We're beginning to see why they called it the PlayStation 2

   There's a good reason why few of the dozens of games based on anime that are released every year in Japan ever make it to US shores. Beyond the obvious fact that many of series themselves are virtually unknown in America, the games, like their movie-inspired counterparts, have notoriously weak gameplay, leaving them to live or die on the strength of their characters and story. It was an odd decision then for Activision to localize Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a game which not only bears the shoddy gameplay of its anime-inspired brethren, but also one of the least likable casts this side of Legend of Dragoon.

  If by heroes you mean mind-numblingly annoying twits
Meet the heroes

   Orphen's eponymous lead is a lazy sorcerer with a 'tude, who turned his back on the scholarly life to wander the countryside as a moneylender and generally act like a cad. Serving as foil to the "cocky hero" stereotype are Cleo the "brash tomboy" and Magnus the "whiny apprentice." The game begins when a debtor offers Orphen easy money, just a day's travel away by boat. Apparently, the ship must first cross the dangerous Ocean of RPG Cliches as it's immediately attacked by a giant serpent, leaving Orphen and crew stranded on the foreboding Chaos Island.

   Before leaving the ship, Orphen meets three fellow travelers, all of whom have their own reasons for visiting the the island: Zeus, a mercenary searching for his daughter; Sephy, a dancer come to pray for her dead fiancee; and Mar, a young musician led there by a song his mother used to sing. Depending on whom you chose as a companion, the game presents a different set of dungeons and challenges to conquer as you attempt to unlock the mysteries of the island. Once a path is finished, players return to the ship to begin another, until all three converge at the game's true end.

   The bulk of the gameplay takes place in an over the shoulder 3rd person view, reminiscent of Tomb Raider. The similarities don't end there, however, as Orphen's many dungeons come compete with same sort of block puzzles, swinging blades, and switches we've seen a hundred times before. The settings themselves, though occasionally impressive visually, are equally familiar. The usual suspects of desert/ice/lava/mechanical tower each make their appearance; all that's missing is a mine cart. Occasionally, you'll be forced to switch characters to overcome an obstacle, but considering they all basically control the same, this doesn't offer much in the way of variety. A game need not be wholly original to be enjoyable, but Orphen's determination to trot out every cliche in the book is almost an accomplishment in itself.

Now where'd I put my Sorcerous Stabber?

   The parade of the expected doesn't stop with the gameplay. Orphen's characters are universally hackneyed, trite, and, what's worse, extremely talkative. Players are subjected to scene after scene of Cleo acting jealous of Sephy, of Magnus whining to Orphen, of Orphen acting like a jerk to everyone, including one scene where he lusts after a ten year old girl. There's nothing wrong with extended story sequences driving a plot forward, but many of the conversations here are nothing but arguments, sniping, and witless banter. Granted these exchanges serve to flesh out the game's characters, but when the characters are as charm-free and tired as the cast of Orphen, you'll seldom want insight into their hidden motives.

   Luckily, the battle system offers a bit more originality for gamers willing to sit through the hours of insufferable dialogue. When the party meets with one of the preset battles, characters are frozen in place. You control only the party's lead (usually Orphen), and each of four buttons actives a different spell or a melee weapon. Attacks can be powered up by holding a button, while a magical shield is available to deflect incoming attacks. Meanwhile the rest of your party continues to fight along side you -- coordinating your attacks results in more powerful combos. Though not being able to move during a battle sounds limiting, the fights themselves play out like a realtime version of a standard RPG battle, with your party and the enemies each lined up on a side exchanging attacks.

  Snake fighting: very scary
Blurry, but pretty

   Unfortunately, once you add eight or more combatants, copious motion blur, and quick camera movements, the action becomes more chaotic than dynamic. It's often impossible to tell who's attacking whom, or even whether an attack landed. To compensate the difficulty level is extremely low, leading to blind, repetitive button mashing. Different creatures do have a weakness to certain spells, but considering the game actually starts the battle over each time you change your spells, there's little penalty for coming to a battle ill-equipped. The battle system does work extememly well for the brilliantly executed, often stunning, one-on-one boss battles, but these are far too infrequent to carry the game.

   What's left is a title with scant little originality, interspersed among hours of tedium. Though Orphen may still appeal to fans of the anime, the rest will be wondering how a series featuring such flat, lifeless characters could have any followers at all. The fact that anime-based titles are beginning to appear on this side of the ocean is definitely promising, even if Orphen only goes to show that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the Pacific.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Orphen: Scion of Sorcery
Developer Shade
Publisher Activision
Genre Action RPG
Medium DVD (1)
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  08.03.00
76 screenshots
9 character illustrations
North American packaging