ACE Team can always be relied upon for intriguing visual design and ideas. The Zeno Clash titles are awash with surreal creatures and unique mythology, while Rock of Ages drew on the history of world art and Terry Gilliam’s animated work for Monty Python. In the former, your goal is to brawl your way across spectacular, colourful landscapes. The latter is all about the destructive power of boulders.
Abyss Odyssey has just as much colour, style and artistic creativity as those prior games, but also feels like ACE Team’s tightest production to date in terms of design and mechanics.
It’s not easy to explain or summarise in a marketable sentence, which is usually a good sign that a game is offering something of actual interest. Abyss Odyssey is a little bit procedurally generated platformer, a little bit Smash Bros inspired brawler and a little bit Roguelike-ish risk-vs-reward dungeon crawler. It’s also nothing to do with Abe’s Oddysee or Etrian Odyssey (despite being published by Atlus.) Nor Homer’s Odyssey. Although it does share some weird creatures in common.
Bad things have happened beneath Santa Lucia Hill in the Chilean capital of Santiago, and bizarre beasts are spilling forth from a gaping hole in the ground. It turns out this is all the fault of a Warlock, sleeping deep below the earth. His nightmares are taking corporeal form and the only way to beat them back is to make it to the heart of the Abyss and do your best to act as a human alarm clock.
Even the initial playable character, the agile, sabre-wielding Katrien, is a fragment of this ongoing nightmare. A later unlockable character, Ghost Monk, is the manifestation of all those who’ve died in the Abyss. This explanation serves both narrative and gameplay, as all of the game’s three protagonists and be revived and resurrected at shrines dotted randomly throughout Abyss Odyssey’s procedurally generated levels.
Upon each death, the rooms of the Abyss reform and reorganise into a new order. Locations of special enemies and encounters change, and the only thing that stays consistent is the difficulty of each path ahead of you. The Abyss can, eventually, be entered at three different points, with the first offering a longer (15 stages rather than 13 or 11) but more forgiving route. There are periodic locations where you can opt to cross into (or out of) the branch you’re in, so if circumstances push you towards an easier or harder stage you can sometimes find a way into one.
Dying in the Abyss rejigs the room order and moves things around, but also strips your character of all gathered items (weapons, rings and potions) in a run. It’s not really a Roguelike permanent death though, because you get to retain your experience level, any discovered fighting moves and all collected gold. This persistence means you should get a little bit further each time you head into the underground. Incredible loot drops aren’t really the main focus of the game, but you’ll come across a reasonable amount of weapons and items, while periodic underground shopkeepers sell a randomised selection of wares.
Abyss Odyssey also gives you a couple of chances to escape death while exploring. If killed, your character is replaced by a helpful soldier whose sole task in life is to make it to a resurrection shrine. These guys are weaker and lack the dynamism to take on too many enemies (unless you’re highly skilled,) but that can make their last-ditch efforts to save you feel all the more heroic.
There are also purchasable ‘Camp Token’ items which, when set up at one of the shrines, will serve as a limited respawning point if both character and soldier die. The expense and limited nature of these tokens means you’re likely to only be able to use one or two per run, so their deployment is always a gamble between pressing on deeper (and placing your respawn closer to the Warlock’s den) or playing it safe.
It’s worth noting that there’s no way to actually save your game in the middle of an Abyss run. Quitting the game will see your character returned to the entrance the next time you load up, so it’s necessary to complete a full run (which could be anywhere between an hour or two) or die in the attempt. That’s a shame, as the Dark Souls method of picking up where you left off (but still avoiding any kind of saved game shenanigans) would surely have worked fine. The unnecessary player dilemma of whether to just give up or leave the PC on overnight is one Abyss Odyssey could’ve easily avoided.
While there are a certain amount of environmental hazards in the Abyss like stinging vines and saw-blade traps, your main source of danger comes from the creatures within. The menagerie is not as all-round bizarre as previous ACE games but there’s still a fine mix of the surreal and familiar, with figures from Chilean mythology like the “Camahueto” bull rubbing bovine shoulders with masked Venetian swordsmen and darting skeletons. And yes, Zeno Clash fans, there is a birdman. Actually a birdlady; stuck as half person, half-bird because her transformation ritual of removing various internal organs was interrupted by a hungry dog. Lovely.
Battling these frightful horrors is a far more significant part of Abyss Odyssey than the straightforward platforming. At multiple points during any given stage the Abyss will close in (preventing immediate escape) and anything up to three or four creatures may assault the player at once. Combat is very much informed by the mechanics of traditional fighting games, with directional attack combos, cancels and dashes all in place alongside a tremendously satisfying timing-based parry system (complete with wonderful chiming sound.) Gamepad and re-definable keyboard options are offered, but it’s fairly safe to say that the game style suits the former.
Fights can be rather intense, with the AI capable of some fairly relentless assaults on harder stages. There’s rarely a huge amount of space in which to maneuver, particularly if enemies show up in an area with a swinging blade or spiked block (though these can be used to your advantage,) and you can’t get away with just spamming attacks. Button mashing will get you so far, but timing, learning how to parry and an effective use of combos are all necessary skills to learn.
Abyss Odyssey has a slightly more mannered touch than something like Street Fighter, especially when turning to face opponents, but if you know what you’re doing it’s clear the fighting model can be a source of some pretty devastating combos. Each of the 30-some creature types has their own unique move-set, and the game has a few mini-bosses and special encounters which pretty much play out like a one-on-one from any Fighting title you care to mention.
Even better, there’s a method of playing as some of these enemies yourself. When a character’s mana is full, it’s possible to capture any creature of equal level or below and then be able to transform into them at will (for that run.) There’s some fine attention to detail here, as the creature still carries any keys or weapons your character holds. The bull, for example, dangles the keys from it’s horn. Slaying each foe for the first time tends to also reveal a page from the Warlock’s journal, slowly unravelling the reasons behind such nightmarish unrest.
Being able to temporarily use the move-sets from other creatures is fantastic, and once you’ve snagged a soul you’ll be able to buy it from the priest at the Cathedral Abyss entrance. That way, there’s a tangible, permanent reward for grabbing them. The X+Y (on a 360 controller at least) combo to unleash your Pokemon-esque power is a bit clumsy, but the reward of being able to play as a fabulous Peacock Warrior forever more is well worth the effort. You have to pay the priest for the soul of course, but they’re cheaper than some of the ludicrously expensive (albeit quite handy) weapons.
Reaching the Warlock is lot more doable than a lengthy run in, say, Binding of Isaac (I’ve managed it three times across eight hours,) but this is perhaps by design. As players collectively defeat multiple Warlocks, things will change in the Abyss Odyssey world. ACE Team say they have various new enemies and encounters planned to extend the life and longevity of the game as players triumph against the Abyss.
Local and online co-op options don’t hurt either. I roped IncGamers’ Tim McDonald into my ever-shifting Abyss (it’s okay, he consented) and we explored how the game treated us as a duo. The main differences were twice the number of mini-bosses, minor friendly fire effects (cumulatively dangerous in the game’s tight areas) and a fairly inconsistent camera. It sort of tracks the host player, but doesn’t mind switching to the other character either, so at times either one of you may risk being off-screen. With the camera quite tight-in, this leads to occasional problems. We ran into a bit of a procedural room of death with a platform jump and a swinging blade, demanding a perfect, synchronised jump from the pair of us to make it to the tiny platform on the other side. Cross-continental lag wasn’t disastrous beforehand, but it thwarted our efforts to cross that pit.
Luckily, after a respawn at an altar, the Abyss had procedurally generated a slightly different pit that we were able to deal with.
Alongside co-op, a full vs mode is also a work in progress. Right now, the PC version of the game comes with version 1.0, allowing local multiplayer contests between up to four players. This turns Abyss Odyssey into more of an arena brawler where any of the main characters from the game (good, evil or neutral) can be controlled, with the second-tier creatures as back-up transformation options. It’s hard to assess this just yet as it’s a work in progress and ACE Team is still to release the online version, but the combat dynamics are certainly robust enough if the netcode is strong enough and there’s a large enough community sustain it.
It’s a game that deserves a sizeable player-base. Even though I’ve defeated the Warlock several times already, Abyss Odyssey still calls me to its mysterious depths. There are secrets and aspects still to explore, the combat remains immensely satisfying and each of the three main playable characters feel suitably different in their approach and move-sets. Visual design and musical score tickle the brain in that special ACE Team way, with obvious care put into the creation of each creature type and stage backdrop. It has several minor flaws (not being able to save descent progress upon quitting will aggravate some I’m sure, as will the co-op camera) but Abyss Odyssey is up there with the original Zeno Clash as their strongest game.