Indie Game of the Week 202: Operencia: The Stolen Sun

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(I'm dedicating this one to my blogbud and fellow CRPG nut @arbitrarywater who gifted me a promising-looking RPG on Steam a few weeks back. This is not that game - I couldn't get that one to work, sadly - but blobbers like this seem up his alley also.)

I sometimes worry after writing... one... ten... too many of these blogs, that I have a tendency to repeat myself. If so, you're going to hear for the whatever-teenth time that my very first video game was Dungeon Master: a first-person RPG much like Operencia: The Stolen Sun. As such, I feel drawn to this specific sub-genre more than any other, and invariably gravitate towards every new one that comes out of the Indie scene. Now granted, the Dungeon Masters and Grimrocks are a little different to Operencia due to its status as a turn-based RPG: in that regard, it can trace its lineage back to Wizardry and Might and Magic rather than the real-time travails of Dungeon Master, but I still surmise that it owes a debt of gratitude to the Grimrock franchise for helping usher in a new era of these grid-based old-school wonders.

Operencia, which comes to us courtesy of Hungarian developers Zen Studios who are perhaps better known for their pinball games, is a traditional first-person RPG with a full party of four and a whole lot of in-depth strategic considerations to its combat. The importance of tactical elements like status effects and elemental coverage are more pronounced here than they might be elsewhere, and when playing on the harder settings you have to be much more cognizant of resource management and character builds. The game is oddly lenient in some respects and harshly anti-player in others, according to its developers' ideal balance of difficulty. For instance, you don't heal back to full after every battle like you might in many other recent throwbacks, and your ability to rest at campfires is limited by a finite resource - it's enough to get you through the game comfortably, but you can't burn one after every battle either - which makes it important that you judiciously hold back your stronger skills until they're necessary and preserve your health as long as possible. However, the universal guard ability also restores energy, the stat resource used for special attacks and spells, so theoretically you could whittle down the enemies to just the one that presents the lowest threat and keep defending to fill up energy for heals and in preparation for the next fight (it has a cooldown though, as if to address this cheap tactic, so it's not a perfect solution). On the flip side of the coin, the game allows you to respec for free as many times as you like, it has several difficulty settings spread across four features - mapping ("hard" means no auto-map), saving ("hard" means no auto-saves), permadeath ("hard" means it's activated) and enemy difficulty - so you can fine-tune your desired challenge level, and it has a consumable system where potions refresh after resting rather than being a limited resource.

Where I'm at right now. Something messed up this place, and I'm about to find out what. The graphics have a certain chunky, vaguely cel-shaded charm to them.
Where I'm at right now. Something messed up this place, and I'm about to find out what. The graphics have a certain chunky, vaguely cel-shaded charm to them.

Operencia also has some odd ideas, many of which I like for their novelty but others I like for what they bring to this genre. One is that there's no enemy respawns, so you could theoretically depopulate the entire game (there's even an achievement for doing so). The downside to that, of course, is that there's no way to grind in preparation for a tough boss; since your ability to rest back to full HP is also limited, though, limiting encounters alike seems like a wise approach. You acquire artifacts that allow you to find treasures, including those in dungeons you've previously conquered: the game's fast-travel system means it's set up for backtracking, if you're happy enough to go over where you've previously been for some kind of edge for the fights to come. The consumable system I mentioned is the most notable curiosity I've run into so far: to brew a new consumable which can then be equipped to party members, you must first find its recipe. After that, you're required to solve a little logic puzzle to determine which ingredients are added in what order; the localization on some of the puzzles are a little ambiguous, but I've had no problems yet making what I need. Battles are a little more straightforward: enemies can be one of three layers determined by distance, where ranged attacks do better against the furthest and melee against the nearest. Enemies in this game have all sorts of annoying tricks though, most prevalent of which are the front-line tanks taunting every other round, forcing any single-attack skill to target them alone; others rely on status effects and elements which are harder to spec against, and so would make ideal targets were it not for their burly protectors. One amusing glitch (at least I assume it's a glitch) is that enemies can attack you during cutscenes, right while you're in the middle of your characters discussing their next move: the background dims as the character portraits pop up to talk, and you can see in the dimness the prompt that an enemy has ambushed you as it switches to battle mode. I make it a point to save after every battle for this reason and more; fortunately, saving is free, it's just resting back to full that costs you.

You have enough information to complete this puzzle, but you do have to interpret a few clues in a roundabout manner (
You have enough information to complete this puzzle, but you do have to interpret a few clues in a roundabout manner ("A Petal from the Field cannot be the last ingredient" means it's actually the first ingredient, rather than not applying at all).

The hardest fight I've encountered so far was the ghost of a character you met in the game's "abilitease" prologue. When you initiate the fight, she immediately puts up an energy shield that reduces all incoming damage to single digits. The rest of the fight involves her summoning her two skeletal guards - who are big on the aforementioned taunt and block strategy - and occasionally performing a hugely damaging AoE that does half a full health bar of damage to my weaker members. It's a minor miracle whenever you get past her taunting guards during the short amount of time her energy shield is down and before she re-applies it, all the while trying to weather those AoEs and the skeletons' attacks with the limited number of healing options available (I should mention here that the first three characters you get are a ranger/thief, a knight, and another ranger, so maybe don't make a ranger like I did). I spent almost three hours on this fight alone, only eventually winning after some hurried party respecs and a whole lot of luck towards the end of the fight when she stopped using her shield and relied on a fear-inducing shriek instead - no idea if she was always meant to have that attack and the programming was botched for the PS4 version, or if it was meant to be triggered at low-health only (in which case it's weird the energy shield wasn't used at that point). Either way, it was a progress-stymying block in a game that had offered a decent but not insurmountable challenge thus far, and I dread more of the same in the dungeons to come.

Queen Reka. Aptly named.
Queen Reka. Aptly named.

On the whole, though, Operencia's been exceedingly pleasant, if not always super compelling. The exploration is appealing with the help of a freelooking camera and many types of treasures and secrets to find, the level design has been quite diverse (the first location has you fighting toad knights and going into underwater sections), knowing that I can rid a place of wandering monsters so I can later safely stare at the walls for hidden buttons is reassuring, and for the most part the combat has been just tough enough to be engaging barring the occasional overly-cheap ghost boss. The dialogue is more quippy than funny, but it sets an easygoing tone that isn't too dour or self-important, and like my last Indie Game of the Week - Catmaze - the game's lore and character names are steeped in eastern European flavor, giving the world a certain distinctiveness (though slightly less so in this case). Localization's generally good also, with hardly any typos and some decent voice acting (though a few, like the knight Mezey, can feel a little off with their intonation at times; the cast appears to be half British and half eastern European, the latter presumably not native English speakers). I've no doubt I'll hit another boss roadblock eventually - my own dumb fault for playing on hard mode for the trophies - but for now I'm enjoying my time with it. I'm just glad I managed to dig into it before the site's GOTY coverage began, because I just know they're going to be talking about this Indie European throwback RPG a lot.

Rating: 4 out of 5. (NB: Played on PS4.)

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