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Operencia: The Stolen Sun Operencia: The Stolen Sun

Opinion

Operencia: The Stolen Sun and Vaporum Promise a Powerful Revival of Retro Dungeon-RPGs

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The old-school dungeon-RPG genre never really went away, but, like a miracle, bigger names than ever are now paying attention to its crunchy allure. The industry saw, of course, the triumphant return of polished real time RPGs with Legend of Grimrock and its imitators, the constantly expanding Etrian franchise on DS and 3DS, Severed by Drink Box (developer of Guacamelee), and, arguably, the growing popularity of Shin Megami Tensei and its spinoffs.

Last month saw the console release of Vaporum: Steampunk Dungeon Crawler, which OnlySP reviewed, as well as Zen Studios’s Operencia: The Stolen Sun on Xbox One and the Epic Store.

Both hearken back to the first-person dungeon-RPGs of early 3D—though with a beautiful layer of modern graphics and accessibility on top—but also approach the genre in very different ways. In the interest of exploring what is possible in grid-based retro games, here are some of the biggest ways that the two titles differ.

Immediately, Operencia and Vaporum are distinguished by their divergent settings. Though both are hand-crafted, rather than procedurally generated (like roguelikes), they each aim for an entirely different flavour.

Operencia takes place in a ‘traditional’ fantasy world of dragons, fairy tales, sly rogues, and sturdy knights. Although plenty about the game stands alone and borrows mythology from the central European home of Zen Studios, the magical forests and cursed castles are as snug as a warm pair of gloves for fantasy fans.

Visually, we see a midpoint between the very cartoony Fable series and the earthy epicness of The Elder Scrolls, reminiscent of Kingdoms of Amalur or countless MMOs. Tonally, Operencia goes for light humour mixed with enough lore to rival Dragon Age, all the better to evince a mysterious world that surely already has die-hard fans. Without spoilers, Operencia also opens up in ways that lovers of classic fantasy RPGs will certainly appreciate.

Vaporum is the polar opposite. As one might expect from the subtitle Steampunk Dungeon Crawler, no wizards or magical forests are to be found: instead, a clanky-dank world that draws heavily from BioShock and other science fiction stories about man’s reach exceeding his grasp (incidentally, OnlySP’s review mentioned briefly that the game is not really an example of the steampunk genre so much as it uses a steampunk aesthetic).

The game is no more thematically complex than the epic fantasy of Operencia, but its style leads to a very different sort of interaction. Where Operencia uses oil paintings and deep lore to force an idea of excitement and whimsy, Vaporum oppresses the player with dark corridors and scraps of ‘late to the party’-style audio logs—”Well, you see, our scientists discovered this mysterious substance has the property of making things bigger and scarier … HELP ME I’M BEING CHASED BY SOMETHING BIG AND SCARY!”.

Belonging to this ‘late to the party’ subgenre as it does, Vaporum does not dart across an entire world of dungeons, rather staying inside the eponymous Arx Vaporum structure as players ascend level by level, unravelling the mystery. This feature is perhaps the greatest gap in scale between the games, because neither game feels strained by its budget (indeed, both are beautifully presented in their own ways) but Vaporum is a game obviously working from fewer resources.

Though both Operencia and Vaporum‘s dungeons operate on a sort of ‘real time’ rather than the ‘step time’ of a roguelike game, they have their own distinct methods of challenging enemies. Operencia is comparable most recently to the Etrian series, where battles take place in a turn-based netherspace away from the actual dungeon grid—the difference being that while Etrian only shows its toughest ‘FOE’ enemies wandering the field, all of Operencia‘s enemies wander the dungeon, giving crafty players an opportunity to strike them from behind for first-strike advantage.

These turn-based battles are distinguished from any other JRPG mostly by the more Western-RPG-influenced party balancing (players will likely recognise rogue, wizard, and fighter archetypes more readily than in Vaporum) and a mostly decorative three-row distance mechanic. In the Final Fantasy games, characters might be at the front or in the back—in Operencia, enemies can be at the front, in the middle, or at the back, and certain abilities affect only the front row or the two back rows, and so on. This three-row system is not particularly relevant early on, and only becomes important in very difficult battles.

As for Vaporum, the game’s oppressive dungeon-crawling atmosphere would be muted by a break in tone between exploration and battles such as in Operencia. Instead, everything takes place on the dungeon grid and entirely in real time with cooldowns on every ability. The saving grace of this system (especially on the console version) is that players control a single character rather than a party, and are given many different options regarding health, damage, speed, and so on throughout the game as they level-up their character.

At the same time, a game that requires precise real-time inputs would leave out a large swathe of potential RPG fans, so Vaporum also includes a stop-time option that pauses the action between moves. Such an option returns battles to a more manageable pace and gives the player a chance to plan their next move, especially since on the dungeon map positioning is entirely up to the player—resulting in a much more strategic and experimental game than Operencia.


Finally, both games have attempted in their own ways to adapt the very PC-focused dungeon crawling genre to a console gamepad experience. Vaporum, descended most directly from Legend of Grimrock, began with a wholly mouse-oriented interface. The port to consoles, as detailed in the review, did a fine job of making almost everything accessible by gamepad.

Operencia streamlines the genre in very different ways. Grimrock and Vaporum both rely on a retro first-person POV that resets to show what is directly in front of the player. Operencia, by way of taking most tactical decisions and moving them to the combat world, is free to experiment with POV without becoming too distracting.

On an Xbox One controller, players will find free look that mimics that of any other modern first-person game. Because of this gamepad focus, the world is designed for simplicity. The fraction of mouse control that Vaporum leaves in the console ports, for selecting secrets and other objects on screen, is entirely absent from Operencia, as players simply aim with the right stick at any interactable object. At the same time, however, the free look can clash with the grid-based movement when diagonals are involved—if one looks at a 45⁰ angle, which direction is ‘forward’?

Fans of crunchier RPGs and immersive sims—since, after all, games like Deus Ex are descended from another branch of the dungeon-RPG tree with Ultima Underworld—will see Operencia‘s concessions to the controller as stifling; the game really is for modern RPG fans who want the flavour of a dungeon-RPG experience more than they want the feeling of exploring an intricate contraption. Thanks to the game’s PC origins, Vaporum would appeal to these players more, with its slightly deeper puzzles and decision making.

On the other hand, RPG fans of all kinds are better off deciding based on trappings. Do you want to play through a dank Rubik’s cube filled with nail-biting battles against mechanical monstrosities? Or do you prefer an enormous high fantasy adventure that, at times, feels like a 3DS game on steroids?

Either way, Vaporum and Operencia: The Stolen Sun are much deeper adventures than console players have seen for a while, with an uncommon level of polish. With luck, their success will motivate even more modern studios to explore the neglected spaces of old-school RPGs.

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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Opinion

Pokémon Games Have Always Been Better Than Their Graphics

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Pokemon Sword and Shield starters

As fans learned more about the upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield at E3 this year, a portion of them turned against the titles. Back in February, a Pokémon region based on the United Kingdom enticed players, and they constructed thousands of memes around the premise. Now, though, a subset of the Pokémon community is complaining about two elements of the titles: the lack of every single Pokémon ever created, which developer Game Freak addressed but does not plan to change, and the graphics and animations. The latter gripe is especially odd since the Pokémon franchise has never had especially good graphics or animations. 

The Pokémon games have always had an especially strong art direction, but the graphics that realize this vision are notoriously lackluster. While the outrage is somewhat understandable, it also seems misplaced; graphics were never a core part of the Pokémon experience. This anger also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Pokémon such a successful franchise and why it is still such a significant part of the video game landscape today.

An Art Style Full of Substance

Pokémon Red and Blue premiered in 1996 for the Game Boy. The series began towards the end of the handheld’s lifespan, with the Game Boy Color releasing in October 1998. With essentially 151 playable characters, a world rich with personality and lore, and a game design that strongly encouraged players to interact with each other outside of the games, the first generation of Pokémon became an international phenomenon. However, the graphics and animations in these original games were noticeably limited compared to other Game Boy games. 

In these games, character sprites are static, only the simplest of animations are used to convey attacks, and the overworld is borderline minimalistic. Compared to titles that premiered earlier on the Game Boy, such as 1992’s Kirby Dream Land or 1993’s The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Pokémon Red and Blue are a huge step down graphically. 1999’s Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color would do little to improve these graphics, merely using the console’s enhanced hardware to add color to the games while adding brief introduction animations for monsters in Pokémon Crystal.

Pokémon games have never had hardware-pushing graphics. Instead, they made up for this shortcoming by having a never-before-seen scope of characters and truly outstanding art direction. Sword and Shield seem as though they are continuing this tradition of exceptional art direction, and will realize an extraordinary version of the United Kingdom where Pokémon battles are treated like sporting events. Furthermore, the player can easily interpret what kind of personality Pokémon and trainers have from their designs; especially in the early games. Giovanni’s hunched posture and receding hairline demonstrate that he is a villain, and Erika’s resting pose and closed eyes convey her serene nature. Likewise, Poliwrath’s superhero pose reinforced its newfound fighting-type and Gengar’s grin and raised hands defined it as a ghostly prankster. This focus on art direction is a big part of why the Pokémon games are so full of life and character, and Game Freak was right to focus more on this element of the games than pursuing high graphical fidelity.

How Character Overcame Graphics

That some fans are upset about the graphics and animations in Pokémon Sword and Shield is understandable, so long as they are not harassing Game Freak and its employees. After all, the fans just want a franchise they love dearly to be the best possible version of itself. However, this anger seems to misunderstand what made Pokémon popular in the first place. 

Pokémon rose to prominence because it is an appealing concept that was executed well. When one plays the first and second generation of games, they understand that the team behind them had a very specific vision for this world and its characters. The Pokémon games are kind of strange in that their worlds contain a lot of culture and lore that do not have any bearing on the actual gameplay or story. For instance, the gym leader Sabrina has psychic powers even though her supernatural abilities never really come into play, and the Sinnoh region of  Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum has a distinct religion that does not impact the game whatsoever. This meticulously crafted world is very much like a supernatural version of our own, and that made Pokémon such a success. The very specific tone of the games comes off as both familiar and incredible, making players wish that their own reality was just a bit more like that of Pokémon

Of course, the emphasis on social features also played a far larger role in Pokémon’s success than the graphics of any given game. The focus on trading, competitive battles, and even sharing details on a hidden area or how to evolve a specific Pokémon rapidly created a community surrounding the franchise. Then, with the launch of the anime and trading card game, the community rapidly expanded and people could enjoy the franchise in whatever way they enjoyed the most. Graphics were never a part of what made Pokémon a hit and for Game Freak to focus on the elements at the core of the franchise, rather than 3D graphics and animations that are going to look dated in half a decade anyway, is a smart move.

Using A Small Team To Achieve A Brilliant Vision

A common response to the suggestion that Pokémon games do not need stellar graphics or animation to be great games is that Game Freak has abundant resources considering Pokémon’s unmatched success. A part of the group that takes issue with the visuals and animation of Sword and Shield thinks that Game Freak is making enough from its games that it can afford to make them look much better than it has so far. While this idea has some merit, executing it could betray the core ideals of the franchise and ignores the fact that no new Pokémon game will make everyone happy. 

Each new Pokémon game is so well received because it is a solid execution of a specific vision that a small group of people share. Game Freak has around 150 employees, making the team behind each game rather small for such an established franchise. Pouring more money into a game does not automatically make it look better, and Game Freak would have to bring on more staff members to improve the game’s graphics or, for the people upset about the lack of a complete National Pokedex, code every single monster into the game. Expanding Game Freak’s team like this could cloud the vision of the games, though, and easily work against the company. Creating top-tier graphics and animations for a game that includes hundreds of characters will always be a herculean task to which no easy solution exists.

This issue of middling graphics and animations is not actually all that significant in the first place. Most Pokémon fans are excited for Sword and Shield and only a small section of them draw significant issue with their visuals. The Pokémon fanbase is so big that pleasing everyone is impossible. Game Freak is right to focus on honing the core themes and mechanics that made Pokémon a success, rather than pour a terrific amount of time and effort into visuals of the games. The last time a Pokémon game really marketed itself on exceptional graphics and animations was 2006’s Pokémon Battle Revolution—which sold less than two million copies, a rather meager number for a spin-off Pokémon title. 

Pokémon

Personality Over Polish

For people to be upset, within reason, that something they love is not living up to their expectations is fine. However, the expectation that Sword and Shield should have hardware-pushing graphics is an unreasonable one that fails to consider that the Pokémon games have always had subpar graphics. Pokémon is a hit franchise consisting of several great games in spite of the graphics in those titles. In fact, the more limited graphics and animations suggest that Sword and Shield are on track to be similar to the previous Pokémon games. Some may perceive the graphics as weak, but the world, characters, and the events of the games will more than make up for this overstated shortcoming.

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