ACE Team sure love their oddball games. From first person brawling in Xeno Clash to the tower defense meets demolition derby Rock of Ages, they've certainly done their best to get some notice. Their latest title, Abyss Odyssey, continues this trend by combining aspects of Dark Souls, roguelikes, and Super Smash Bros. Unfortunately, it also remains an equally niche title due to some questionable design choices and balancing. Those who squirm or scream at unforgiving games be warned, this one will test your patience, and not always in a good way.At its best, Abyss Odyssey is like Dark Souls as made for fighting game fans. The game moves like a floaty, Castlevania-esque 2D sidescroller, but hits like Smash Bros. and a small hint of Injustice: Gods Among Us. Your choices feel tactical even if they are limited, and the focus is more towards accessibility over complexity. At its worst, it feels like an overly cheap roguelike that thinks that horrible design ideas that would never fly with modern gaming. Things we outgrew like excessive friendly fire in co-op, bosses that can spam attacks that steam roll you without more than a millisecond to respond, and assuming every person who owns your game has a controller. Well, no, it seems like that last one remains a mystery to even some developers today besides ACE Team.
The game is built heavily around the idea of co-op. The HUD constantly reminds you that a person could join your game either locally or online. The boss fights are clearly built with multiple players in mind. The enemy count even favors playing with a partner. Yet this core focus of the game is not working properly. My first time playing the game was in co-op, and I was lagging worse than if I was trying to play the game on Windows 95. Servers are underwhelming and frustratingly hinder any chance of proper online co-op. Enemies respond far faster than you can as a result, and I was nearly to the point of tossing my keyboard aside until I started a solo game. You can't simply launch a game with such laggy servers if online play is a feature you emphasize every time the player even chooses to start a game. I've heard from another reviewer that for some, the lag has improved, but there still remains a fair amount of tweaking needed before it becomes workable. As such, the rest of my time with the game had to be played solo.
As a solo roguelike brawler, it works. The combat can be frantic and exciting at times and the platforming can be mildly satisfying. Some sections like ice levels can really change the flow of battle thanks to the traps and ice patches giving you both an advantage and disadvantage against certain enemies. The levels are all randomly generated, giving a bit more replayability, even if they all start to feel same-y outside of their environmental design and biome-specific hazards. Sometimes the game throws a curveball at you like a violin playing demon who will give you an item if you'll fight him later, or a secret merchant hidden behind a wall, but overall every playthrough is going to feel highly similar. Drop into a level, pray that you'll find a new weapon for the class you are actually playing as that isn't weaker than your current one, kill enemies, break chests to find gold, talk to merchant, buy health potions and enemy souls, use enemy soul to transform into enemy when you are low on health, use health potions when necessary or near boss fight, either kill boss or die and have a soldier take your place to either die or beat the boss and ressurect you in the next level, and REPEAT.
There is still a fair amount of complexity going on so despite being repetitious. There are some unpredictable variables. Maybe you'll have enough gold to buy the Peacock's soul and plow through enemies left and right with his spear. Maybe you'll kill the boss and earn enough experience to level up, restoring your health. Maybe you'll get a bonus stage to play as an enemy to unlock their soul for free. ACE Team does have an intriguing direction to go with this whole soul system, as it lets you play as virtually any enemy, and there's even a third way to unlock souls. Rather than having your Mana be used to power your special attacks, it instead allows you to unleash a super move that can convert weak enemies into collectible souls. This is defined both by your level and how weakened your enemies are, but a number of times it turned out to be quite handy. The only problem I found was that the super attack moves so slowly that one enemy literally just walked away from it. They didn't skillfully dodge it, they didn't run away from it, they just walked off as if I had insulted them.
"But are they even fun to play as?" you ask. Yes, yes they are, as they've all been built like fighting game characters. Each one has three special moves you perform by pressing up, down, left, or either right or left (that just changes the aiming for the horizontal move), as do your regular characters, and they all fight differently. A fire zombie is a lot of baiting and juggling enemies with timed attacks. A skeletal warrior is more fast paced and aggressive. A tree golem clobbers people into dust with slow, wide swipes. Not every enemy will fit your playstyle, but there's pretty much someone for everyone. They seem so well designed that you just have to wonder why ACE Team never considered adding in some sort of invasion mechanic like in Dark Souls and Resident Evil 6. The game's current versus mode is a PC exclusive, local only 2 vs 2 mode, and while you can select from everyone you've unlocked, it just seems sort of weird to have a four player local game on PC. At most, PC gamers have one controller for their PC, but the developers apparently expected there would be a number of PC gamers with four of them that are ready for an experience they can already get on their Wii and/or Dauphin emulator with Wiimotes?
What's even more inexplicable about this weird yet still nice gesture to PC users is that the game seems averse to the very inclusion of keyboard and mouse. Default control inputs for everything are shown in Xbox 360 Controller prompts, and the only way to know what your PC controls actually do is by going into the input options where you can rebind keys. For some reason it was easy enough to design an exclusive game mode for PC, but too hard to recognize what kind of controls a person is using? Some controls didn't even seem to respond to my keyboard and mouse, due to being bound to multiple keys instead of one like the 360 controls are. It doesn't matter if the game prompts you to use your special attack button to actually see what stats an item has, as it's now been scripted to V, which to my memory does nothing else other than be used to give you more information on items. You can't just do this and expect no one to notice, there is an audience of PC gamers who play fighting games on PC specifically because of better performance and customizable control schemes on a keyboard. Another glaring issue -- there is no mouse pointer or controls in any of the menus. The only time you can use your mouse other than in combat is in your inventory, and it doesn't even have a mouse pointer so its relatively useless as an inclusion. It just is headscratching why so much effort was made to craft a unique bonus mode on PC when blatantly obvious necessities were overlooked. Navigating a menu with a mouse point shouldn't be hard, and if you don't want any mouse use, then why script primary attack, special attack, and block to the three main mouse keys? It would have been better to go all keyboard by default, or support mouse users fully.
The problems don't stop there as boss design, as I said, was built for co-op. This is mainly due to having a co-op partner being the only way to stop certain bosses from spamming attacks. If you're in a one on one fight, bosses can juggle you to hell and there's very little you can do about it. You can try to dodge or turtle your way out of a lock but once they smash you into a corner, you might as well stop playing and go grab yourself a drink. When bosses and even a few certain enemy types aren't abusing stun lock on you, you'll find often that the best course of action is to then stun lock them. If you can get a feel for the controls, arguably you could go all Devil May Cry and focus on skillful blows and dodging, but the average gamer is just going to figure out that the 360 spin sword attack is going to do a hell of a lot more damage on average than a carefully timed hilt smack. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to compensate for FOO Strategies, other than by simply giving almost every character their own FOO Strategy. The Peacock's lunge forward stab. Katrien's 360 spin attack. The Skeletal Warrior's four hit charge that can't be interrupted by enemies. These moves just work so well, I rarely saw them ever get countered, whilst more strategic moves like an airborne fireball juggle or an upwards stab of the sword require far more specific timing and skill, and in co-op a prayer the server will even detect it right, that you'll often times fail long before you get the hang of them. The gap of play between basic strategies and the high concept play is disappointingly large, as there's a lot of love shown for those who dig into the mechanics, it's just that those rewards are out of reach for the average gamer. There are some more than decent ideas to combat this, like the ability to swap out and upgrade your special moves and being able to purchase the ability to have several soldiers try to get you to a resurrection point instead of just a single soldier, but the balancing issues cut the game off at its knees. It makes it too easy to feel like you're cheating the way through when you use these moves, and it makes the game feel too hard when enemies abuse these moves against you, especially when you try to not use them. I sincerely hope ACE Team is patching a rebalance as I write this.
Lastly, in an attempt to unify the community beyond regular co-op, there is apparently a total player base progression for the game. As players beat the final boss, signs of change will happen the game world, permanently morphing levels and how the Warlock encounter goes. What's unclear is how this will payoff, as right now the system isn't evident and there's no way of knowing without waiting weeks, if not months, to see how it'll pan out. Worse still is that this means both early and late adopters will miss certain content. If an enemy or boss fight is pulled from the mix for something different, then you'll never have had a chance to play as them after collecting their soul. If new content unlocks weeks down the line, then new players get what took early adopters days worth of grinding to get. It's a novel idea, and I like the sound of it, but the current execution is impossible to read in a timely manner most reviews are made. Even if this were an MMO, the amount of time it could potentially take isn't doing its player base any favors. A lot of people just don't have that kind of patience, and while Atlus is great at publishing games like Abyss Odyssey that are niche, niche also only gets you so far when you're a multiplayer game. Still, I could be wrong and it COULD be a huge payoff that will endear fans to the experience. I don't think any reviewer will really get a chance to see any sign that this system is active before their review is written, save for a notable chunk of rock missing from the Warlock's stone face facade at shrines, progressively getting worse as he is slain more and more. As of this writing, that's all I've seen happen.
I hate having to be so hard on Abyss Odyssey, because there's so much I like about it in concept. I like the idea of applying fighting game concepts to an action brawler RPG, but the balancing just needs such reworking. I like the idea of a semi-randomized game that has some consistency, but the game is a little too predictable at times. I like the idea of a roguelike with a story, but in Abyss Odyssey's case, the story is both nonsensical and boring all at once, save for a few side characters like the demon violinist and skeleton guitar player. I love the idea of a game trying to imbed itself in a fantasy based on a cultural lore over stereotypical fantasy, but I don't know what's going on because there's no attempt to inform me about the lore. The game's story just treats it as granted without giving such a wide array of characters their proper screen time and identity other than the three main protagonists and the Warlock. The backstory presented via collectible pages just reads dully despite involving witchcraft, transforming into creatures, and a romance, all told in an old school third person narrator style. That's a rare style to read something new in, but it reads with the self-reluctance of someone reading aloud a fifth grade history paper. Regardless, this is a game, and only a percentage of your audience will take the time to read your backstory, so devoting most of the exposition and plot to an optional collectible... not a very good plan.
Every step I take towards something I like comes with a very big "but...", except for the voice acting and art direction. The voice overs are superb, and yes, a certain voice from Bastion has a cameo role. Despite the lines not always being the best written, they are delivered convincingly enough that you can look past it. Atlus always delivers when it comes to proper localization as well, and there are at least thankfully no "Jill Sandwich" eye rollers. The art is arguably even better though, as ACE Team has out done themselves in this respect. Everything looks fantastic, the 2D images for in conversations look like something out of a storybook, and the 3D models both look great (and a lot like their 2D drawings) and are animated spectacularly. The gothic overtones and distinctive monster design really help the game stand out visually, and it's saddening some won't see it all because of all the gameplay problems.