Operencia: The Stolen Sun Review (Switch)
Release Date: March 31, 2020
File Size: 6.9 GB
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
I’m a big an of first-person RPGs.
I think that, at their core, the subgenre has the best level of moment-to-moment gameplay of any RPG. When a dungeon is well-designed, it acts like a maze that keeps the player guessing, pushing them to manage resources and delve deeper into the labyrinth in order to uncover its secrets. This sort of pacing is difficult to achieve, and requires a series of systems that are delicately balanced. At their best, FPRPGs are wonderful- at their worst, they can feel like a slog. Where Operencia falls on that spectrum, however, is a bit of a loaded question.
I’ve played a handful of FPRPGs on the Switch- classics like Phantasy Star, oddities like Labyrinth of Refrain, quirky titles like The Keep, and hardcore titles like Vaporum. What Operencia does is successfully craft one of the most gorgeous looking FPRPGs I’ve ever seen, and stuff it full of some of the most bizarre design choices I’ve ever encountered in the subgenre. As a lengthy, story-driven title, I feel that it’s certainly worth experiencing. If only the actual act of playing this title weren’t so frustrating…
Operencia has players start by picking a painfully generic-looking player avatar from a group of portraits, and then selecting a starting class. Though the developers would like you to believe that any of these classes- a ranger, warrior, or wizard build- are viable options, two of the first three party members you’ll encounter are designed around agility builds. This means that, if you should choose either the ranger or warrior classes, you’ll be stuck without a mage for the opening act of the game, and if you should choose the former specifically, you’ll be stringently managing agility-based equipment across three characters. The lack of a proper mage feels the most detrimental, as area or effect and elemental spells are some of the most efficient in the game and can vastly improve the quality of the play experience.
Operencia operates (heh) on traditional role-playing, turn-based logic, which means you’ll be squaring off against enemies in three rows- front, mid, and rear. Your damage will scale based on the kind of attack you attempt to use, with melee attacks dealing their full potential against the front row. Similarly, your opponents have rows for positioning even though your party does not- a lovely bit of archaic role-playing design. This means many of your skills need to be plotted out in order to tackle specific kinds of threats and encounters, as enemy positioning and maximizing damage output are necessary factors to consider. Your party operates on energy in order to use any attack skill outside of the three inherent abilities shared by all characters: these are a melee and ranged attack and a defensive stance skill. Skills are hardly cheap in Operencia, taking sizable chunks out of specific character energy pools, though this can be mitigated by utilizing the defensive stance skill to regain a paltry amount of EP. Because the game is extremely tightly balanced, every skill in your arsenal operates on cooldowns, which means you won’t be able to spam your defensive stance in order to bank a great deal of EP so that you can perform another skill bomb.
Dungeons are designed to mimic human structures, for the most part, as you’ll find yourself traversing a number of castles and fortresses, some of which actually possess dungeons. There is a marked amount of variety here, however: you’ll plunge into crypts, forests, villages, and enchanted variants of man-made buildings. These dungeons are structured with a bit more linear logic to them, often having gated checkpoints that will expand the scope of your exploration, but limit you to combing certain areas in order to complete sequential objectives. They’re full of puzzles, traps, and obstacles, as well, some of which use recurring elements and artifacts gained from previous dungeons. For example, you’ll receive a vessel of light early on that can be used to reveal hidden runes on walls, or a hammer that can reassemble broken bridges. You’ll even be able to return to these dungeons in order to test out newly acquired artifacts, as almost every single environment possesses an additional one or two spots where you can nab some extra goodies, or face a hidden boss.
Narrative and Aesthetics
As has already been stated, Operencia looks gorgeous. Although there are a number of reused assets, the game’s dungeons are extremely organic and manage to look convincing due to many unique “set pieces.” Two castles might look completely different based on the aesthetic alterations that come with the game’s integrated lore, with many locales having specific narrative purpose that further alter their appearance. Of course, the “stolen sun” of the title also allows the developers to cheekily shroud every environment in night, which has mixed results on the joy of exploration. Though suitably epic and fit for a fantasy tale, Operencia’s soundtrack is atmospheric and rarely memorable, setting the mood for the current locale without doing much else to imbue them with character.
Despite its rich mythos, the way that Operencia chooses to deliver a great deal of its story is via a mixed bag of voice acting, with some characters sounding fairly natural and others possessing odd quirks that feel jarring. Almost every character featured in Operencia feels like they have something to say, and while the dialogue might flow well in a more cinematic product, these sequences can drag on substantially. Returning to a campfire, where the player must visit to manually save and rest before disembarking on another journey, will often trigger these sequences, which can often feel like a bit of a speed bump.
With all that being said, the world of Operencia is so tightly wound that each narrative twist and turn feels either extremely coincidental, as many characters have distant relation to one another in some way, or a bit too convenient. The “ancient history” of Operencia actually isn’t all that ancient, having taken place decades and not hundreds of years before the narrative’s central thrust, though there is some juicy bits of lore to dissect. Because of the limited scope that FPRPGs often provide due to the limitations of their design, I don’t blame the developers for relying on dialogue and an unwitting protagonist in order to deliver a great deal of their world-building, but each new locale feels more like an iterative installment with its own purpose and design rather than a piece of a wholly connected world.
Impressions and Conclusion
Based on all that I’ve said, it may feel like Operencia has a great deal of potential, and I would hesitate to argue this. With a slew of dungeons and an impressive budget, the game aims to offer around 20-25 hours of content, maybe even more, if you should explore every corner of its labyrinths. You’ll likely end up doing so for a number of reasons anyway, however, which we’ll get into in a moment. So why is Operencia so frustrating to play, then?
Well, it has to do with the aforementioned “tight balance” developer Zen Studios went for in designing the game. While Operencia does not feature random encounters, this also means that there is a set amount of enemies per dungeon. Some of these cannot be accessed until you obtain certain artifacts later on in the campaign, but the fact remains that Operencia only puts as many obstacles in your way as the developers wanted. This means every boss encounter is just about as hard as the developers wanted it to be, for better or for worse. Again, if you’re running an early-game, no-mage setup, this can prove itself extremely irksome, as many bosses utilize additional mobs in order to draw attention from themselves and prolong the engagement. Enemy summoning is a major factor in Operencia, and it almost feels cheap when bosses continue to conjure tanks or healers in order to avoid damage. What makes this more frustrating is that the percentage-based nature of all attacks means that, even if you should have an area-of-effect or multi-hit attack to use on those bosses when your characters are distracted by specific enemies, you’re likely to miss. Extremely likely.
Though this means Zen Studios can design an encounter that is perfect for your specific character levels, it also means that your character build might be entirely unequipped for a certain scenario. Though on the game’s higher difficulty levels, this would result in a complete save-wipe, the normal mode of play will have you dancing around percentages and praying for a hit many times over. There are only two potential ways of circumventing this- combing a dungeon for secrets, or redistributing your stat points entirely.
While there are plenty of tucked away secrets in Operencia’s dungeons, some of them are just a bit too obscure for their own good. The light vessel you possess reveals hidden symbols on walls nearby, but the ability is bizarrely time-sensitive, meaning that you an potentially miss a secret simply because you cannot reach it fast enough or because you didn’t look in a direction at a certain time. While the game attempts to place the light magic sources in “convenient” places, there are some secrets that are so well-hidden they practically demand a guide. Likewise, levers and triggers can often come in the form of usually non-interactive wall elements, which will become highlighted if you pass your center of vision over them, but the game also leans heavily on “fake” walls, which appear slightly translucent… and can be positioned at the end of one of the game’s many dark hallways.
I’ve used the term “wall-hugging” to describe Operencia’s dungeon traversal before, but it feels all the more evident the more artifacts you acquire and the further into each environment you progress. A shovel “hides” chests underground and forces you to see them out by activating it every three squares. You can lift certain weighted objects to place them upon pressure plates or relieve weight elsewhere. This is atop the many other logic-based puzzles that sometimes have convoluted answers that the game gives no indication- or vaguely-worded hints- for solving. With only a limited amount of encounters on the field, the game can turn into a slog of trekking back and forth in order to try to find the right interactive element. At some times, it feels like a more straightforward system for implementing puzzle mechanics would have vastly improved the pacing.
Lastly, Operencia undermines the feeling of building a distinct character with the way it approaches stat redistribution. You can, at any point, redistribute any attribute or skill points, essentially allowing you to create equipment-centered builds, pour your points into specific skills for use, and attempt to redesign your character in a way that will make their latest challenge more manageable. This wouldn’t be necessary if the skills were designed with greater leniency or random or limitless enemy encounters in mind- but of course, that would mean Operencia’s dungeon design would have to be condensed. Here’s the thing, though- all of these alternatives sound preferable to the systems currently in place.
In exhausting enemy encounters and forcing players to create more optimized builds for certain boss encounters, Zen Studios acknowledges one thing: you are playing the game incorrectly,or at least, in a way that isn’t what they had in mind. While they give you the chance to “fix” your mistakes, the writing is rather clear- there is no agency of choice here, or freedom of expression. You should have picked a magic class at the start, you should design your characters to fight certain enemies in a specific way, and you need to comb every last corner of a dungeon if neither of those strategies are working for you. All of this makes even the prettiest, most engaging kinds of FPRPGs a bit of a sour experience, though most importantly, it doesn’t feel in-line with the classics of yesteryear in any way. If you approach Operencia with all of these notes in mind, you might find a lengthy and enjoyable puzzle-solving adventure, where your character builds are the “correct” answer to the problem in front of you. If you’re looking for the next dungeon crawling RPG to fall in love with, however, there’s some fundamental issues with Operencia that need to be overcome.