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12 March 2016 @ 11:57 am
Game Review: Odallus: The Dark Call  
Like so many of the indie games I'm familiar with, I heard about Odallus through Rock Paper Shotgun. After playing Dark Souls last year, I was really interested in more games that recaptured that kind of feeling and Odallus seemed like it had a similar aesthetic. The Rock Paper Shotgun review that I read said:
Death comes swiftly but there’s no insta-gibbing and it definitely always felt like my fault. Lovely sense of exploration too.
...and since those are two of the major high points of Dark Souls for me, I put it on my wishlist and bought it during one of the Steam sales. When I got stuck in Gabriel Knight and was sick of talking to everyone about everything and clicking every item on everything, I booted up Odallus on a whim and got sucked in pretty quickly.

It's no Dark Souls, though.


I know that feel, bro.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's bad. But the connections that Odallus have to Dark Souls are mostly that they draw some inspiration from the same sources--Castlevania and Miura Kentarō's Berserk. From the former it has subweapons, which you can use with Up + Attack if you want the real old school feel, as well as lots of exploration, multiple routes, and the basic color palette and aesthetics. From the latter it draws its grimdark view of the world, where most of the bosses you fight are former humans who used talismans to transform themselves into abominations for power. The monster design especially is fantastic, with most of the monsters you find having some kind of humanoid element like drooling faces or out-of-place hands to tell you that this thing that's trying to kill you was once a man.

You can see the major old-school platformer influence in the DLC on sale. There are three outfits available: the vampire hunter, the royal knight, and the red gargoyle. You can probably guess where those come from.

Unlike Shovel Knight, which felt like a modern game done with 8bit aesthetics--and I mean that in the best way possible, since Shovel Knight is a fantastic game that you should absolutely play if you like platformers even a little bit--Odallus feels much more like something that could have actually come out on the NES. I have no idea if it has the proper technical specs to fit on an NES cart, but the color choices, the controls, the level selection, the level design--all of it feels like it belongs with the better NES platformers.


A lovely night for a boat ride.

I was definitely worried about the controls before I started playing, but it turned out that most of my worry was needless. While it's true that Castlevania's jump arc and slight delay before whipping are deliberately designed to require some thought from the player so they can't just rush through levels without much thought, I don't actually like it that much. Odallus gives you a bit more control over your character--you can control your jump arc, for one--but without the stop-on-a-dime breakneck pace of Mario. Attacks still have a slight delay, but part of that is because there are weapon upgrades for the sword spread throughout the levels, one of which lets you attack faster.

It's not the only upgrade. Odallus isn't quite a Metroidvania since the game is divided into distinct levels, but there's a lot of finding upgrades like the metroidvania-classic double jump or the ability to breathe underwater or dash and then backtracking to previous levels to open up new levels or find more secrets. Without that, the game would be maybe 30 minutes long, which I guess is also in the tradition of NES platformers. At least the extra time comes from finding new verbs that let you open up new areas instead of being bastard hard so that you can't beat it without memorizing all of the patterns.

Well, until the last boss. More on that later.


It's dangerous to go alone.

And that backtracking is where the game turned out most unlike Dark Souls, because I think I ended up shortcutting a big portion of the challenge by sequence-breaking through bullheadedness. See, you have lives that let you respawn in a level, and the level state is persistent between lives. Doors stay open, blocks stay moved, and so on. Run out of lives and you have to continue from the beginning instead of at a save point and only certain areas stay open. This usually works really well, since it means that if you're doing one of the various block-moving puzzles a single death just means that you have to go from a save point back to wherever you left the blocks rather than restart the whole thing every time.

In one level, there's a puzzle that's underwater. The actual puzzle is simple, just requiring that you break some blocks in the ceiling and push the block that falls onto a switch, but the distance is long enough that it's impossible to do in a single attempt. It is, however, possible to do it in two or three lives, which is what I did. I pushed the block as far as I could, then finished it the next time and grabbed the double jump upgrade before getting the Siren's Scale that lets you breath underwater or the dash ring. That made several of the other levels I did significantly easier.

That kind of persistence through death is pretty much the anti-Dark Souls. On the other hand, that's the price of freedom. Being able to wander everywhere in at your own pace and discover secrets in any order leads to the possibility of unexpected interactions, but that's part of what makes them fun. And Odallus provides plenty of reason to poke around, between finding the relics, extra heart pieces, runestones that help tell the backstory, and backpacks that let you carry more subweapons.


Guy's got a whole bandolier of backpacks.

The story is passable. The depressed guy in the top screenshot is Haggis of Glenfinnan, who's out on a hunting trip and comes back to find the town in flames and his son Amargein missing, so it makes it his mission to murder his way across the land in search of him. Along the way, he runs into a bunch of monsters that may or may not be former humans, fight people who seem to have a grudge against him for some inexplicable reason, and learns the truth about the Odallus, why his village was attacked, and what exactly is going on.

Well, not exactly what's going on. Part of it is because the story leaves some room for interpretation, but I think part of it is because the writers aren't native English speakers. They didn't need to hire translators but there were occasional moments where the writing was a bit strange. And there were a lot of references snuck in. I can appreciate a good Dune or Blade Runner reference as much as the next nerd can, but if I'm trying to immerse myself in a fantasy world, I don't like a lot of real-world references that work to pull me out of it, even if the story is as sparse as a typical NES story. The shorter story length just means that that references take up a larger portion of it.

There's an especially obvious moment in what's supposed to be a tragic scene near the end that basically ruined any possible emotional impact I could have gotten from it. I'm not sure how moved I would have been without the movie quotes, but I can tell you that with them I wasn't moved at all.


Behold my true form and despair.

I mentioned the final boss above, and that's because it's the only area where I really think the game falls down. It's not that it's unpredictable, though I had a lot of trouble with the timing of the sword attacks in the first two phases. It's not that there are three phases with no healing in between. It's not that it represents a large difficulty spike over any previous boss in the game. It is definitely the combination of all of those, though.

Through most of the game, no particular challenge took me more than two or three tries, and then the final boss took a dozen. I suppose the designers wanted the game to go out with a bang, but I kind of felt like it wasn't properly preparing me for what was to come. The other boss fights had taught me that I could take a few hits in order to get some more damage in, but trying to do that on the final boss will probably result in you getting comboed half to death and hurled across the room by its knockback. You have to do a ton of dodging and running all over and take your hits when you can get them, which isn't an invalid approach to boss design but isn't anything like the other bosses.

I ended up winning by using the final armor's special power to do item crashes. The axe hurls you across the screen in a lunging slash, the torch makes you invincible and puts a flaming shield around you, and the spear is basically hydro storm except not nearly as good. I used the torch shield in phase one and a bunch of spear rains in phase three and won with a quarter heart left. I'll take it. And I'm happy it's not the only valid approach--I looked around online and found people winning in various ways, like using the axe lunge to beat phase one and the torch shield to get in hits in phase three, or not using secondary items at all. So it's not quite as bad as I made it sound.

The image above is not the final boss, by the way. I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.


This is an accurate hint, but...

The whole game took me about five hours, but that's because I went back and scoured every level until I found all the items and all the runestones that have the story bits on them. If you only killed the bosses and grabbed the items necessary to win, you could probably beat Odallus in about an hour or so. Or if you're a better boss-killer than I am. It took me probably forty minutes of that five hours to kill the final boss, and another thirty minutes to kill the boss that came right before it. That does replicate the Castlevania experience, though, with Death and Dracula. And I just realized that the other boss that gave me so much trouble had a skull for a face and hurled spinning spiked chains around that, from a certain point of view, are pretty similar to scythes. Hmm...

That sums up my opinion, really. If you love old sidescrolling Castlevania games, pixel graphics, and dark fantasy manga, you'll really like Odallus. If you look askance at those but still want to play a platformer, then get Shovel Knight. It's less overtly old school and the music is better.
 
 
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