party members are left dead when a battle concludes, they are gone for good; the only ones ‘not allowed” to be left behind are a few core members of the cast. During battle, they can still be revived, but there is only one character (Herbert East) who is capable of reviving them…..and if he dies, well…..you might as well restart the battle, and don’t even think about continuing the game without him (or, really, any of the main characters, as there are two endings, one if anybody died and one if nobody died, and the later one is really the one worth seeing). Many professional reviews slammed the game for this; again slamming the game’s unforgiving, old-school difficulty as a flaw; but, again, this seems more a conscious design choice than a literal flaw, and I found that it served to increase the strategy and, what I found to be, satisfying challenge of the game as a whole.
Again on the subject of difficulty, many cited the almost cruelly overpowering enemy forces as a problem. In particular, the multiple waves of enemies during a single battle and sizeable ambushes they pull on the player when appearing on the battlefield; again, however, I found this to be right in line with the game’s merciless difficulty, and it never rendered the game “impossible” or “broken;” simply tough and unforgiving. One frustrating aspect of difficulty that I found was a genuine fault, though, was on the few missions that had A.I. controlled friendlies; the allies were utterly stupid, walking right into danger, and in general making the missions artificially tougher as a result.
Overall, camera issues and technical flaws aside, Operation Darkness has a lot to love, especially for gamers looking for something strange and unique. The unflinching difficulty of the game will no doubt turn off some, but is less a flaw and more a matter of personal opinion; if you can get past these issues, you’ll probably find a lot of charm and enjoyment in Operation Darkness, which leads me to…..
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Put aside the technical issues and shortcomings, and Operation Darkness is an extremely charming game with tons of personality and style, and tough but intense and satisfying gameplay. Operation Darkness is great fun and an unrelenting challenge for strategy-RPG/tactical game fan; and it’s just as much fun to bask in its onslaught of insanity, which is perfectly understood and presented by the game, which handles it with style, and manages to both outwardly take itself seriously AND still maintain a constant, winking, subtly tongue-in-cheek demeanor; Operation Darkness is clearly having a blast with itself, and that fun is infectious and incredibly charming.
Operation Darkness is filled with memorable and exciting moments, including plenty of exciting surprises and characters along the way.
Operation Darkness features so many influences, homages, references and inspirations, and draws from so many different genres, works of fiction and pieces of history, that it is a wonder it manages to create a coherent, let along interesting, story around them. But somehow, it does. By weaving all of the elements together, from Nazi vampires and SAS werewolves, to historical fact, it creates a world and a story which, in its own crazy way, makes sense within itself. Operation Darkness succeeds in creating a coherent story out of its multitude of sources by simply implementing them all as if they were part of a world created for this game; just as any other fantasy (say, any Final Fantasy game) creates its own world and establishes its lore in a natural way, so does Operation Darkness do the same out of all the elements which make it up; factual, fantastical or otherwise. It doesn’t call attention to any of them in an obnoxious way, or present them as a gimmick; it simply handles them as natural parts and progressions of the story and world while presenting its various ideas. As such, it makes sense in and of itself as a coherent whole, rather than simply coming of as the parade of crazy in-jokes and references it could have, if handled improperly. The story itself is, in fact, pretty good, and is really intriguing, if simply for the constant anticipation of what the game is going to throw at you next and where it’s all going to go. As the story moves from North Africa up through Europe and towards Germany, this both serves as an interesting backdrop for historical fiction, and a good variety of environments in which to do battle. The story is constantly throwing curve balls at the player, and it’s absolutely fascinating just waiting to see what will happen next; whether you’re taking part in Operation Valkyrie, or finding out your next party member is actually Jack the Ripper, the game is full of surprises, and is commendable in how naturally it implements even its most ludicrous elements.
Taking part in Operation Valkyrie is just one of many exciting and memorable twists.
The story becomes truly interesting outside of mere anticipation for the next twist because of its strong and likeable cast, and how much time it spends getting to know and developing its main characters. While a few of the more minor characters tend to fall by the wayside, the main characters receive plenty of attention and development, and become interesting and very well fleshed out and developed. Their relationships with each other are equally well-developed, and a real sense of camaraderie and friendship develops between Edward and the members of the Wolf Pack. Edward’s struggles with himself, his personal loss from the war, and his complex relationships with his new-found comrades and his old friend, Jude, create a story that becomes more than just a display of supernatural insanity during World War II, but also an effective human story about loss, friendship and the realization of responsibility and duty. It not only makes for some dramatic moments later in the story, but also carries over to the gameplay, encouraging the player to keep their friends alive throughout the game as they grow to care more about the cast. There is actually some good character drama in their relationships, and the long dialogue sequences throughout the game do a good job of conveying this and establishing who the main characters are and how they relate with one another. Ultimately, the characters drive the narrative forward, and as with most stories that are truly interesting on some human level, the story develops them well and cares about them, which in turn, makes us understand and care about them. With good character development and relationships throughout, punctuated by well-voiced conversations, the game serves the characters and, in turn, the story, well.
Characters and their relationships are well-developed through lengthy dialogue sequences.
What really impresses about the story, and the game as a whole, is how absolutely packed it is with memorable moments. While the story is told well through both 2D character dialogue scenes and relatively frequent prerendered cutscenes, simultaneously almost every battle proved interesting or memorable in some regard, including numerous plot twists and epic confrontations which are sure to stand out in the memory of any player who invests the time into Operation Darkness. This dearth of great moments is, indeed, one of the greatest highlights of this game, and what makes it so consistently entertaining.
SPOILER ALERT: Among them are constant encounters and epic battles with creatures and characters torn both from the pages of history and fiction. Among the greatest moments is a grueling boss battle with Adolf Hitler and his generals, alongside a slew of skeletons, dragons and other beasts, which can take upwards of a few hours to complete. Equally memorable is when a nighttime raid on a Nazi rocket facility winds up revealing that one of your party members in actually Frankenstein’s monster, or when Elisa Van Helsing, the beautiful descendant of the famous vampire hunter, shows up to join your unit. These are just a few examples, but, needless to say, the game is filled with moments like these, which keeps things consistently fresh and exciting throughout. END SPOILERS.
The story is consistently engaging and well-told.
I’ve already touched on the flaws of Operation Darkness’ visuals, and its technical shortcomings in that department, but what hasn’t been discussed is how far the creative, distinct style, art, designs and overall look of the game go towards making up for these technical shortcomings. There is no arguing that Operation Darkness is lacking in the technical department when it comes to in-game graphics. However, elsewhere, the game handles itself very well visually. One of the greatest and most prevalent visual highlights of Operation Darkness is its attractive and stylish character designs, and the crisp, great-looking 2D character art presented during dialogue sequences throughout the game. Big, bold 2D art of the characters is presented during dialogue sequences, much in the vein of the dialogue scenes found in many of Nippon Ichi’s games. While the 2D characters are not fully animated like those found in many bigger-budget games of its kind, the art is still excellent, and it shows off the game’s unique anime-style character designs nicely, while providing a good range of expressions for most characters. This 2D character art is big, bold, stylish and colorful, character designs are attractive and memorable, and it adds a lot to the game’s visual presentation, especially where the low-detail character models are lacking.
Character designs are very appealing, and the 2D character art presented during dialogue sequences is very crisp and attractive.
I must point out, as well, that while graphics are well below par compared to most next-gen games, they are also a significant step up from the standard PS2 strategy RPG. Replacing the usual isometric view paired with small, super-deformed 2D sprites and small grid-based environments, and instead opting for full 3D character models, a dynamic 3D camera, and large, intricate environments was, to me at least, a big step up visually, and a refreshingly unique approach, from the standard PS1/PS2 era strategy RPG look. While the execution is less-than-perfect, it still goes a long way in adding a sense of epic scale and excitement to battles which simply isn’t possible from the standard tactical-RPG visual approach. While I’ve heard that Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3 takes a very similar approach, and does so with more of the much-needed polish and intuitiveness which Operation Darkness lacks, Operation Darkness still stands out as unique and exciting in its approach. While I cannot personally comment on Valkyria Chronicles, since I haven’t gotten to play it myself (though I thoroughly intend to eventually), I can say that this more dynamic graphical approach was exciting and fresh to me in Operation Darkness, and offset its flaws with the scale and excitement it added to battle.
In general, the game’s style on the whole saves it visually. From the character designs and nice 2D character art, to the creative enemies, to the live-action documentary footage from the war, the game manages to present itself with style, even with its lack of detailed in-game graphics. While the game is never technically impressive, it is almost always stylistically impressive, and it melds together realism and anime-style visuals just as effectively as it melds the fantastical into the historical.
The game may look last-gen, but it saves itself visually with its unique style.
Operation Darkness does a fine job in the sound department, as well, with fittingly dramatic music and an English script and voice cast that really “get” the spirit of the game. I really loved the English voice acting in Operation Darkness, and it’s clear that Atlus went out of their way to make something more than just a typical, rushed English dub. My favorite aspect of the voice acting in Operation Darkness is the wide array of accents for characters from different countries. It benefits the game tremendously, and the subtle exaggeration of the different accents by the voice actors fits the game to a tee, without ever getting so over-the-top that it comes off as obviously corny or silly. Listening to German troops shout in an every-so-slightly humorous exaggeration of a German accent never gets old, and likewise, all members of the main cast are voiced by well-suited actors with respectable emotion and authenticity, while maintaining their accents native to their countries of origin. I loved the writing and voice acting in Operation Darkness, and it really gave off the feel that Atlus “got” this game and its unique charm when they were localizing it.
The script and English voice cast are very well done, and suit the game perfectly, complete with subtly exaggerated accents.
The soundtrack to Operation Darkness was surprisingly memorable and well-suited to the game, as well. While the soundtrack was obviously made digitally, it still does a good job of creating the appropriate excitement and dramatic impact of an orchestrated score. There are a good range of tracks during battle, and I felt they were always befitting of the situation and the game’s style, while many were, in fact, even memorable. The music does a good job of keeping the excitement of battle up, while capturing a tone that fits the game on the whole.
On the gameplay side of the equation, Operation Darkness may not be for everyone, but it’s an amazing intense and satisfying experience for those who appreciate strategic gameplay and a good, old-fashioned challenge.
In some ways, Operation Darkness is tough and challenging in a manner that many newer games don’t dare to be. While many wrote this old-school style challenge off as sloppy game design, I really don’t think that was the case. Operation Darkness is intentionally hard and unforgiving of mistakes, and intentionally stacks the odds against the player on many occasions. Playing Operation Darkness, I realized how much it made me miss that old school style of challenge which many games nowadays lack. Operation Darkness won’t hold your hand, and will happily kick your ass when you make a mistake, but this isn’t a flaw; it one of the game’s greatest assets.
Operation Darkness’ gameplay benefits from being heavily strategic, requiring a lot of planning and thinking both before battle, and during it. Before each battle, you’ll want to outfit your characters properly for the particular fight, make sure they’re leveled well enough to compete with the upcoming battle, and manage stats including magic, items and the amount of weight they are carrying. Weight is particularly important in Operation Darkness, and so you’ll want to manage what each character is carrying carefully before a fight. Weight is related to a characters speed, which, in turn, determines how frequent their turns will be. You can load a character down with 4 or 5 heavy bazookas, sure, but you’ll probably regret it when he or she gets blasted all to hell while they wait like a sitting duck for their next turn to roll around. Likewise, under-equipping your characters is a mistake; you’ll go through ammo and medical supplies quickly, and not bringing enough to a fight can be a costly mistake, as can going into battle with a party that isn’t carrying a good variety of weapons and equipment. Equipping stat boosters and skills to different characters is an essential tool, as well, and keeping your characters well leveled is the key to success. Operation Darkness maintains a good balance in its leveling as well; while it punishes laziness in strategy and leveling, it likewise provides a good amount of optional “extra” battles between story missions to help your keep your characters up to par, without forcing the player to simply repeat random battles over and over again.
Properly managing and leveling your characters before battle is crucial to success.
During battle, the game will truly put your skills to the test. While a few missions near the beginning of the game are relatively easy, the difficulty ramps up pretty quick due to a number of elements. One thing Operation Darkness loves to do is send in additional waves of enemies throughout the course of a battle, and generally surround, outnumber and overpower the player’s party. Most battles WILL have more enemies and waves than just the first set of them at the start of the battle. Some hated this; I loved it. The game is brutally merciless, and the way waves of enemies appear and constantly outnumber the player forces you to think critically throughout a battle, and change your strategy on the fly to deal with unexpected enemies. It keeps things intense and keeps you on your toes; just when you think you’re safe, suddenly you’re outnumbered or flanked and forced to think critically and deal with overwhelming odds. To some, it may be frustrating; but to others, like myself, it makes for a great challenge that rarely lets up.
Prepare to find yourself outnumbered and outgunned on many occasions.
Adding to the challenge and need to think critically during battle, are the harsh consequences of party member’s deaths, and the limited healing abilities the party is supplied with. There is only one official “healer” in the party who is capable of reviving your friends during battle, which makes things a bit tougher than usual as is. Anybody else can carry healing items, but only he can revive a downed party member. So, letting characters die, or stay dead without revival, is something you’ll want to avoid at all costs. While some party members who are essential to the core story result in an immediate “game over” upon their deaths, others will be left downed on the battlefield, capable of being revived…however, moving your only healer over to them can be risky (especially since when he dies, there’s nobody to revive HIM) and yet, if you don’t revive them by the end of the battle, that party member is lost for good; the game can continue, but you’ll never see them again. You can recruit generic soldiers from the menu outside battle, and will probably have a few in your party at most times, but they are never a good replacement for the abilities of a main character. In short, protecting your characters, going into battle prepared, and really thinking before making a move is essential to keeping everyone alive; and you’ll REALLY want to keep everyone alive.
Be sure to properly outfit your characters with the right weapons and items.
Enemies just keep getting tougher as the game moves on, and they are both awesome in their creativity and absurdity, and increasing mean and nasty to deal with. Just wait until the first time a group of Panzer Demons or Magiers ambush you, or, even more awesome and terrifying, the first time one of the absolutely monstrous Draches (the game’s gigantic dragon enemies) stomps onto the battlefield. Operation Darkness has some great enemies; both awesome in their design and terrifying in their relentlessly aggressive dispositions. The best thing about them, though, is how satisfying they make the combat; bringing down an enemy is always satisfying, and the ability to go over to them and loot their corpses for weapons, ammo and items is both literally rewarding and often an essential part of achieving victory and keeping your supplies up during battle.
You'll face off with some VERY nasty enemies later in the game.
In general, I just loved the intensity, scale and impact of battle in Operation Darkness. Battles are often very long and intense , and environments are destructible, which only adds to the wonderful chaos and intensity of battle. When a tank shell hits a building next to your character and it crumbles to pieces, or you launch a rocket into a cluster of trees and enemies, and watch as the trees collapse around them as they are thrown back by the blast, there’s a real sense of chaos and impact. Likewise, weapons, spells and special attacks have plenty of variety and, again, have a great sense of impact and spectacle to them when you execute an attack. With a large variety of weapons, from swords to M1’s to bazookas and panzerfausts, there’s no shortage of ways to attack. But on top of that is also a huge array of special attacks and spells. While James Gallant and Keith Miller, two of the Wolf Pack’s core members, can transform into werewolves during battle and deal devastating attacks, other characters are armed with equally awesome and effective specials and spells; including a giant fist which comes from the sky to crush your enemies, and an impromptu air raid. There’s no shortage of variety, spectacle or excitement during battle in Operation Darkness.
Some special attacks are absolutely ludicrous.
I also liked the game’s cover system, which adds yet another level of nuance a tactical depth. Characters can launch ambushes on enemies or continually attack them while hiding in over behind all sorts of objects. If they are hit, it knocks the character out of cover, but as long as they remain within cover, it provides a strategic advantage, and yet another level of depth to the combat.
On top of it all, Operation Darkness is a sizeable game of good length and depth, with a nice amount of secrets and extras. There are two endings, one if any party members die throughout the story, and another (much better) ending if you keep them all alive. But besides this, there’s also a slew of various extra missions, including the super-tough Eagle’s Nest missions, a secret party member, and a number of rare or secret weapons and items to find and collect; including a set of documents found on enemy bodies which eventually reveal a set of secret missions, and a number of rare, extremely powerful, weapons. The game also features a separate co-op mode, which allows up to four players to participate in battles together online. While this mode isn’t tied directly to the campaign, it is still an interesting addition and has some rewards for playing it. Operation Darkness is a game of good size and length, as well. It should take the average player anywhere from 35 to 50-something hours on their first playthrough, and in addition to its 27 sizeable main story missions, there are also a large collection of various optional (but recommended) missions. Operation Darkness is not just a game of satisfying challenge, but also one of satisfying size, length and depth.
Destructible environments, cover and a variety of weapons keep combat intense.
Operation Darkness is one of the most unique and memorable games I’ve played this generation; which is ironic because it’s also one of the most low-budget and technically inferior releases I’ve played this generation. To be perfectly fair and honest, Operation Darkness has a number of flaws and game design choices which may turn players off. However, it’s also so creative, so crazy, and so original that, for others, it will prove to be an instant favorite. Operation Darkness is one of those games that was almost destined for mainstream critical panning; with sub-par graphics, a number of technical issues, and a high learning curve, coupled with overwhelmingly challenging battles, it was never destined for mainstream acceptance. However, it is also a game so original, with such a unique appeal, and such a satisfying challenge, that it was practically meant to gain cult status and a small, but extremely loving, following. Operation Darkness is not the most technically impressive game on the Xbox 360; but it may just be one of the most fascinating and creative ideas on the system. It has its shortcomings, but for strategy RPG fans in search of a true strategic challenge or a change from the norm, or just any gamer who wants a fresh, fun idea, Operation Darkness will prove to be one of the most crazy, memorable and imaginative gaming experiences of recent years.
Operation Darkness has its share of technical issues, but they are ultimately eclipsed by its tough, rewarding combat and incredibly imaginative ideas.
Who Should Play It?
Any fan of strategy RPGs, or tactical gameplay in general, that can overlook a few technical and presentational flaws. Gamers looking for a good, solid challenge. Fans of alternate histories, stories involving the supernatural or occult, or horror, fantasy and sci-fi buffs, will find Operation Darkness, and the lore it delves into, absolutely fascinating. Likewise, World War II history buffs will find Operation Darkness just as interesting for its setting, and the real history of the war it documents and takes place during.