July 15, 2015 6:30 AM | Joel Couture
There is a melancholy to the song in the Aqueducts area of Odallus: the Dark Call that perfectly captures the hopelessness of your task. The slow, steady rise and fall of the somber tune feels fitting as you face the monstrous men and women who've overtaken the land, their hearts given over to a sinister stone. It sows sorrow in the spirit as you comb the countryside looking for your missing son, finding no sign of him outside the castle that looms high on the icy mountaintop. It often becomes your funeral dirge as the creatures and hazards in this world bring you low, over and over again through Odallus' daunting challenges and long, winding levels. Striking and haunting, this song captures the dark spirit that drives one of the finest action games I've played this year.
Not all of Odallus' soundtrack carries the same hopeless sound as the Aqueducts, but a lot of thought has gone into making each track suit its level well. The theme for Glenfinnan is upbeat, pulling your heart into the action with Haggis' (the protagonist's) nervous energy and rage as he searches the burning town for his son. The Dark Forest contains a similar energy, but there's a hint of fear that slows down the pace of the song. It's still an energetic track, but I get this sense that danger is starting to close in. Devil's Peak gives this swelling sense of hope after the despair of the Aqueducts, as if the song is trying to motivate Haggis (and the player) through one of the game's more challenging areas. The music suits a certain emotional state for the game's stages very well, telling the player what is going through Haggis' head and conveying the story through music.
Many of the game's stages have an alternate route out of them that leads to another, much more difficult branch of the previous area. At first, I though they just used the same music for these secondary areas, but subtle changes in the tracks made them whole new songs. I was especially impressed with the changes to the Aqueducts area theme, which made the song much more complex while still building on the excellent base of the first track. Half of these areas do have their own tracks, like the Underground Temple and the Frozen Mines. Both of them have that same downcast sadness to them that suits the game so well, and overall round out a soundtrack that provides excellent music to explore Odallus' world. Plus the boss music is pretty sweet.
The music might hint that you're in a dangerous world, but the twisted monsters will clarify it. Wading in with knights and thieves, the game soon shifts to much stranger fare, with living, quivering mouths spewing gouts of poisonous gas and spike-covered, spider-like creatures lashing out with pointed tongues. Eschewing more traditional gothic monsters, JoyMasher has opted to create these mangled, almost alien monsters, many of which are unique to the stages they're in. There is an endless supply of these bloated, strange beasts, each with their own combat patterns and abilities. The danger you face throughout Odallus is almost always new, so you'll have to stay fluid to overcome each new challenge as it arrives.
It's not that easy to stay quick on your feet, as it takes a moment for Haggis to swing his sword. It's a split-second delay, but you notice it from the moment you take your first swipe at a monster. You also can't swing the sword in quick succession, and this delay is what adds to the game's challenge. Since many monsters take multiple hits, you can't just wade in and cut them to pieces. You need to swing, dodge, and then move in to attack again, creating a back-and-forth in combat that makes it interesting. You have to learn your monster, anticipate their attacks, and dodge them accordingly. You only ever have the one sword swing throughout the game, and that one move should get boring, but since you have to learn how to most effectively fight every single one of the many new monsters as they show up, combat never got tired. I never felt that I wanted more interesting moves because the speed of my swing meant the monsters set the pace of combat. The variance in their movesets kept things varied and fun.
You do have some extra weapons if you want more from combat. A throwing axe, torch, and spear provide a few more combat options, and also let you hit faster and further away than you could manage with your sword. They're handy backup for when something is hanging out of the way on a platform or just needs to be killed fast. The spear takes a bit of getting used to since it flies up before coming back down in a straight line, but otherwise these weapons are easy to use and help speed up combat when you're in trouble. You can only carry so many of each, though, so don't expect to spam secondary weapons whenever you like, though.
Some monsters are so adept in a fight that I felt I was better off running away, even with my arsenal of weapons. Some of them possess excellent defense, with limited windows when you can attack them. Some of the shield-carying monsters hit me more than the bosses, and I just found it easier to run away from them. This means using some of the neat mobility items you pick up throughout the game that let you glide, dash, and double jump. These are all pretty handy skills that you'll have no choice but to get used to thanks to the game's challenging terrain, and these skills transfer to combat. Well, avoiding combat. I appreciated that I could avoid monsters using the game's system just as easily as I could fight them, since there were some creatures I just flat out don't want to fight. Some games would use low clearance roofs or other tricks to force me to fight everything, but it's perfectly viable to just run from many of Odallus' stronger monsters. I liked that fleeing was often allowed as a combat option.
Those platforming abilities are well-hidden, though. Odallus' levels all spread out through multiple paths, branching out in different directions that lead to varied exits. Items that boost your health, damage, and item-carrying capacity are strewn throughout them, as are your abilities, so it helps to explore as you wander the countryside. Secrets are everywhere in Odallus' meandering maps, including exits to whole other (much more brutal) stages, so there is a huge payoff to those who like to really comb over the game world. The final stage and last boss won't open up until you find the hidden stages and beat their bosses, so you'll need to find at least a few secrets if you want to win.
These hidden stages provide a whole new level of challenge just as you feel the game is supposed to be winding down. I was feeling confident in my abilities when I beat the first four main stages, sensing I had the skills needed to finish the game. The new stages crushed those feelings of strength, showing me that JoyMasher was just getting warmed up with its challenges. You'll need every health power-up and armor piece if you want to survive these lands. Or far better reflexes than I have. Each of these new areas are huge, sprawling complexes with a lot of variety and seemingly endless extra paths. I really, really wish there'd been some sort of in-game map at this point in the game, since these levels are extremely complex for an action platformer. I'd pay to have someone create one of those huge, Nintendo Power-style maps of all the areas in this game right now.
They're wonderful lands to look at. A flaming city gives way to a forest at nightfall, leaves stained with shadows as you navigate paths overwhelmed with brambles. Your journey soon leads to moonlit aqueducts lined with broken columns and icy mountaintops buffeted by frozen winds, and beneath the surface of these places lurk bone-filled, living lakes filled with what look like living organs or underground ruins filled with the dead. The pixellated places and beasts within are all animated beautifully, moving with a smoothness despite their twisted bodies. JoyMasher also created some really nice background pieces that scroll by as you walk while also creating some great animations for all of its characters and monsters. The game's few cinematics look even better, with some truly stunning pixel work that makes the game's dark storyline come alive.
The game's story is interesting, but like the NES games that inspired it, doesn't infringe on the gameplay much. A short (and really, really nice-looking) cinematic plays at the start, the bosses say a little dialogue, and a few stone tablets tell you most of what you need to know of this world. It's enough to paint a bleak picture of what happened to the land and why Haggis has found himself in the situation. It's interesting enough that I almost wish they'd gone into it in more depth, but the vague hints at the story work well with the game. I don't often have a high opinion of story in an action game, but this one was pretty good, creating some neat concepts with very few words. This is how you tell a story without bugging action game players.
It will take some dedication to see Odallus: The Dark Call through. You'll have to face sickening monsters and explore deadly depths before you'll bring your son home. It feels balanced and worthwhile, though, with lots of stage and enemy variety to keep the gameplay engaging and challenging throughout. It's a land that is pretty in its bleakness, one whose mood is enhanced through melancholy chiptunes. It's everything I've been wanting in a dark action game for years, and now that it's out, all I want to do is spending time in the deep tunnels and decaying lands of Odallus.
Odallus: The Dark Call is available for $14.99 from the game's site, Steam, and GOG. 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.