Offbeat Chilean studio ACE Team follows cult hit Zeno Clash with another colourful collision of gameplay styles.
It's a sad testament to the state of modern game design that the larger publishers can essentially reskin familiar mechanics with different characters and then pat themselves on the back for being brave enough to launch "new IP" onto the market.
At first glance, Abyss Odyssey, the latest oddball creation from Chile's ACE Team, developer of Zeno Clash, risks falling into a similar trap. This is a game very clearly made up, Frankenstein-style, from already popular genres. Yet you only need to look at the list of reference points I scrawled in my notebook to see that this is no mere photocopy job.
Prince of Persia. Trine. Street Fighter. The Binding of Isaac. Spelunky. Kirby. Somehow, Abyss Odyssey manages to feel like all of these wildly different games at the same time, and still has a distinctive style all of its own. "Roguelike platformer fighting game" is probably the closest you'll get to a soundbite summation of its intent.
A gigantic hole has opened up in the ground. At the bottom, the Warlock dreams, and his dreams infect reality. Brave soldiers attempt to reach the bottom of this labyrinthine chasm, but aren't up to the task. That instead falls to a trio of unlikely heroic avatars: Katrien, an agile fighter who wields a shortsword; the Ghost Monk, who is larger and slower, but deals more damage with his two-handed greatswords; and La Pincoya, an elemental goddess who carries a spear. You unlock each of these characters as you progress through the game, and can enhance each with a parade of special moves.
You explore the beautifully crafted caverns with the jumps and ledge-grabs of a platformer, but enemy encounters owe more to one-on-one fighting games. There are no long-winded inputs to remember, but rather an emphasis on mastering blocks, cancels and counters, and using your simple but effective moveset to build up devastating combos. Along the way you'll find crates, chests and jars filled with gold, and shopkeepers who will sell you more powerful weapons and items - though the prices are steep and you'll have to save up across multiple games to buy the really cool weapons.
Over time you also unlock three entrances to the abyss. The first offers a longer but easier route. The last will get you to the bottom in half the levels, but with a much steeper difficulty curve. Each time you restart the game, the levels are shuffled and reworked, so you never get the same journey twice.
But then getting through the stages doesn't take long. Once suitably leveled up and experienced in the ways of fighting, you can easily reach the Warlock in less than an hour. This is a game designed to be replayed over and over. To that end, there's an asynchronous multiplayer aspect: the more players beat the Warlock, the quicker his mask disintegrates on the loading screen and the faster the game will unlock additional content.
That quirky flourish is typical of a game that is so full of curious ideas that it would be easy to turn this review into a simple bulletpoint list. Take, for example, the fact that every enemy in the game can be captured and used as an alternate character. Build up your Mana and you can use it to tag an enemy. Once defeated, you can collect its soul and then swap to its form with a downstroke on the d-pad. There are 34 enemy types, each with their own distinct fighting styles, and you can while away hours in the training room learning the nuances of each.
As you'd expect from ACE Team, these aren't just bland ninjas or goblins. There's a crane-like bird-thing called a Voladora; a gigantic bull known as Camahueto; the half-horse creature Pudutaur; and a towering colourful creature aptly called the Peacock Warrior. Each will go from being the bane of your life to being your saving grace once you win their soul. There are yet more characters that can only be unlocked by beating special nightmarish dream levels where you fight waves of enemies using unfamiliar forms.
Even death is innovative, in its own way. Should your main character die, control swaps to a human soldier who vows to avenge them. If you can get this character - slower, weaker and less agile as he is - to a special altar, you can resurrect your hero.
Yet for all its lush visuals and boundless imagination, Abyss Odyssey can also be a clumsy and frustrating thing. Very little is explained, for one thing. In certain instances, that's not a problem. The sense of discovery as you work out the game's peculiar systems is well earned. Yet this also means that core concepts that are essential to successful play are too easily missed, leading to a steep and confusing learning curve that will be off-putting to many.
There's also the sense that in straddling so many genres, the game has spread itself a little thin. The fighting mechanics are fine for what they are, but they lack the precision and grace needed to truly work as intended. The exploration, too, is ever so slightly clunky, with leaps meant to take you to higher platforms leading to awkward wall-hanging instead. There's nothing disastrous, just enough rough edges to make the bizarre mash-up being attempted a little more successful in concept than execution.
That's when the game isn't breaking completely, as it unfortunately did multiple times for me. This seems to be particularly prevalent when sampling co-op play, as the engine visibly strains to cope, characters drop through solid floors and the camera has a tendency to get stuck in disorienting, juddering loops. That's if you can find a co-op partner who'll stick around long enough. Thanks to the game's opaque introduction, the defaulting to "friendly fire" damage and the fact that you might very well be playing as an enemy character, too many new players seem to fumble around for a few minutes, flailing wildly, before quitting in confusion.
And yet if Abyss Odyssey stumbles, it at least does so while attempting a genuinely thrilling, high-wire juggling act of game design rather than simply milking obvious and proven gameplay features. For all its missteps, it remains utterly unique, absolutely gorgeous and delightfully eccentric. If you can stick around long enough to understand what's going on and what's expected of you, and make your peace with Abyss Odyssey's slightly over-reaching nature, you're left with a game that more than repays your patience.