There was only one copy of Snowblind’s latest action RPG left at GameStop, and it was mine, all mine. A half-dozen others were on reserve for those who had pre-ordered it, and the rest had been purchased earlier that day. A few hours later, and I could have found myself waiting until after its release date to play Champions: Return to Arms, and I’m glad it didn’t come to that.
Released less than a year after its precursor, Champions takes the “of Norrath” out and lets you choose your own morality. Unlike other recent titles (Fable) that ostensibly allow for a main character who’s good or evil, your choice actually matters in Champions. The bosses you meet, the characters you greet, and the conquests you complete can all change depending on your alignment. Your decision is made within the first ten minutes of gameplay: Do you prevent the Bad Guys from resurrecting Innoruuk, Supreme Bad Guy of the last game, or do you aid the Bad Guys in achieving their goal?
The gameplay of Champions is akin to all the great action RPGs of this generation, such as Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and The Bard’s Tale—just keep attacking until everything’s dead. Unless, of course, you’re an archer, in which case you keep attacking until you’re out of arrows, and then warp your pansy tookus back to town. There are also spells to be cast, potions to be quaffed, thrusts to be parried and what have you, but the core gameplay is hack, slash, hack, slash.
Champions introduces two new potion-quaffers and a score of new skills to the newfound series. In addition to warriors, sorcerers, dark elves and the rest of the original cast, you can now play as these freakish catpersons and lizardpersons. The new characters look hunky-dory, but they aren’t far removed from what was already available. Also, you can import your old characters from Champions of Norrath, so you can continue to gain from all those hours you no doubt put into the first game.
The soundtrack of Champions is bothersome. There’s no memorable, overarching tune like you’ve got with the original; in fact, there don’t seem to be many tunes at all. The majority of your dungeon-crawling will take place with Puffy AmiYumi in the background, unless you like your gaming to be silent. And the few times Champions does grace your ears with music, the selected song is wildly inappropriate. You’ll be picking through an empty passageway, one you’ve already cleared of enemies, and an intense, adrenaline-pumping battle theme will start up out of nowhere. It’s disconcerting to be idly poking at a barrel while listening to a song that, under most circumstances, would signify the coming of a 30-foot fire-breathing snail named Krythorne the Salacious.
Like with this game’s predecessor, you can take Champions: Return to Arms online. Both headsets and keyboards are available for communication as you and your buddies are murdering orcs and ogling mermaids.
As you complete quests in story mode you unlock more levels, which allow you to earn medals and unlock still more levels. In addition, there’s an arena mode where you and your friends can engage in some hot player-vs.-player action, or team up to defeat wave after wave of fearsome foes. Champions of Norrath was already filled to the brim with replay value; in Champions: Return to Arms, the replay value spills over the brim and makes your pants all wet.
Last year, Champions of Norrath was an early contender for Game of the Year, and its sequel is no different. I can’t recommend this game enough; thanks be to God that GameStop still had a copy. Champions: Return to Arms is THE online title for PlayStation 2; but even if you don’t have a network adapter, you’ll still love this game. Just make sure your iTunes playlist is queued up.