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Zen Studios is a Hungarian team that up until recently specialized in digital pinball games. Then, back in 2019, they released Operencia: The Stolen Sun - a first-person dungeon crawler inspired by Central European mythology.
Initially, the game was released exclusively on the Epic Games Store and Xbox Game Pass, but on March 31, 2020, it made its way to Steam, GOG, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch. And as a result, now that Operencia is available to a wider audience, we decided to see what it had to offer.
Story and Exploration
As mentioned above, the game is inspired by Central European mythology. And perhaps because I’m not personally familiar with that particular branch of folklore, to me the game felt more like a wild amalgamation of fables, fictionalized historical figures and even some basic fantasy tropes.
All of this comes together to create a story where the sun god gets kidnapped by a dragon and you have to save him or face certain doom. Not exactly the most inventive of premises, once you distill it to its basic elements.
This story is also paced in such a way where for a good while nothing important happens, but then near the end things kick into gear, you get exposed to multiple twists and revelations in quick succession, and then the game ends on a sequel hook.
On the one hand, this isn’t great. On the other, this is a dungeon crawler we’re talking about. A game like this doesn’t really require a story that goes past “to stop the evil wizard you need to find a magic amulet on the bottom of this large pit.”
And, while the story itself isn’t amazing, the characters you meet along the way, their clashing personalities, interactions, and conversations are actually very fun. In fact, the game’s journal/codex is written from the perspective of one of the characters, and is quite an enjoyable read.
A lot of those interactions revolve around what I can only assume are retellings of old European legends, which gives the game a distinct fairytale feel.
This is further augmented by the game’s level design. Instead of traversing a single dungeon, you’ll be exploring a mystical land and visiting a good number of inventive locations. An underwater castle, a forest where all the trees are made of copper, a crumbling castle that defies gravity. You’ll even get to climb the World Tree by walking up it sideways.
The levels themselves tend to contain numerous sub-areas, secrets, and puzzle rooms that actively reward exploration. As you get through the game, you’ll gradually unlock new tools to interact with its environments. And because you’ll be able to revisit levels at will, you’ll oftentimes face puzzles and riddles spanning multiple levels, which adds another dimension to exploration.
The puzzles themselves tend to not be particularly difficult, so if you’re not a fan of puzzle-solving, you shouldn’t get stuck too often. There was one notable exception near the end of the game where I had no idea how to progress, and even after consulting a guide, I still don’t understand the logic behind that puzzle.
That one puzzle aside, the game does a great job of keeping things fresh instead of endlessly iterating on the same few ideas. Each of the game’s levels generally has some twist to it and its puzzles oftentimes reflect that. But, while this means you won’t get sick of moving blocks in increasingly convoluted patterns, the sheer variety of Operencia’s puzzles means that some of them are significantly less creative than others.
One thing to note here, is that the game tells you how much of a level you’ve completed at any given time and how many secrets you still have to uncover. And I’m not sure I like that. It’s fun to stumble onto a secret, work something out, solve a riddle. Knowing exactly how many mysteries a level holds removes some of that excitement, in my opinion.
Still, that’s a minor gripe with what is otherwise a very enjoyable dungeon crawler. The game clocks in at around 20 hours, which is about the perfect length for a title like this. It doesn’t overstay its welcome or drag things out, but it doesn’t feel like it ends too soon either.
Systems and Combat
When it comes to combat, Operencia doesn’t have any random encounters or respawning enemies. Instead, each level features a handful of hand-placed fights and maybe a boss battle or two. What’s even better, most enemies are exclusive to their levels, and have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
With the exception of some bosses, the game’s hostile creatures actually exist on the maps, patrolling their winding tile-based corridors in real time. This allows you to sneak up on them, or occasionally, even get ambushed.
Once a battle is initiated, you get transported to a battle arena where you settle your differences in a turn-based fashion. The combat system is actually pretty intricate. Your active party can consist of up to four characters, each of them armed with nine active skills and a consumable item.
Most skills vary in effectiveness depending on your target’s position, and very few of them simply do damage. The absolute majority of your attacks come bundled with assorted status effects, DoT effects, various buffs, and so on. They also all have an element associated with them. Using enough skills of a particular element gives you access to special party-wide abilities.
Using skills expends your Energy, a resource that doesn’t automatically regenerate in Operencia. Apart from some rare skills and potions, resting at campfires is the main way to restore Energy. Each rest consumes one bundle of firewood that you first have to find or buy, which can lead to some tense situations in the early game when your resources are limited.
And in general, the game isn’t a complete cakewalk. Even the default difficulty has some challenging fights. But then, you can further increase that difficulty by enabling a number of hardmode options before you begin your journey.
When the game starts, you first have to play through a prologue as three premade high-level characters. This gives you a decent idea of what to expect from the game’s three main classes that fall in the standard archetypes of warrior, archer, mage.
If you want a quick suggestion - play as a mage. But you will probably come to the same conclusion yourself after playing the prologue where the mage is the only character doing any real damage, while the warrior protects the party and the archer is mostly just there for moral support.
And while that may not seem like great class variety, all the story characters that join you on your journey have their own special classes. There’s an alchemist thief, a blacksmith necromancer, a shapeshifting shaman. You get the idea.
Each class has access to three unique talent trees split into three tiers. It’s a pretty standard fare where in order to progress through the tiers you have to invest a certain amount of points into that tree. Surprising no one in the world, you get these points by leveling up.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of depth to those skill trees and all the passive talents you’re forced to invest your hard-earned points into to get to the juicy active skills tend to be very minor and utterly forgettable.
The game also has attributes. You can increase your primary attributes like Strength and Intelligence when you level up, and that in turn will increase some secondary attributes, like your health or energy pools, critical strike chance, and so on.
Overall, Operencia’s character building is not very complex, but despite that it somehow ends up being needlessly convoluted at the same time. For example, the game’s active talents directly translate into its active skills, while its passive talents simply provide you with minor attribute bonuses. But there are also actual passive skills that are completely separate from talents and unlock on their own as your characters grow in levels.
And because the game’s tooltips aren’t always there when you need them, it can be hard to tell what effect wearing a piece of gear will have on your character. You pretty much have to memorize a dozen of secondary attribute icons or be endlessly confused by why your characters at times repeat their attacks, where counters come from, and so on.
And on top of it all, your character sheet has some weird total value of your offensive, defensive and magical attributes. Even after beating the game I have no idea whether those values affect your character in any way or if they’re simply there to represent your general level of power.
Thankfully, you can mostly ignore all of that, focus on the cool active skills, and have a great time. And if you manage to mess something up, the game allows you to redistribute your talent and attribute points at any time.
The game’s itemization is another strange beast. Most of the stuff you find is as boring as it gets. Imagine my disappointment when upon spotting an illusory wall I discovered a hidden chest, and inside that chest I found an Axe. Not a Magic Axe, not an Axe of Something or Other. Just an Axe.
But then, at the same time, the game also has a number of item sets that not only provide unique bonuses and additional rewards for every piece of the set you equip, but also some major boon once you complete the set, like giving you 50% extra damage and the ability to bypass armor when fighting bosses.
And in general, the game seems to enjoy surprising you with some really odd design decisions from time to time. Most of the early enemies are either resistant or outright immune to poison, but the very first companion the game gives you is a guy specializing in poison attacks. Stuff like that.
The game also has an economy, if you can call it that. You can find gold. And there is a merchant who joins your party at some point. But the bulk of what she sells is completely useless, and the few items that aren’t, you can easily afford without scouring the levels for treasure or selling any of the excess gear you find.
On a more positive note, the game’s crafting system is the most fun I’ve had with crafting probably ever. You see, during your travels you’ll find some potion recipes. You will then need to brew these potions, which you do by solving a puzzle, a variation of Einstein’s famous riddle, where you have to arrange a number of plants, their properties and their origins in the right order by using incomplete information. I could probably play an entire game of just that, if I’m honest.
Operencia's visuals, while not cutting edge, are charming and do a great job of selling the game's fairytale aesthetic. For me, the game was stable, didn’t take long to save or load, and ran mostly well. A couple of levels featured some frame drops, but nothing too severe.
The save system is limited for no apparent reason. When playing on the default difficulty, you’ll be able to save your progress around campfires and upon quitting the game. There are also frequent autosaves, but you won’t be able to save at will.
The soundtrack is pretty decent, with some outstanding tracks here and there. There’s also plenty of voice acting, but its quality wouldn’t be out of place in the original Deus Ex.
Operencia: The Stolen Sun is Zen Studios’ first dungeon crawling RPG. And while this lack of experience is clearly noticeable in certain areas of the game, overall it certainly managed to impress me.
The game offers a great balance of exploration, puzzle-solving and combat. Its levels are varied and well-designed. And even though it doesn’t go as deep or as wide as some other entries in the genre, it offers a fun, focused experience that I can’t help but recommend to anyone looking to explore some nice dungeons.