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.