Adventure Gamers Awards
Like Odysseus's legendary trip home after the Trojan war, Greek studio Crazysoft's The Odyssey HD is a rather shaky endeavour. With awkward, error-riddled English dialogues and hand-drawn character cutouts hopping about, the undertone of the experience wavers between hilarious and confounding. But the game rises above its petty niggles and glitches with the same tenacity that propels its hero past the sundry politics of assorted gods and through an obstacle course littered with mythic monsters. From the first multifaceted quest of this point-and-click adventure, its valiant effort at storytelling, characterisation and puzzle design strives against production annoyances, and eventually creates an enjoyable five hour romp through ancient Greece. What’s more, its colourful, jovial format might make the complex story more palatable to younger players – if they can persevere past the pixel-hunting and some poorly clued tasks.
The game adheres faithfully to the Homeric epic as it recreates The Odyssey. It starts with Odysseus held captive by the goddess Calypso on the island of Ogygia, and the first order of business is to build a raft so he can sail to Ithaca. This quest, comprising several mini-tasks, introduces gameplay elements far more effectively than the massacred English of the tutorial. Odysseus’s journey – till his raft is wrecked by his nemesis Poseidon, washing him ashore on the island of the Phaeacians – forms the first of three chapters. The second deals with flashbacks of his adventures since leaving Troy, which he recounts for Phaeacian king Alcinous, while the third covers his return to Ithaca to combat the 'suitors’ who have parked at his palace to marry his wife and are literally eating away his wealth.
Each chapter has a set of scenarios consisting of 1-3 screens apiece based on significant events like Odysseus outwitting Cyclops, navigating past Scylla and Charybdis, and escaping the Sirens. This journey veers from verdant Ogygia to the arid but colourful land of the Lotus Eaters and the ashen Hades, with many impromptu stops including the floating platform of the wind-god Aeolus and the haven of witch-goddess Circe. The broad objective of each scenario is chalked out at its beginning, after which there are a set of interlinked tasks to be accomplished by speaking to guest characters, gathering inventory items and solving logic- or coordination-based puzzles.
The highlight of the game is its intricate tasks, which belie its simplistic appearance. Odysseus has to build and repair things, get past gods, guards and monsters using strategy and stealth, and solve others’ problems in return for favours and items. Quests are designed in sync with location and mythology, and are tightly integrated with the story: Cyclops’s sheep are essential to the escape from his cave, the fig tree of Charybdis is used ingeniously, and Circe’s spiked wine is as interesting to make as it is to drink.
Though overall progress is linear, within a scenario tasks aren’t always sequential, so Odysseus can collect items or perform actions which only become relevant later. If you do the correct thing but ahead of time, you're told that you're on the right track. Objects are situation-specific and intuitively used, but slight twists add a bit of challenge to the mixing-and-matching. While the ingredients for Circe’s wine are quite easy to gather, the real challenge lies in deciphering which of the assortment of items to use and when. Assembling machinery by finding parts is generally not enough to start them; Odysseus must also learn the mechanism of operating them. You'll also need to work out how to efficiently swipe items, since you get only a few moments before distracted guards snap back to attention.
Standalone puzzles, though operationally simple, are creative and interesting. Odysseus has to deduce a navigation path using stars and asterisms, work a contraption to alter the course of winds, string a bow, and sometimes move items or people in logical steps. Some minigames are time-driven, such as steering moving vehicles through obstacle courses. None are difficult and can be mastered with a couple of attempts, but they provide a mild adrenalin rush. There is also an easy but slightly lengthy sound-based puzzle.
The controls are simple: left-clicking describes a hotspot – often in significant, hint-laden detail – while right-clicking interacts with it. Items aren't automatically added to the inventory since many have multiple usage options. For example, you can choose to either eat or gather a bunch of grapes from a vine. Sometimes the wrong choice leads to misusing an item, and some activities require multiple usages, in which case you can return for more. You can collect extra items only if your stock requires replenishment, a subtle but intelligent enhancement to the straightforward format. Collected objects – about three to five per scenario – are placed in the inventory occupying the right quarter of the screen alongside other utilities, and can be combined with onscreen hotspots or each other. The game encourages reuse of items, and doesn't gather superfluous clutter: if you have a sword, you don't need another sharp object to cut something.
Far less efficient is the design choice to use pop-up dialogue boxes for descriptions and interactivity. These must be manually clicked away to proceed, which is tiresome; more so since exhausted hotspots remain active till the end of a scenario. Particularly vexing are the pop-ups for single-purpose items, whose options are essentially 'use' and 'leave'. Hotspots are not labeled even when rolling the cursor over them, and smaller objects like stones require precision clicking with the large, round ‘look’ cursor, making it easy to miss them. There is no hotspot revealer either, which, combined with the pixel-hunting required, gives an old-school feel to the game, though it will frustrate modern-day gamers to hit such invisible roadblocks.
Another problem is that the game expects you to repeat certain actions, but doesn't explicitly say so. One task requires an action to be performed four times to get four different items with nothing to indicate this. Some quests demand out-of-the-box thinking, or lack adequate instructions. With so many variables – objects you may not have found, actions you may not have performed yet, and combinations of objects you may not have thought of – there is ample scope for getting stuck without a clue why, or what to do next. On the bright side, the abundant negative feedback – sometimes witty, usually snarky – is customised for almost every activity, even banal ones.
Points are given for all activities. Looking at things (including background objects) or asking relevant questions nets a point each, while solving puzzles earns you 2-9 points depending on complexity. The total is displayed onscreen and you can compare it with other high scores, but for some reason my final score wasn’t registered on the chart. You can have three parallel games on the go at any time, each with a single save slot. However, the one-click save exits abruptly to the main menu, and in another frustrating glitch, I could not reload my saved game despite the 'continuance' button, and was forced to start over.
The game offers three languages besides English – Greek, French and German, with the option to switch between them in-game in real time. While this inclusive effort at localisation deserves kudos, the English translation leaves a lot to be desired. The sentences verge on incomprehensible due to awkward construction, incorrect grammar (including he/she mismatches), atrocious spellings ('cerser' for 'cursor'), and misused words ('stroke' for 'struck', ‘sheep’ for ‘cows’). This wanton inaccuracy makes the heavy mythology, splattered with names and events, difficult to grasp, especially during the expository panel-style cutscenes. It often turns dialogues ridiculous as well, like when Odysseus's reaction to the beautiful Calypso wearing a 'diaphanous enough white dress' is 'yuk'.
Fortunately, robust characterisation saves the day. The guest cast has only momentary roles, but they're portrayed with panache. As a goddess, Calypso is elegant and bossy, but her unrequited love story is suitably poignant. Similarly, it is impossible to not empathise with the vicious but blinded and panicked Cyclops, or be exasperated with Odysseus’s loyal but frustrated crew. Odysseus talks to all characters, including his shipmates during their missions. Some interactions are trivial, but most offer detailed and critical information. The preset 3-5 dialogue choices per conversation may lead to further options, but the chats are not recorded, which is inconvenient if the characters are not available for a refresher later. The fourth wall is broken in quite a few places, especially with Odysseus's sheepish comments when he has to fit ridiculously large items into his 'pockets'.
The Odyssey is quite proud of its HD graphics, given its mention in the title. The slideshow-style hand-drawn screens appear almost primitive, with clean lines, vibrant colours and intentionally awkward perspectives, but they do include significant texture and detail, be it the gravelly beach of Ogygia or the subtly-frescoed wall of the Ithacan arena. Each character has a cartoony cutout image, which is initially very weird because 'turning around' means flipping this cutout horizontally, creating a mirror image, and 'walking' has the cutout hopping across the screen. The sheer oddness of an embrace between Odysseus and Calypso is sure to make you laugh; also unwittingly hilarious is Odysseus getting hypothermia.
Conversation animation is limited to the cutouts opening and closing their mouths like fish, though it's unclear why this was required as there are no voiceovers. Double-clicking onscreen areas or exits fades the cutout to that location. The sparse but appropriate background animation adds effects like waves lapping at beaches, fluttering flags and flames, visibly blowing wind, and fidgety animals. Though the art style feels juvenile, even jarring until you get used to it, over time it begins to blend with the ancient mythology to create the vibe of reading an illustrated, animated storybook.
Sound effects hark back to the days of tinny midi sound, which suits the simplified, two-dimensional graphics. There are a host of effects, like the splash of waves and the roar of the wind, but these are subtle enough to never irritate. Each scenario has one fairly pleasant music loop, usually Grecian in theme, and its tempo varies to suit location and mood, with a significant perk-up during the visit to the land of the Lotus Eaters. The sound and music are linked, and both must either be switched on or off, with no in-game volume control.
Available for download from the developer's website, or from the App Store for iOS, The Odyssey HD is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. It successfully wraps the epic saga around classic adventure quests and includes most key events and characters via lighthearted scripting and crisp scenarios. It takes care to humanise its cast, even the immortals, and invests time and effort to create intricate puzzles in line with the era and the story – in fact, the better you know the original poem, the more likely you are to enjoy the creativity of the quests. The graphics and sound are comical at first, but eventually augment the charm of a timeless tale told storybook-style. Yet despite the abundant dialogue, the game skimps on task-specific information, leading to some poorly-clued puzzles; in conjunction with the copious pixel-hunting, this adds unnecessary hurdles to otherwise reasonable objectives. The appalling English translation makes it difficult to understand the story even literally, and makes unravelling the sentences a quest unto itself.
Such drawbacks might deter the very audience this game would possibly appeal to the most – younger players who would otherwise enjoy the fun blend of puzzles and mythology. But those who do persevere, like Odysseus, will be rewarded with a short but engrossing adventure and the satisfaction of tasks well done. After all, The Odyssey was never about smooth sailing.