Well below the depths of Santiago, Chile, a nightmare brews and torments the people above. A Warlock ridden with sleep conjures ghastly creatures from the darkness below the Earth, and in this great Abyss lies a wealth of mystery, bestiary, and culture. ACE Team, the Chilean developer responsible for Zeno Clash and Rock of Ages, will captivate you once again with its spellbinding lore and mythology. Every corner in Abyss Odyssey is rich with Chilean ethos, but for every ounce of beauty is a kink that hinders the experience from reaching its fullest potential.
Abyss Odyssey is an exotic marriage between 2D platforming, side-scroller brawling, and roguelike gameplay. It delivers a narrative that won’t require much attention from the player, but its presence is felt wholesomely throughout the journey, providing you with just enough material to ensnare you in its folkloric fantasy. A chasm rips open on the Earth’s surface and the people of the Chilean capital of Santiago are victim to the darkness that spews from it. Defeat the bizarre, but strangely beautiful roster of enemies and they’ll seldom drop journal pages that unravel the mystery behind the Warlock’s ill-doings.
You begin the game as Katrien, a brave swordswoman who you’ll quickly learn is a fragment of the Warlock’s nightmare. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock other playable characters like a ghost monk and a naked, spear-wielding warrioress – each are notably different by way of playstyle. As one of these three corporeal manifestations, you must plunge into the Abyss and reach its deepest cavern where the Warlock sleeps and awaits your heroic confrontation. Succeed in battle, and valuable secrets and challenges await your next playthrough, but fail, and you’ll be stripped of all your gathered weapons and loot and must restart from one of the three starting locations on the Chilean surface.
While not purely roguelike by design because the game does not punish you with permanent death (you keep experience points, learned movesets, and gold when you respawn), the game’s arduous difficulty is one of its most refreshing qualities. Dying will cause the procedurally generated caverns of the Abyss to rejig, meaning that no two expeditions will be the same. ACE Team is not entirely unforgiving though, allowing a few second chance opportunities for cheating death. You can purchase a “Camp Token” from a vendor and link it to one of the many resurrection shrines dotted across the map for a very limited number of respawns. When killed without a Camp Token link, a loyal but feeble soldier will take the place of the protagonist in a playable form. With an inadequate moveset and weak health bar, the soldier’s one and only purpose should be to reach the closest resurrection shrine and revive the central hero.
The most stimulating strategy for avoiding death, however, would be the game’s creature capturing mechanic. Fill your mana bar to the brim, chip away at your enemy’s health, and unleash an effective blast that will obliterate the monster and allow you to collect its essence. This grants you the power to transform into the beast, gifting you its own unique moveset and a brand new health bar. These mechanics counterbalance what you lose when you die, not to mention that you get to keep your level and movesets earned from experience grinding. The consequences of death are sorely felt, especially if you’d wasted all your gold on a weapon or item that you just lost, but any grand sense of progression is not wholly damaged or destroyed. This is convenient considering how tedious level grinding can get. After a short while, randomly generated stages begin to lose their freshness seeing that it doesn’t really alter the experience significantly, bar relocating treasures and enemy spawns.
Although the game does feature platforming, this is a side-scrolling brawler before anything else, and the game’s fighting mechanics will take some time to master. The controls are quite basic and function similar to other 2D fighting games, most notably Super Smash Bros. – but like the aforementioned beat ‘em up, how you chain your offense and defense will determine your skill and success rate. You use the left analog stick for movement, the face buttons to execute your selection of attacks, and the shoulder and trigger buttons to perform block and dodge maneuvers. Gain experience and every three levels you’ll receive a skill point that you can put into your growing set of special moves. These special moves extend from ranged attacks to feet swipes, and useful bonuses can be applied to each one the further you level up. Moreover, all three characters sport a different fighting style, and for the sake of replay value, your level progression with one character does not transfer over to the other.
The monster AI is incredibly keen and nimble, relentlessly dodging your attacks and assaulting you from every direction without mercy. As incredibly satisfying as it is to chain combos on these ruthless foes, the gameplay can falter with occasional unresponsiveness. You’ll often find how imprecise the fighting mechanics can be, especially when changing the direction of your attacks and movement. It’s not uncommon to find yourself swinging your weapon opposite of the direction that you intended, leaving you open and defenseless to enemy strikes. Despite instances of input delay, it’s hard not to appreciate the potential of what’s on display here. Combat is fast, strategic, and most importantly, fun. Button mash your way through the Abyss, and you’ll be lucky to get past the first three stages without dying.
Aesthetically, Abyss Odyssey is brimming with surreal beauty and mystery. Like artwork in motion, ACE Team encapsulates the heart of its Chilean roots by embracing the mythology of its own culture. Strewn about the Abyss you’ll find eccentric characters like a guitar-playing skeleton who, for a small fee, will offer you sagacious advice, or a fiddle-playing demon whose intentions will spark your curiosity. Environments change in appearance as you trek deeper into the chasm, introducing new hazards from raging fire pits to poisonous plant life. You’ll find a system of caverns littered with treasures that are yours for the taking if you see to it. The most imaginative effort by far is the exotic bestiary, which is sprinkled with creatures that are both elegant and eerie by design. But in Abyss Odyssey, beauty is not without its blemishes.
Unfortunately, the game on PlayStation 3 does suffer from occasional frame rate drops with spurts of minor screen tearing. While it’s only negligible, it can be visually distracting, but it doesn’t encumber the experience. The heartbreaker is the game’s infrequent tendency to freeze up, which is hugely frustrating when you’ve already journeyed deep into the Abyss only to have to be forced to restart from the top. The game also sports local and online co-op, and while a worthwhile experience can be taken from it, the inconsistent camerawork can use some attention. Platforming with a friend can lead to a couple of good laughs before things get frustrating, especially when taking into account how inexact the controls can be.
Abyss Odyssey is an indie gem that’s beaming with potential, but begs for development attention. It is a bold dream with the few mishaps of a nightmare. The fighting mechanics are fun and impactful, but lack precision and fluidity. It will visually mystify you and musically excite you, soaking you with its culture and lore. It’s just unfortunate that with every step you take, the further its imperfections will taunt you. It tries to be a plethora of separate genres and doesn’t quite excel at any of them, but the result is something both compelling and challenging, albeit clunky and careless at moments. PS3 owners who look past the roadblocks are in for a treat, because the Abyss is stacked with layers and layers of risks and rewards – all there for the taking if the challenge is met.