By Tom Tolios / August 20th, 2015
|Title||Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition|
|Release Date||July 28, 2015|
|Genre||Action Adventure, RPG|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Teen|
I gazed long into the abyss of Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition for PS4 (about 12 hours, in fact) and I’m not quite sure what gazed back at me. I’m paraphrasing Nietzsche, who had no concept of video games whatsoever, but I rather like the idea that the longer you play a great video game, the more it changes you. Sadly, I cannot say Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition led me to any personal epiphanies, but I was certainly reminded of the limits of my patience. This is not to say that the game is terrible. On the contrary, it has a number of admirably-executed elements. Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition seeks to improve upon the 2014 build by offering more content to the players, but did they succeed? Is the game any better off than it was last year?
Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition is an enhanced version of the original 2014 release, developed by ACE Team and published by ATLUS. For the upgrade, they’ve added new attacks and combos, online versus, four-player local free-for-alls and Zeno Clash 2’s Golem character as a sub-boss and summonable monster. The game is a Castlevania-style side-scrolling adventure with Smash Brothers-style combat and a South American gothic horror theme. The plot, an interesting concept that ACE Team doesn’t really expand on, revolves around a slumbering warlock at the bottom of a subterranean pit (the titular ‘abyss,’ one would surmise) whose dreams have split the earth wide open, revealing many previously unknown underground passages that descend further and further into the darkness. The warlock’s dreams are causing the world above to become corrupted by monsters and magic. You start the game as Katrien, one of the many manifestations the warlock’s dreams, but she’s got a kind streak in her and wants to seal up the rifts, stopping the big bad’s nightmarish delusion from threatening the world.
You descend into this abyss in stages that are demarcated by exits that lead into other areas, fighting and exploring as you go. You’ll also encounter allies that will give you a hand in battles, gather treasures or come across mysterious vendors that sell you weapon upgrades, equipment, healing items and monster tokens that allow you to transform into a different character. This ability comes with its own health meter to carry on the struggle when you are either dangerously close to dying or just want to have fun tooling around with a different move set. You can also acquire items that can be used to fortify altars and turn them into checkpoints manned by soldiers with muskets, swords and axes. When you’re not fighting, you’re facing environmental challenges as part of zone progression. Jumping challenges like lava beds, floating platforms hovering over ominous, miasma-filled pits, concealed spikes in the walls and floor, creeper vines that spit poison and other wandering creatures that can temporarily freeze, immolate or poison you if they land their attacks are also par for the course.
The graphics do a good job of making you feel as if you’re really underground, despite lacking variation beyond the occasional color change. There are stalagmites, stalactites and natural rock formations aplenty, and the pastel color scheme is effective in portraying the muted natural light sourcing that you might experience from mysterious glowing rocks, lichen or fungus. The animation is smooth and fluid and looks polished and pleasing to the eye. The soundtrack is one of the best things about the game, recalling the spirit of Castlevania without sounding derivative in any way. The voice acting, for what few scant conversations occur in Abyss Odyssey, aren’t really all that noteworthy. Even at the best of times, they’re unremarkable.
The variety and intricacy of the level design aren’t what I’d consider top notch, even for a roguelike game, but they get the job done. In most cases, the rotating blade traps and moving platforms are easy to navigate, with the more difficult challenge actually being the stationary environmental objects that can do damage to you because they blend into the scenery rather well. Treasure chests, vases and globelike idols can be smashed or opened with keys you can acquire from monsters to reveal more valuable items and cash for the vendors. A minimap in the corner gives a partial view of the corridors closest to you.
Level progression is somewhat linear. When you reach the gate to the next area, there will be a map nearby that you can inspect to see where it leads. The chambers on the map are color coded to show the difficulty of the adjoined area, and it seemed to me that it was more the number of enemies the game threw at me, rather than enemy types or navigation, that dictated how tough the zone might be. Most areas only lead to another drop deeper into the abyss, but, sometimes, there are side passages that lead to adjacent horizontal rooms if you want to go to an easier, or harder, zone based on your skill level and how much trouble you wish to face. There are also special areas you can enter where you take control of one of the game’s many monster characters and fight a number of foes. If you win the fight, you are rewarded with the ability to change into the monster you were just controlling, which is useful considering there are some difficult areas, and the backup character can be a great help. There is no backtracking, however, and I found this frustrating, because the only way to go back to an earlier area is to die and start all the way at the top again. You keep your money and current experience level, but you lose any special weapons or items you may have been carrying when you were killed. But it’s a mixed blessing.
Someone who has played similar games to this genre (like the Metroidvaina games) will be able to move freely between zones, so long as they have the key items that permit access, and level to their heart’s content. In Abyss Odyssey, there is no exploitable way to move back and forth between two areas and level grind. I found this to be the first frustrating part of the game. Being forced to continue my descent meant facing increasingly more difficult challenges, and there were times I just wasn’t prepared to deal with the threat. Either my money wasn’t sufficient to buy a good weapon or there were no health items or I didn’t have a monster I could summon to do some of the dirty work for me. This meant that I eventually would die, which led to a low powered Chilean soldier taking my place on the battlefield through some kind of virtual sorcery (although I believe the game wants me to think that this soldier just happened to be nearby and stumbled upon the scene) and then controlling the soldier until I found an altar where I could revive my character.
I found this to be a rather punishing aspect of the game, even though some would consider it generous to give me a slower, less capable fighter to finish what my deceased character had started. Imagine if you were playing Alucard in Symphony of the Night, he was killed and you were suddenly forced to play as a zombie or mummy until you reached a save room. The disparity isn’t quite as bad as that, but the point I am trying to illustrate here is that it was deflating having to play some underpowered scrub. And, then, if your generic soldier dies, he drops any items he was carrying and you are forced to start your descent all the way from the start again. I absolutely am NOT saying ‘I wish this were Symphony of the Night.’ But that game, for all of its imperfections (and yes, it IS imperfect) understood how to balance difficulty with progression. It’s very well constructed in this respect, whereas Abyss Odyssey just can’t seem to get this aspect down.
The replacement soldier aspect wouldn’t be so bad if the fighting engine wasn’t the most tedious part of the game. Enemies are extremely agile, jumping all over the place (even the oversized ones), perfectly evading attacks and countering far too often. Your offense is slow and unresponsive, with the maneuvers having severe startup and cooldown times that cheap enemy AI is more than happy to exploit. Perhaps the most frustrating element of the fighting engine is its lack of a quick turn when trying to strike enemies that have dodged behind you. I have never been a fan of a game that doesn’t cancel into 180-degree turns when facing enemies in a 2D brawling atmosphere. The best examples of the brawling genre, such as Streets of Rage and Final Fight, handled this mechanic very capably, and these games came out almost 30 years ago. ATLUS’s own Vanillaware-developed Dragon’s Crown had similarly responsive brawling controls, as well. On the whole, I’d say that the combat, including the skill upgrade system that allows you to purchase cancels during attacks twice, is a disappointment, and is Abyss Odyssey’s biggest flaw. In other games of this genre, you are engaged both intrinsically (the gameplay) and extrinsically (the plot, characters and anticipation of seeing new areas and bosses.) As Abyss Odyssey’s narrative is anemic and never really advances beyond the initial concept, that leaves you with only the combat and exploration to anticipate. The former is so uneven as to be annoying and the latter is underwhelming because it lacks any real variation.
The character upgrade system doesn’t do much to encourage you, either. While you start with Katrien, you can eventually unlock a couple of other characters. Once I obtained the broadsword-wielding Ghost Monk, I never looked back at Katrien. He seemed to be a better starting character overall, with longer reach and larger hit boxes. I liked his brute force approach to everything over Katrien’s finicky, finesse-based techniques. There is a third character you can unlock, called Pincoya, by donating enough money to a magical fountain somewhere in the abyss, but Ghost Monk got me through to the end, so I never felt the need to grind the dungeon over and over and unlock her. As you kill monsters, you can gain skill points that you can use to enhance your special abilities and purchase levels of cancelling so that you can pull off better combo strings. Every time I bought an upgrade, I hoped for significant gains, but I was met with disappointment. My combos were, indeed, easier and more intuitive to perform as a result of my increases, but the enemies continued to remain dodgy, cheap damage sponges. To make matters worse, when enemies spawn, you are oftentimes confined to annoyingly small areas as shadowy walls rise up to trap you in close quarters with these foes. Even when I thought I had them boxed in, they were dodging like champs and reversing. It’s also frustrating that you can’t hit enemies when they’re prone, although I should take that as a blessing in disguise as I’m sure they would have killed me where I lay if they could.
Charging your mana meter to full and unleashing the power allows you to capture the soul of any monster affected by the attack so you can summon them in battle to fight, but most of the creatures I ended up capturing were similarly hamstrung by the sluggish combat engine. However, a couple of these souls were unfairly overpowered, and I felt that this was a severely-broken aspect of the game. So, my character has cancellable blocks and dodges, can throw enemies for juggle combinations, has a variety of attack strings and special maneuvers and can even do wake-ups when prone and the monsters are still dodgy McDodgertons, but, when I change into the Stone Golem, I can just spam the basic strike, and enemies die in three or four hits? Something feels untested here, and it’s not my blood sugar (which I check before every meal).
Overall, I found myself irritated with Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition more than once, and, just when it seemed as though it was about to turn the corner, it kept falling back into mediocrity. The combat was so uneven and annoying that I was bewildered that something ACE put so much effort into (TWICE now) could be as wonky and unengaging as this was. It felt like they were trying to mix the atmosphere and exploration elements of a Castlevania game with the difficult kind of combat that is the hallmark of Dark Souls by way of Smash Brothers. As a result, the game feels uneven, unsure of what it really wants to be and underachieving in nearly everything it sets out to accomplish. It’s so close to being something amazing, and I can’t help but think that, with a little more tweaking to the enemy AI and combat responsiveness, this could have been one of the greats of the genre. I completed one full run of the game up to a battle with the warlock, (the original build) and was rewarded with a screen of my character standing on a mountain overlooking a lush green countryside while a message underneath that equated to ‘Congratulations, but play again because the warlock is still a threat.’ I didn’t bother after that point because, after getting my Ghost Monk character up to level 35 through repetition of combat and exploration, I knew what the game was going to give me from that point on and I had no more patience for it.
And that, ultimately, is the biggest problem with Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition. The game just isn’t quite good enough at its most engaging parts to keep me invested even through a single tour of the campaign. I don’t want to feel tepid about this game. I respect the effort ACE Team put in. I really do. I hate pointing out how lackluster the whole experience is. But it is what it is. The next time I want to play a side-scrolling action game or a multiplayer brawler, there are simply better options to choose from. And that’s a shame, because I really wanted this abyss to stare back into me. Maybe it was staring back into me, as Nietszce warned it might, but I was already looking at something else.
Review copy provided by publisher
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Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream EditionACE TeamAtlusPlayStation 4