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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

The Final Fantasy VII Remake Might Turn Away Fans Instead of Creating New Ones

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final fantasy vii

In 1997, Square Enix, then Square Soft, released a title that would change the role-playing genre forever. Until then, the genre only found popularity within smaller, niche communities. In January of that year, Square Soft released Final Fantasy VII,a classic that would hold a special place in gamers’s hearts for years to come.

Until my early teens, I had only heard of the marvel known as Final Fantasy VII. Before that point, I had never experienced the game or seen much of its offerings. For years, I searched stores for a copy until finally locating a version that broke my juvenile bank. I had finally earned a chance to experience a game I had, until then, only known through word of mouth and, after my first few hours with it, found love.

Final Fantasy VII gave me characters to care about and a cause worth fighting for. With a protagonist as gloomy as Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII’s extended cast of misfits needed to outshine the leading man and give players a reason to care. The lovable Aerith/Aeris, adamant Tifa, and strong-headed Barret are some examples of FFVII’s supporting cast that remains iconic into modern gaming.

At E3 2015, Square Enix surprised audiences with the announcement that Final Fantasy VII would be getting a full-fledged remake. Fans would ride an emotional high for a while before the title was announced to be broken into multiple parts. A multi-part release, along with some questionable visuals and character design, was enough to shift fan excitement to worry, until both the game and conversation faded out of the limelight.

During Sony’s State of Play stream, audiences were shown new gameplay for the Remake, which featured adjusted character models and the inclusion of more beloved characters. Once again, fans were left on an emotional high after the stream until confirmation came later that the title would still be chopped up into multiple releases.

Square Enix is advertising this game as being too large for a single launch window. For reference sake, the single-player experience of Red Dead Redemption 2 launched in full in October 2018. Given how grand the narrative is for Red Dead Redemption 2, the title still needed a separate disc for installation. Nonetheless this did not encourage Rockstar to split the title into multiple launches. What Square Enix is effectively stating here, is that the Final Fantasy VII Remake will be more expansive than Red Dead Redemption 2 – a title that is already one of the largest games to date. Either the Final Fantasy VII Remake will be groundbreaking for the industry, or this is an attempt by Square Enix to capitalize on the fandom surrounding this beloved title.

As a primary curiosity, fans want to know how the game will be divided. For now, all that is known around this subject is just rumors and speculation, but that does not eliminate the need to discuss such possibilities. For example, will the game be split into two parts or will the division be more akin to the three-disc original version? This version of the split would be more faithful to the original, but then creates a new issue for fans.

The more parts Final Fantasy VII Remake finds itself in, the more expensive the overall experience will be for the players. Square Enix has not yet explained how it will charge for this remake. Given past trends within the industry, the potential for monetization comes via DLCs, expansions, or season passes. For example, Square’s previous entry into the Final Fantasy series – Final Fantasy XV – saw numerous added content post launch, including a second season pass before being cancelled. Additionally, the title received mobile spin-offs and tie-ins full of micro-transactions. In a perfect world, Square Enix would release each part at a lower price point than a full title, allowing the consumer to experience the full game at a ‘normal’ price. Fans will have to wait a little longer to get details on the pricing models, seeing as a release window for the first part is still nonexistent.

One aspect Square Enix should keep in mind, however, is player retention. As with past episodic titles, the possibility always exists for the playerbase to die off during the down time between releases. A large player-base exists that wait until the full title is released before purchasing and playing the game. Since Final Fantasy fans are not used to this kind of launch, many of them may purchase the first part out of excitement and anticipation and become turned off by the required indefinite wait afterwards.

For Final Fantasy VII Remake, Square’s decision to release the game in parts may not be as beneficial as it initially believes. Since the game is a remake, fans will have a certain expectation for the quality of its execution and development. The expectation towards the Final Fantasy VII Remake will be exceedingly high due to the fact that a Final Fantasy VII revered by many already exists. Ultimately, some fans will be disappointed by the remake depending on how faithful the content is to the original, already placing Square at a disadvantage with this beloved IP.

Despite the negativity surrounding Square’s insistence on breaking up the title, excitement for the Final Fantasy VII Remake remains high as fans are once again discussing what it may have to offer. Despite the confirmation of an episodic release, the community will not have any concrete facts until the game’s next showing later this year. Until then, all one can do is speculate based on trends within the gaming industry. I am genuinely excited to see a title loved by many re-imagined for modern technology, but the potential of it turning away die-hard fans due to business decisions leaves me worried for the worst.

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