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Metacritic, due to its out-of-context aggregation of review scores and summaries, is dangerously misrepresentative. The meta-score for Operation Darkness is 46, based on 22 reviews, of which only one is classed as Positive Green. Since publication several websites have closed, now resulting in dead links, and of the surviving reviews the majority condemn Operation Darkness based on lack of understanding (or failure to read the manual), factual inaccuracies, reviewer impatience and general pettiness. They are reflective of a wide-spread failure in games journalism, where unrealistic deadlines, high weekly page quotas and low wages encourage ridicule of games which don't quite deserve it. Operation Darkness isn't the greatest strategy-RPG, but it's certainly worthy of your time and nowhere near as bad as it's been described. For an interview with the developer, click HERE.
In many ways it plays like a cross between Sega's Valkyria Chronicles and Camelot's Shining Force series, perhaps with a bit of Fire Emblem thrown in too. The military setting might also imply comparison to Nintendo's Famicom Wars series, but really they're nothing alike - Operation Darkness has a strong focus on individual character development, rather than faceless grunts. The similarities to Valkyria Chronicles are worth particular mention, since quite a few online have described Operation Darkness as the X360's nearest equivalent to Sega's fantastic PS3 exclusive, and they're not wrong.
Both are set in a fantastical re-imagining of Europe during World War II, and feature supernatural transformations as a central story and gameplay element. Both also contain unique field commands to be called in, individualised trait-enhancing character skills, new weapon purchases & acquisition, character levelling, plus specialisation for snipers and bazooka-carrying tank busters. Play badly and there's also permanent character death - oddly this was condemned in Operation Darkness, though barely mentioned in reviews of Valkyria Chronicles, despite being far stricter in the latter. Hell, there's even an unavoidable cut-scene in both games where a main character is killed by a sniper, in addition to numerous other smaller similarities. Astonishingly Operation Darkness came out first, and Valkyria Chronicles was released a mere six months later in Japan, making direct influence unlikely. The two games also obviously differ hugely when it comes to their turn-based mechanics, with Valkyria Chronicles mixing in real-time movement and attacks, but Operation Darkness is honestly the closest Xbox 360-exclusive alternative you'll find.
The one good point that the critics have universally praised is Operation Darkness's storyline, which sees centuries-old British werewolves team up with Van Helsing's granddaughter, an H.P. Lovecraft character, Jack the Ripper, a descendant of Sir Lancelot, and Dr Frankenstein's monster (collectively known as the Wolf Pack), to fight the Nazis who are teamed up with Count Dracula's vampire henchmen (the Blood Clan) and are commanding legions of mages, skeletons, zombies, and towering dragons, all while mixing in real-life historical figures and events. Although Atlus' localisation is a little dry, the game is very effective at blending reality with fiction, basing certain in-game battles around real events. For example at one point the Wolf Pack meets legendary German tank-commander Michael Wittmann, who is disgusted to find his commanders using reanimated corpses to fight.
The colourful roster of characters is one of the game's high points and, contrary to what some reviewers have said, the European actors used for the voice work do a sterling job, with a diverse and absolutely appropriate range of brogues and lilts. Also, the cool thing with the werewolf characters is that when transformed, all of their stats receive a massive boost, allowing them to travel further, attack harder and receive considerably more damage. The downside is it's temporary, and lasts only as long as their dwindling Martial Spirit supply (called MS, but basically MP). Since characters will automatically use restoratives when low on health, one trick is to give the wolves restoratives which refill both HP and MS simultaneously, thereby allowing for an almost indefinite transformation (assuming they receive plenty of damage).
The game's main protagonist, Edward joined the army after his girlfriend Alicia was killed during an air-raid. She was the sister of his lifelong friend Jude, and the two signed up for revenge. During a skirmish in North Africa though Edward is injured, and is saved only through being found by Wolf Pack leader and werewolf James Gallant, who gives him a blood transfusion. After this Gallant requests the two be transferred to the Wolf Pack, anticipating Edward's transformation later on. He has a burning hatred for the enemy which causes conflict with some Wolf Pack members. Specialises in sniping.
Given his surname and English roots, Jude seems to be a descendant of the fictional Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table from Arthurian legend (one of the vampire enemies later on is even carrying the sword of Excalibur). His younger sister Alicia and parents were killed in an air raid, so he enlists with Edward for some payback. Not having received a transfusion like Edward, he never receives any special magical attacks, making him the least useful character in the game. He also has a much lower weight limit than the others, limiting the equipment he can carry. Under no circumstances bother levelling him up or giving him rare weapons.
This Lance Corporal is the group's pyromaniac Fire Starter. Recruited into the Wolf Pack at age 13 due to her special powers, Cordelia is actually of German descent. Her father was captured and tortured to death by the Nazis, while her mother was killed by Carmilla. Although this initially puts her at odds with Edward, he soon comes to fancy her. She doesn't seem to be based on any specific literary figure, though the official guidebook draws comparison to Stephen King's Fire Starter. Extremely skilled at pyrokinesis, once she's levelled up a bit and acquired more spells, she can wipe out entire groups of enemies or even a tank in a single hit.
Leader of the Wolf Pack and a seemingly immortal werewolf belonging to the Fang Clan, Gallant actually participated in the First World War along with his nephew Keith. In 1885 he took on and defeated Count Dracula in Transylvania, assisted by Keith, Frank, Dr Van Helsing (Elisa's grandfather), Jonathan Harker, and a young Dr Jeckyll. Sixty years later, and working with the British government, he forms an elite squad to take on the vampires assisting Hitler during WWII. When transformed into a werewolf he becomes one of the most powerful characters (his Werewolf Punch can kill a tank), but be careful, because if killed due to running out of restoratives or being run over by a vehicle, it's instant Game Over.
His mother was Gallant's younger sister, who was killed decades ago during the everlasting struggle against the Blood Clan. Carrying a strong Scottish accent he's another member of the Fang Clan, and like Gallant can transform into a werewolf. He's actually more useful than his lycanthropic uncle, since dying doesn't result in a Game Over, meaning you can send him into a difficult situation knowing that Herbert can revive him later. Later on he unlocks an immensely powerful attack using grenades.
Looking at his first name and body riddled with scars, not to mention the game's premise, you'd be correct in guessing this is the monster of Dr Frankenstein, from Mary Shelley's famous novel. Much like the creation in the book, and unlike the shambling ogre in the film adaptations, Frank is intelligent and quite philosophical. If you keep him alive long enough during the campaign, one of the missions will pit him against Dr William Frankenstein III, technically his grand-nephew, with some interesting dialogue. Until some of the more powerful recruits show up later, like Van Helsing, Frank has the longest movement range and highest attacks of the squad.
Not appearing to be based on any literary figure, or possessing any special powers, Cynthia is from Ulster, Ireland, and is the main sniper for the group. She'll see a lot of use during the game's start, since by default she comes equipped with an Enfield rifle (incredible range), but towards the end as other characters develop wide-ranging area attacks, her usefulness tapers off. All of her MS attacks require her rifle, so don't bother changing her equipment.
This creepy fellow is based on the HP Lovecraft character of the same, who succeeded in raising the dead - Gallant describes him as the team's "reanimator". Acting as medic, his MS attacks are all defensive, healing allies, curing status elements and reviving the fallen. This makes him both the most important and worst character. Limited only to weapon attacks, he can't wield a sniper rifle, meaning you're stuck either with light short-range rifles (like the M1 Garand), or heavier weapons which slow him down. At every feasible opportunity try to get him to attack to keep his EXP up. Known as Herbert East in Atlus' English localisation, the little red cross on his white armband was digitally removed (presumably because the Red Cross organisation bitches incessantly about its use), though can still be seen in the manual.
The Wold Pack's Second-Lieutenant Colonel and head of counter-intelligence. He pops up later on during a mission on the beach, around the time of the Normandy landings, and later on becomes a constant member of the group. Like Cynthia he's a sniper expert who doesn't appear to have any special powers, though he does later unlock a devastating area attack, where he calls in an Air Force bombing plane. It's not clear how he receives his deus-ex-machina intelligence reports about the enemy, but his information on Germany's nuclear weapons programme drives the story.
Jack the Ripper
It's never explained how the infamous and unidentified serial killer who terrorised the White Chapel district of London in 1888 came to be working on the side of the Allies in 1945, but there you go. In an early cut-scene Gallant talks with Frank about having to bring out Jack, and fitting him with some form of restraining device, but how he actually became philosophical about life remains a mystery. An expert with a bayonet and melee combat, Jack's massive movement range actually makes him quite useful for bazooka duty.
Elisa Van Helsing
Straight from King's College in London, Elisa is the granddaughter of Dr Van Helsing, who helped defeat Count Dracula. Since his retirement she's the group's vampire hunter. She pops up suddenly mid-game, without any firearms, so be sure to hold her back until you can equip some gear. Like Jack she's a blade expert, though is actually well suited to carrying a bazooka - at least to begin with. Her MS-based Vanquish Attack kills all undead enemies in a single hit, regardless of their HP. Later on when vampires and skeletons become more common you'll want to remove all equipment except her sword and restoratives, to ensure her as many turns as possible.
A secret character you can unlock with some work, Max represents the suffering endured by the other side. His wife and daughter were killed in an air raid, and he died during an attack on Berlin, after which his body was taken and fused with machinery ala Robocop. Due to a malfunction he regains his senses and turns on his former commanders. To unlock him you need to have Edward attack him during Mission 19, after which he flees the battle. Max turns up again in Mission 21, and if he's the last enemy left on the map, and has less than 100% of his health, will be recruited into the Wolf Pack. Possibly named after Maxwell Newman, a British mathematician of German-descent who built one of the first electronic computers in 1948.
This latex-legged-lady is the recurring female vampire antagonist of Operation Darkness, popping up repeatedly as a boss and enacting some dramatic plot turns. Unwaveringly loyal to Sturmbannfeuhrer Alexander Vlado, she commands groups of vampires, mages and the dreaded Totenkopf skeletons. She was also the one who murdered Cordelia's mother. According to the official guidebook she's based on the Carmilla novel from 1872 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, which predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by a couple of decades. Apparently in the novel Carmilla is portrayed as a vampire with lesbian tendencies who preys on young women.
A high ranking officer in the Third Reich and key leader of the Blood Clan, his helping of Hitler is to further his own rather evil ends. As such he's imbued several human officers with dark magical powers. The main bad guy for the game, he regularly shows up as a boss character, causing harm to all he meets... To say much more would be to reveal some major spoilers.
With glowing red eyes that reveal his magical enrichment at the hands of the Blood Clan, Himmler is a real-world figure woven into the fictional story of Operation Darkness. Appearing regularly in cut-scenes, seemingly in command of Carmilla, he also shows up as a boss character towards the end.
During play each character on the maps receives a turn to perform moves. A list showing the order is displayed on the right of the screen (which can be toggled with Y to show a mini-map/radar). When a character receives their turn is based on their SPEED stat in conjunction with WEIGHT, which is based on all the gear they're carrying, tallied up against the stats for all other characters on the map. An especially light and fast character is going to be able to perform two or even three moves before a slower, heavier character can act. This is a masterful set-up, since it forces you to prioritise the best equipment and work efficiently with the available tools - sure, you can load up a character with a bazooka and 10 spare rockets, but they're going to be slow as hell. Hilariously on one of the most damning reviews of Operation Darkness, the writer tried to claim the game was glitched, and couldn't make up its mind when to give him his turn, despite the system being clearly explained in the manual, quite obvious if you have even a basic grasp of physics (weight = slow), and is very easily manipulated for your own gains. A magic user like Cordelia needs no weapons, and with a weight of around 5 if you count restoratives, she can dance circles around the enemy. Also, if you run out of ammo you're given the choice of dumping your gun - one good strategy is to bring weapons you intend to throw out, for example a bazooka to take out a single tank.
When the turn for a characters comes up you can move along the squared grid and then attack (or attack and then move), with movement range being based on stats and chosen skills, and attack range based on specific weapons. Alternatively you can sacrifice moving and attacking to cast a spell, which tend to have decent ranges and area attacks. A few critics complained they couldn't move AND cast spells at the same time, which is a ridiculous argument - the game is easy enough as it is, and the ability to move while also casting devastating spells would have utterly broken it. The current dynamic works well. The third choice during a turn is to ignore the above and make use of the Cover system.
Even more significant than the game's setting, and something which only a few reviewers touched upon, is the unique, exceptionally brilliant, and inappropriately named Cover system. It actually has nothing to do with taking cover from attacks, and is split between Cover Move, Cover Ambush and Cover Attack. A few websites criticising the game claim these options aren't explained properly during play, when in actual fact they're extremely well documented in the manual, complete with some very useful tips. It's amazing what a little reading can do, chaps!
Cover Move: If you select Cover Move, you must then select another character on the field, and then a point you want the first to run to. When the secondary character performs an action, the first will then run to their pre-determined spot. While they won't be able to attack, and won't move until the second character acts, their movement range is increased. Basically: if Keith's turn comes up, and you see that he's too far away to engage the enemy, you can choose to have him move to a specific area after an enemy starts moving, or even have him following another member of the Wolf Pack. If there's a lot of distance to cover, and the turn order shows every member of the Wolf Pack acting after each other, you can choose to have all of them Cover Move on the guy at the bottom of the list. While he'll have to move normally, and therefore a shorter distance, everyone else will travel much further. In the above screenshot Herbert, and the yellow arrows pointing to him signify that there are several others waiting on his action before they move.
Cover Ambush: Set a character to Cover Ambush and they sacrifice both moving and attacking for that turn, but they will then attack every single enemy who moves and is within range. The downside is that attacks done will only be 1/3 their regular strength, while if they're attacked they'll receive 125% damage and stop ambushing (sometimes it's actually worth attacking your own troops to knock them out of ambush mode prematurely). Also, if an enemy casts a magic spell, such as the Magiers, they won't actually be ambushed, since it only seems to work for enemy movement and weapon attacks. If you put someone like Cynthia in Ambush mode she'll be able to dominate the entire map with sniper rifle, which is important when you consider...
Cover Attack: If a character sacrifices their move and attack for that turn, they can be put in Cover Attack, which basically means every single time another character attacks an enemy they'll join in, assuming they're in range and have ammo, at 100% normal strength. This in conjunction with Cover Ambush shows not only how masterfully crafted the strategy of Operation Darkness is, but elevates it to genius. If you place one sniper on Ambush mode, and then several others on Cover Attack, it's possibly to sit back and watch as every enemy that moves gets cut to pieces by three, four, or even all 10 members of your squad.
Obviously there are shortcomings to this, since small arms won't affect vehicles, and getting attacked while in these modes will cancel them and give you more damage. Plus if your Ambush guy gets cancelled, the remaining characters will just stand there until their next turn comes up (you can have multiple people in Ambush mode). But generally most of the maps are built around taking advantage of this system, which is something unique and not really seen in other strategy RPGs. There are group team-up moves in some games, such as Agarest, but not on quite such a wide-reaching and cohesive scale. While Operation Darkness warrants comparisons to Chess, with its grid-like layout and individualised characters, in terms of functionality the Cover system puts it perhaps closer to the East Asian board game known generally as Go (or igo, weiqi and baduk).
With Go it's all about control of territory as represented by areas cordoned off by either black or white pieces, or in some cases early in the game controlled entirely by a single piece in an important position. Astute players anticipate the shifting of territories as single pieces are placed in positions which can later be linked up. So it is similar with Operation Darkness, where the maps are arguably the biggest ever featured in a strategy RPG. They vary, but on some (such as Mission 24), they're 120 by 120 squares, amounting to a total of 14'400 positions on the field. With such open geography there's little opportunity for choke-points or bottlenecks, and instead success is based around interpreting the map as areas of territory, as defined by a character's movement and attack ranges, and the protection afforded by buildings and ruined vehicles in-between. Two snipers in the middle of an area, perhaps protected on one side by a destroyed tank and set to Ambush and Attack, will pin-down all infantry across vast sections of map, allowing other characters to move within rocket range and eliminate remaining vehicles or the equally resilient skeletons. Additionally you can control an area by moving someone, such as Keith in werewolf form, directly into enemy range, knowing he will attract and absorb all enemy attacks. This is also a good tactic if you've foolishly moved a weaker character ahead and they're getting pummelled, but aren't due for another turn for a while.
Operation Darkness features a genuinely well thought out and well balanced strategic system, with an expertly defined set of tools and equipment, where every choice of tactics or weapons or spells feel meaningful. So far you may be thinking it sounds like a GOTY contender for 2007/2008, which brings us back to that Metacritic score of 46, and the 21 negative reviews it's received.
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