Jul 17 2014

Review of Abyss Odyssey

header_292x136 (1)4 Stars

Abyss Odyssey is definitely one of the oddest combinations of genres I’ve come across, featuring fighting game mechanics as well as rogue-like style persistence and randomization all wrapped around an action platformer. Perhaps unsurprisingly this game comes from ACE Team, the developers behind the utterly incomprehensible Zeno Clash series, but what is curious is that it takes its setting from the developer’s native land of Chile. Strange genre combos and unique cultural undertones aside though, this is probably ACE’s most coherent work yet, both in terms of gameplay and story, which ends up being a better thing than you might think.

Starting off with the story, the premise here is that in 1860’s Santiago, a massive hole opens up in the ground and monsters start flowing out of it. The local Spanish soldiers do what they can to hold the monsters back but are overwhelmed. Thankfully at the same the monsters emerged, a mysterious magic wielding swordswoman did as well, and she jumped down into the abyss to stem the tide. Her and the monsters’ simultaneous emergence was no coincidence though, both come from the mind of a Warlock who is sleeping at the bottom of the abyss, one so powerful that his dreams have seeped out into reality. As you descend down the floors of the abyss you’ll pick up pages of his journal, discovering his dark secrets and learning the lore of the monsters you’re fighting. It’s a nicely hands off way of working the story into the gameplay and the writing is fairly strong with a decent twist or two and lots of good descriptions of the monsters that detail both their cultural origins and their personal significance to the Warlock. Sadly that quality of storytelling seems confined to the journal though as the main plot is a little thin at points, specifically the endings which are NES-like in their simplicity, basically ending with “Congratulations, but watch out! That mean old Warlock is still sleeping down there.” This makes sense because the idea is that you’ll be going through the game multiple times in order to see and collect everything but it is still something of a let down, especially when a very important conflict between the Warlock and one of the main characters is mentioned in the journal pages but is not satisfactorily resolved when that character beats the game.

The game does support online two player co-op as well as local four player competitive multiplayer.

The game does support online two player co-op as well as local four player competitive multiplayer.

Moving onto the gameplay, the structure overall is that of an action platformer, similar to Castlevania, fighting enemies on a 2D plane as you traverse the level by double jumping and dropping through ledges; the overall mechanics however bear more closely to that of rogue-likes and fighting games. The levels are laid out in descending floors and the content of those floors changes procedurally with each playthrough, varying up the difficulty and the layout. Similarly where you’re going to find certain items, weapons, and monsters (which you can capture and take control of) are also all randomly distributed. As you play though, your experience level and your gold is saved and you’ll unlock new avenues of entrance into the abyss and new playable characters. Even the Warlock himself will eventually change as the game features an interesting system in which after a certain number of  people have beaten the Warlock, he then changes form into something more powerful. I was playing pre-release so I only ever got to see his initial form but the fact that you can go back to the game a month later and fight an entirely different end boss is pretty neat.

Where things get really interesting with this game though is in its fighting game style combat mechanics. Rather than simply being a basic attack augmented by new weapons, each character has their own moveset in the style of Super Smash Bros. You have a set of basic and special attacks, all chosen by pressing the X or Y button and holding the analog stick in a direction, as well as the ability to block, dodge, and cancel your way around enemy attacks. It’s a surprisingly robust system and every character, even the enemies, follows the same rules. They use this to make the game’s monster capturing system significantly more interesting, as you can take control of every monster in the game (including bosses depending on your level) who each have their own sets of moves and specific frames to pay attention to. It definitely feels very rewarding when you get a good flow going and it subverts the unfairness of the rogue-like formula to a point by allowing your personal skill with the controls to be of greater consequence.

The character portraits are done in wonderful detail and really drive home the designs of some of the game's more interesting characters.

The portraits are done in wonderful detail and really drive home the designs of the game’s more interesting characters.

As with the story, the presentation in Abyss Odyssey is surprisingly straightforward for ACE Team but it still manages to have that surreal quality they’re known for. While they definitely go for a fairly faithful depiction of 19th century Santiago, the abyss itself is has a fitting dreamlike quality to it with each layer having its own quirks. Similarly the enemy and character design is all fairly level headed and going for accurate depictions of Chilean history and mythology but there’s a specific quality to the animations and the 2D portraits that gives it a nice odd edge. Of course that’s not to say the subject material itself is bland, you have enemies varying from one-horned bulls to masked Venetian assassins to a giant skeletal king wearing seven crowns at once and eating a sword. Even the player characters get a little crazy, especially when one of them is a ghostly monk who is a manifestation of all who’ve died in the abyss and whose robes are filled with the disembodied skulls of damned. Overall it has a really good look that plays to ACE’s strengths and subtly blends colonial Spanish and native Incan influences together to a very authentic effect.

While Abyss Odyssey is missing some of the utter craziness we’ve seen in ACE Team’s other titles, such as Zeno Clash and Rock of Ages, it’s ultimately a much sturdier game as result. While I don’t think it necessarily leans far enough in the direction of fighting games or rogue-likes to really satisfy the dedicated audiences of either of those genres, the combination as it is works surprisingly well as does its unique theme of Chilean mythology. It not only plays to the strengths of those influences but bounces them off each other in smart ways. It’s a game unlike much else out there and certainly worth checking out if you’re a fan of the experimental, as such I’m giving Abyss Odyssey a 4 out of 5 stars.

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