May 27, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
Evil rarely hides in action games. It looms high up on a hill in its castle, or sits, confident, atop an office building of shimmering glass, each floor filled with goons who would lay down their lives for their crooked paychecks. Still, you can usually just walk up to their front door and kick it in, if you're strong enough. The villains of JoyMasher's Odallus: The Dark Call are not prone to such overconfidence, and have hidden the keys to the castle in much more obscure places. Having played some early code of the game (which is coming very soon), I can see that secrets and hidden places are just as important to this dev team as the sword-swinging action.
I'm not totally clear on the motivations of the creatures of this land (this build did not have the story in it yet), but I do know that they like to hit me and I'm just not having that. A few swipes of your sword will keep most monsters at bay, but don't expect to just swing away. There is a timing to the protagonist's attacks, much like that of the whip in Castlevania, that needs to be factored in. You can't just whale away on your opponents as it takes a moment before you can swing again. Since most enemies take a few hits, you need to think about your attack timing before you go for that second hit. Our hero is a stick and move kinda guy, and it makes combat a thoughtful affair, even against the most basic enemies.
You can go for your sub-weapons if you get sick of that, though. You have an axe that flies straight out, a torch that sends fire along the ground, and a spear that has a very particular arc but does stupid amounts of damage. These help in moments where it's not always practical to fight something head-on (like bosses), but can only be carried in finite amounts. Enemies don't drop item pickups, either, so these weapons must be found in chests scattered around the levels or be bought from merchants. Currency isn't that hard to come by, but every time you buy something from the merchant, his price for that item goes up. You're better off trying to find a free option as often as you can.
There are a lot of gruesome, weird things you need to kill so you can make cash and, you know, stay alive. Beasts covered in sores and growths line your path, their torn skin quivering as they reach for you with dirty claws. There are the traditional gothic kind of monsters like undead knights and magical beasts that fit in with the medieval setting, but for every one of them, there's something that looks like it would be more at home in the alien-filled world of Contra. The game is an odd mixture of naturally-occurring beings (armed men, hostile plants, angry animals) and bizarre, twisted creatures that don't seem like they could ever belong to this world. The difference in designs, the cleanliness and simplicity of design in the more 'normal' foes and the gross, pained designs of the other monstrosities, really drove home that the bad guy's powers were actually polluting the land. Without a word of story, I knew what the last boss was doing to this world just through the variance in monster design.
With some effort, you'll fight your way to the villain's front door. Unfortunately, he's locked it, and despite collecting shards from several gut-churning bosses, you'll need to go back. Odallus seems short at first with its four main stages, but each stage branches out into multiple paths filled with secrets and alternate routes. If you've been treating the game like a simple side-scroller up until this point, you'll need to change up how you play. After having provided me with a few hours of action and fun, the game shifted, tasking me with really exploring the open stages and looking for hidden caves and paths I missed. This moment made everything about the game feel new again, as I was looking at each screen in a different way, being more interested in finding hidden goodies than of killing monsters.
The stages have a lot of depth to them, which made multiple trips interesting. It took a while to find the secret paths I needed to find, but with each discovery will come new weapons and tools that will open up even more routes, the game opening up in layers with each secret. It felt like a whole new game as I gained new gadgets and improved my character, and the effort involved in finding these things made me appreciate them more. Double jumping has become a staple in a lot of action games, a dumb add-on that I take for granted in most of the things I play, but Odallus made me feel that I'd earned a special power when I finally gained it. You put in so much work to find these things that it feels more special to be able to dash or breathe underwater. It feels good to find the game's secrets. Really good.
With those secrets come harder stages that will brutalize you despite how powerful you think you've become. Odallus is just a game that continually changes and opens up, at first showing its players a simple sidescrolling world and then steadily unveiling its secrets to the player. Action games have a tendency to be a straight route from the start to the final boss, with secrets peppered along the way for you to find if you feel like it. Odallus is a game of exploration disguised as simple action, demanding players search for its hidden toys if they intend to finish it. This makes play feel more rewarding and deep than just hacking up monsters (which is still dang fun).
Thoughtful combat and well-hidden, but necessary, secrets add a lot of joy to playing through Odallus: The Dark Call. Just when I thought the game was winding down, it had only just begun to show itself to me, and with some solid challenge, pretty locations, and gruesome foes, I was happy to keep going. Soon, I'll have some storyline to add into the sweet action, as the game is creeping along, coming very close to its release. In the meantime, there are still a lot of secrets hidden in Odallus' walls and beasts lurking in paths undiscovered. I still have work to do.
Odallus: The Dark Call is available for preorder for $14.99 from the game's site. For more information on the game and JoyMasher, you can go to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, Google +, and Twitter.
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