Abyss Odyssey disappoints – but not because it’s a bad game. No, Abyss Odyssey disappoints because every element looks astounding on paper. And then you pick up the controller.
A Rich, Original Setting.
The year is 1890 in Santiago, Chile. A powerful warlock sleeps beneath the earth, and his dreams have conjured monsters that are clawing their way to the surface. But not all his creations are evil. There are three playable characters – two women! – that seek to rouse the warlock from his slumber and stop the nightmare, if only for a time.
Many creatures in the game are inspired by Chilean mythology. There’s the Voladora, a witch whose transformation into a bird went horribly wrong. There’s the Camahueto, a one-horned bull that grows like a plant. There’s the Invunche, a monster created by acts of terrible cruelty to a newborn. If you’re tired of Tolkien-esque fantasy, you’ll find Abyss Odyssey incredibly refreshing.
ACE Team have made their game look like no other with the wholehearted adoption of Art Nouveau, a style popular during the time period. Its characteristic use of curvature and natural forms can be seen everywhere: columns, gates, vines, gardens, character portraits, even the user interface. Hitting the block button produces a kind of halo clearly inspired by the works of Alphonse Mucha.
The presentation also shines on a technical level. The use of lighting, motion and particularly depth make the environments feel alive, and the character models are colourful and richly detailed.
It’s a shame Abyss Odyssey is more fun to look at than to play, especially considering how innovative ACE Team was in its design. The game itself does a poor job explaining its esoteric systems, so to summarize:
Abyss Odyssey aims to provide the depth of a fighting game in the shell of a 2D dungeon crawler. Win or die, equipment is temporary, but money and experience are not. The labyrinth leading to the warlock is randomly generated each time, and players can choose their route to avoid tough encounters or seek greater rewards. The full dungeon must be completed in a single sitting, which may alienate people with limited playtime.
Mana can be used to unleash a special attack that has a chance of stealing an enemy soul, allowing you to transform into it. The ability to play as some 30-odd creatures, each with their own move set, shows real ambition and adds some much-needed variety to your trips through the dungeon. If your character falls in battle, a simple soldier comes to your aid. If you die as the soldier, it’s back to the beginning of the dungeon – but if you can reach an altar, you can revive your main character.
A few merchants, bosses and NPCs are peppered throughout. One big highlight is the encounters with Paganini, the Demon Violinist. Players are offered a deal with the devil: if you accept a random item now, he’ll hunt you down for a boss fight later. In a game this difficult, the choice between useful equipment and avoiding another fight takes genuine thought. Every time you reach the end and defeat the warlock, you contribute toward more content being unlocked in the game. It’s a neat incentive that makes your repeated trips feel a little more worthwhile.
The overarching systems in Abyss Odyssey are unintuitive but clever. The real problem that drags the whole experience down is the gameplay. Combat feels wooden and unsatisfying. Attacks are slow, and many have long animations, narrow hit boxes and short range. You’ll end up missing a lot, or getting hurt while trying to get in range. It’s also far too easy to get knocked down or to knock down your opponents, meaning you spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for one of you to get back up.
However, the game’s biggest sin is how hard it is to simply turn around. It’s oddly stiff, and you can’t do it when attacking, blocking, dodging or jumping. You’ll often end up attacking in the wrong direction by mistake, but correcting that requires you to drop your defences. Tactical options are limited: jumps aren’t “floaty” enough to make aerial combat or juggling practical, and your opponents don’t stay on their feet long enough to build combos. The result is choppy and repetitive – nothing like the fluid fighting games Abyss Odyssey tries to emulate.
With friendly fire on by default, co-op is often more trouble than it’s worth. It’s nearly impossible to avoid attacking through enemies and striking your partner on the other side. You can turn friendly fire off, but it bans you from the leaderboards and prevents you from contributing to the community goals.
There are also serious balance problems. Equipment costs far too much, considering it’s all temporary. There’s little point in playing through the game twice just to earn enough money to make the third trip easier. Mana builds too slowly as well, especially for only a chance at capturing an enemy soul.
Less than the sum of its parts
Abyss Odyssey is still worthy of praise: its distinctive inspiration, opulent visuals and ambitious design set it well apart from the rest of the pack. However, it’s hard to appreciate all that when wrestling with the controls or playing endless games of whack-a-mole with a peacock warrior. There was a lot of promise – but sadly, as the warlock believes, sometimes the dream is better than reality.