Saving Chile (and, you know, the world) can be pretty difficult. Especially when you’re frenemies with the source of the impending doom. You deride the Abyss and its both effortless and indiscriminate destruction throughout the 19th-century South American countryside, but you reap its many fruits on your path to end the destruction. That, and you and the Abyss have a few things in common, like both being the product of a powerful warlock’s fever dreams. As with any pair of modern reality show BFFs, Abyss Odyssey requires you to work both with and against each other to reach your ultimate goal: restoring peace (or launching a record label?)
Odyssey is very much a different sort of rogue-like, easily picked out of a line up of its contemporaries. But different isn’t always better. You’re a Google search away from one of the title’s strongest features: its vibrant and energetic art direction. Even with their most standard selection of adventure game locales – “ice cave” and “jungle”, for example – the backgrounds are always colorful and interesting. Though the very short list of different sorts of zones to travel in is disappointing, each type of zone features rich and kinetic elements. If the twisted and gloomy Dark Souls motif was reinterpreted by Hideki Kamiya, it would probably look like this game. Vegetation is gnarled and grotesque, but vivid and dynamic. Enemies are well designed and memorable; models like a devil in a suit playing violin and a poncho-ed skeletal fencer really stand out.
The deceivingly deep combat is this game’s true success, though. Equal parts Street Fighter and Metroid, exploring the randomly generated dungeons of the Abyss allows for a wealth of opportunities to put the boots to evil demons creatively. 2D fighting game fans, at home surrounded by their hitboxes and frame data, will find that many of the same theories that allow them to play their favorite fighter at a high level will find themselves ahead of the curve here. Normal and special attacks are mapped to specific button + direction combinations, à la Smash Bros., and moves can be linked and chain in much the same way. Cancelling combos into specials, for example, is key to progressing through some of the game’s most difficult challenges.
Unfortunately, the game never gets THAT challenging. Especially for the aforementioned fight fans, enemies will never pose much of a threat alone and really only become a problem in groups. Even then, you will find that the AI is remarkably inconsistent. Sometimes enemies dodge, block, and counter your attempts with deft ease. Other times, they pull an 80’s kung fu flick – letting one of their flock deal with you, while the rest stand on a ledge and watch. When encounters happen, the screen letter boxes you into a specific battle area, letting no one in or out until only one side is left standing. At least once per zone, I found that enemies would spawn outside of these boundaries and instantly die. The offscreen slain would end up leaving whatever loot they would have provided to me had I killed them the old fashioned way sitting awkwardly a couple steps away.
I’ve finished the game a half a dozen times now, and (besides a death here or there) I never felt that frustrating feeling where you’ve failed so much that you convince yourself you’ll never win. Or that feeling of absolute triumph when you do finally break the cycle, only to fall back into the struggle over the next hardest problem. The trial-by-fire mentality that characterizes the subgenre of procedurally generated action games is missing from this title in a big way, and in its absence floods in many of its problems.
The procedural generation of each zone’s platforming elements, monsters, items, etc. are way more random than they should be. Sometimes gaps are created that just can’t be passed without taking damage in someway or another. Not in a “I’m-just-not-good-at-games-so-I’m-butthurt” sort of manner, but in some cases, there were jumps that were just too long to make without hitting spikes, lava, or other such hazards.
Items appear either at altars scattered across the abyss, in the hands (or on the waists) of enemies, or in treasure chests, and their frequency is never consistent. Sometimes you find a superfluous amount of keys – to be used to open doors or chests; other times you’ll go most of a playthrough without seeing a single one. Weapons can be found dropping out of slain enemies hands or in predetermined spots on a particular screen. Rarely are they a weapon your chosen character can equip (unless you are playing multiplayer, in which the odds are more in someone’s favor.) You can buy them from wandering shopkeepers, who provide you with a random assortment of pain implements tailored to you every time you see them. Even then, there’s a good chance of buying a poison sword in a stage of a dungeon where everything is immune to it.
Randomly generating content can provide a constant level of freshness – making a game less about the memorization of specific movements during a level and more about the actual working parts of the game. You master not a game, but a system. Odyssey’s system is broken and undermines many of its well-intentioned ideas. It’s like watching a play where the curtains don’t block the stage director or set movers in the background. Instead of being a minor annoyance, it removes both the challenge that games like this are supposed to provide and, thusly, the drive to succeed against all odds.
Many of its other features are rendered wildly useless. There are hidden doors that can be opened to reveal treasures or other lost things, but the doors require being struck by a weapon of a certain element to engage it. Considering you have no control of the type of weapons offered to you and can only hold one at a time, the prospect of ever opening these doors is 1 in 100. And for what? More of the same stuff you could get anywhere else, of course.
When you die, a soldier from the surface picks up where you left off. He will continue the journey through the Abyss for you until you find specific healing shrines dedicated to healing your proper avatar back to fighting fit. That trooper can then join your fight and be an ally in your crusade. But, they take friendly fire and become a liability to keep alive. So, instead you kill them like you would anything else in the game, like any good, dark frenemy would. These aforementioned shrines can also serve as checkpoints, should you have the right items. Checkpoints you won’t need, because with very little practice, you will be good enough at this game to beat the end boss in one run.
The difficulty of the game is randomized from zone to zone. It could jump from easy to hard with a step through a load screen. But, once you figure out that hard really only means “more enemies that are sometimes smarter,” you realize that there’s nothing hard about any of this. By your third playthough, when this all begins to sink in, you start to feel dirty. Like your last two playthroughs could have never happened. Unlike every other rogue-like I’ve played, multiple sessions have garnered almost no progress. You’ve discovered nothing new, and that adventurous, competitive fire no longer burns. You are as hollow and empty as the Abyss itself.
Zeno Clash has always been a studio known for thinking outside the box of regular genre convention, and the elevator pitch of Abyss Odyssey certain lives up to the developer’s hairbrainedness. The combat and visual design serve as a dimming light that is slowly swallowed by the rest of the game’s dark inadequacy. I fear, when it’s all said and done, this is a game better left in a deep hole in the ground.