In summer 2014, Chilean developer ACE Team first released Abyss Odyssey for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC to mixed reception. The 2.5D Rogue-lite now returns a year later with Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition, packaged with all former DLC and boasting revamped graphics and additional content. As I never got a chance to play the original version, I was unable to compose comparisons between versions; however, I was able to dive into the palate with a clean palate and without expectation. What I found in the Abyss was a competent game with brilliant atmosphere but notably rough edges.
Gaping holes into “the Abyss” – a dungeon full of caverns, creatures, and treasure – open up like sink holes around a 19th-century Santiago, Chile. The military quickly discovers that the Abyss was created by the nightmares of a powerful Warlock. Soon enough, the first playable character, the rapier-slinging Katrien, appears, eager to destroy the gateway between the Abyss and the real world. She explains that she, like the various monsters that surface from the ground, was created from the Warlock’s memory and that she seeks to enter the Abyss and put an end to his dreaming.
And so, players must first journey into the Abyss as Katrien, surmounting about a dozen procedurally generated floors before encountering the Warlock on the final level. Getting there is a lot easier said than done. Players must navigate their descent through rooms organized horizontally and vertically into three columns and thirteen rows. A map found at the end of every level displays the layout of the floors and their details, such as difficulty and boss encounters. Difficulty ranges from “easy” to “hard” and is expressed by enemy AI’s attack and evasion skill in combat as well as the abundance of environmental hazards. Despite the difficulty rating, every room had potential to ruin your journey. Even the easiest of enemies managed to kill me whenever I attempted to autopilot through a level, making for consistent challenges that demanded my engagement.
Here is our stream of the 2014 PC version:
Abyss Odyssey is not easy. Characters gain experience to level up by defeating enemies and can pick up powerful weapons and items from merchants, chests, and fallen enemies. Upon death, all pickups are lost; however, characters will retain their level. Higher levels allow players to utilize more powerful weapons and unlock a roster of skills, of which three can be equipped at a time. However, a full library of skills and a high level doesn’t make the descent all that much easier. Even on level 28, I never one-shotted enemies, other than the occasional spider or flying fish environmental hazard, and still found nearly every victory to be hard-fought. Players must learn to take advantage of enemy tells, dodging, throwing, and blocking abilities, and environmental hazards to succeed. Add on Nightmare mode, accessible in single player and coop, that makes enemies hit harder and soak more damage, demanding near perfect performances during fights.
Mana can be collected through defeating enemies and utilizing skills. Once the mana meter is full, players can cast a spell to “capture” an enemy of similar or lesser strength (i.e. level); after struck by the spell, a creature drops a glowing coin which players can carry and use to transform into the same beast on the fly. Transformations have distinct health meters and movesets from hero characters and all play differently. While players have only three hero characters – Katrien, Ghost Monk, and Pincoya – to choose from, the ability to capture and play as enemies practically added an entire roster of characters to the mix, every one of which had unique characteristics and skills. One or two playable creatures had overpowered attacks that had too much potential for spamming: The Mummy mob had a projectile vomit ability that could be executed rapidly in succession, interrupt enemy attacks, and inflict poison damage. The fact that I was able to bring down several bosses as well as larger groups of mobs by simply spamming through their moves with projectile vomit should demonstrate that something didn’t fit quite right.
While I enjoyed the challenge posed by the game’s leveling and staging concepts, combat often felt unfair. Katrien felt slow to the punch in almost every battle. I felt as though she couldn’t execute her attacks or blocks quickly enough to counter most enemy types; Skeleton and Peacock Warriors are just two of a few opponents that consistently outpaced Katrien with their attack speed and frequency. I initially believed it was just part of the learning curve and that I just needed a better handle on combat. Then I unlocked the Ghost Monk. His two-handed sword skills felt swifter than Katrien’s and had a farther reach, so much so that the game was made easier. In fact, after several descents with Katrien, all of which progressed no further than level nine, I gained the impression that perpetual failure was just the nature of the game: like in FTL or Rogue Legacy, always just barely missing endgame. Then on my very first try with Ghost Monk, I made it all the way south and killed the Warlock without a problem. While I didn’t exactly measure or test the attack speed of either character, Ghost Monk just felt faster, stronger, and somewhat OP compared to Katrien all around.
This speaks directly to my first of my issues with Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition. Why doesn’t it run at 60fps on PS4? It was released on a weaker, 8-year-old platform over year ago and was allegedly upgraded for this next-gen console release. The game world looks decent and features detailed backgrounds but really isn’t graphically demanding, as compared to other PS4 titles, and shouldn’t be enough to drop the performance sub-30fps, as it often did. How can it run so poorly? The game’s fighting system plays similarly to Super Smash Bros. with a few classic-fighter elements thrown in. Having said that, a title of this genre absolutely needs to run at 60fps minimum. Otherwise, as demonstrated by Katrien being “slow-to-the-punch,” reactions become too sluggish and makes combat controls feel unresponsive. While I ultimately had a good deal of fun with the combat, getting a handle on the clunky controls felt like a compromise and, I imagine, most gamers won’t have as much patience with them, rightly so.
Characters and enemy NPCs have a limited however versatile range of ranged and close-quarters attacks, throws, dodges, and blocks to work with. Once your character is defeated, you’re granted control of a nameless soldier who, while weaker and less nimble, can revive hero characters by finding his way to a shrine, one of which is typically found in every-other level. This mechanic was pretty original and added a fun, wildcard element to the permadeath typical of Rogue-esque titles.
Players can take their questing online to seek help or aid others in drop-in cooperative play. The online community was meager at best and I occasionally experienced difficulties connecting to hosts; however, once connected, my online sessions ran without a hitch. The option of local co-op drop-in with a friend was a great feature and definitely a must for the game’s play style. I’d nearly forgotten I owned a second PS4 controller and it felt good to dust it off for some shared screen dungeon crawling. Multiplayer VS mode, however, has a way to go. It mode allows for up to four player matches populated by players and/or AI. However, the online community was virtually nonexistent and made the feature feel unusable. As the mode allows for local play and the inclusion of AI fighters, I was able to enjoy a few matches in this nice addition. While unessential, it’s a decent feature added by the devs between versions and just one of many items packing AO with content.
Between equippable weapons and items, unlockable characters and enemies, hidden in-game areas, and the variety of modes, the game is packed with content that adds a tremendous amount of replayability. AO could’ve stopped short, giving players a few playable heroes, a basic skill tree, and a dungeon and still been competent. Instead, ACE Team went an extra dozen miles to bring players enough usable unlocks and meaningful variety to make every trip into the abyss different and rewarding. I found myself suffering from mild addiction after only two attempts. Really.
AO successfully made me feel as though I was playing through a Guillermo del Toro film or an account of Castaneda’s fluid dreams by blending hazy but colorful visuals with dark, authentic writing. From time to time, enemies will drop pages to the Warlock’s Journal. Collecting the pages slowly assemble into a written narrative, accessible from the game’s collectibles menu, that portrays a young Warlock witnessing mystical occurrences and eventually taking up magical studies. The entries are extremely well written in a romantic prose that gives the background story great vitality. It could’ve simply been my adoration for magical realism but the pages motivated me to collect them all, as I felt they were key to immersing me in the universe – something I wouldn’t say for most other games that rely on journals to story-tell.
Scattered throughout the procedurally generated dungeon were several unique NPCs and events that really brought the game’s lore into action. The Jackal – a guitar playing skeleton wearing a poncho – offers up words of wisdom and XP in exchange for a small donation. The Niccolò Paganini-inspired Demon Violinist, aptly named “Paganini,” appears as a passive NPC and offers up treasure, a skill, or item in exchange for your permission to be hunted by him later along your journey. A large golden fountain, built as a monument to the mythological Pincoya, appears once in every dungeon and can be used to cast a monetary charity; donating enough gold will unlock Pincoya (a spear wielding water spirit) as a playable character. A “dream catcher” bonus level occurs every so often wherein players are given control of a random monster character and must battle their way through the wave of mobs. Fail to do so and you’ll simply return to playing as your hero character; better your foes and you’ll be given the ability to transform back and forth between your hero and newly unlocked monster for the remainder of your descent.
AO’s watercolor visuals and music perfectly tuned into its lore perfectly. Elegant musical passages gave environments a chamber-like depth. Whether inspiring suspense or panic, dynamic musical cues triggered by boss battles and special enemy-types were eerie and could dramatically alter the mood. Character sound effects like slashes and hacks were decent but fell slightly beneath the bar of the music production. Environments and backgrounds were a splendor – colorful and detailed – and took advantage of the Unreal Engine 3’s capabilities; the 2.5D world truly looked like it extended beyond the limits of the levels. Character models were reasonably detailed, decently animated, and really highlighted the designer’s beautiful Nouveau Art-inspired visual concepts. Despite their balancing issues, I found the design and personality of each of the three main playable heroes to be truly memorable and dissimilar to most characters and classes typically portrayed in dungeon runs.
Abyss Odyssey: Extended Dream Edition isn’t a game changer or a knockout. It is, however, much more than it needed to be. Its mostly competent gameplay, abundance of playable characters and unlockables, and online co-op, VS, and Nightmare modes make for a complete package well worth the $14.99 price tag. I really admire the effort and love the devs put into the title and greatly enjoyed my time with AO; however, I do recognize that some may be too put off by the game’s frame-rate issues and control to begin to enjoy everything the game has to offer. Were the combat more accessible and responsive, I’d call it a must for your pick-up-and-play, coop collection. Given its shortcomings, it’s a toss-up; however, I definitely foresee myself descending into the mouth of the Abyss again soon.
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