You are minding your own business, cruising through the Caribbean, when you hear a scratchy distress call over the radio. A young girl is begging you to come to the rescue of her family, part of a scientific expedition now trapped by treasure-seeking sailors on the Wretched Islands. And so begins your Odyssey, which will see you searching throughout these rocky volcanic isles, finding hints as to what has happened, and reading extensive material about astronomy and physics. The informational aspect dominates the story and exploration, which means that gamers who like to study physical phenomena will enjoy this game much more than will those pure dilettantes hoping to learn a bit of fun science while playing what turns out to an unfinished video game.
Odyssey, developed by The Young Socratics and funded by a Kickstarter campaign with the tagline “The Next Generation Science Game,” is unabashedly educational. I played many edutainment titles back in the 1990s and early 2000s when first-person Myst-style games like Astronomica and Physicus were popular. I haven’t seen any more in this particular style for at least a decade, however, so it was with great expectation of a game that might lead to a resurgence in environmental discovery, science-based puzzles, intriguing plotlines and educational content that I dipped into Odyssey.
The young woman you’re trying to rescue is Kai Rao, who came to the Wretcheds with her archaeologist father, her civil engineer mother, her brother Sid, and their guide. Kai is a scientist in the making, sporting a ravaging curiosity and a love of building experimental models with “found” junk. According to her own chronicle, as her father set up his dig, Kai gazed at the Caribbean skies and asked about the history of astronomy. She was thrilled by Mars’ retrograde motion, got too excited to go to sleep after realizing that Jupiter has moons, and fell down in the dumps at the discovery that Copernicus’ model requires epicycles. Yes, Kai is not your average 13-year-old.
All of the game’s story, character development, science, and puzzle clues appear in Kai’s diary, which is more than 250 pages long. You discover these entries a few at a time. Most of the pages contain a mere paragraph or two, along with a cartoon-like illustration or photograph. Still, this is a LOT of reading (the diary entries are not voiced). Plot details intrigue at first, but as you progress the vast majority of information turns to straight history and science, albeit written from the perspective of a young teen. The writing is clear enough for a layperson to understand, but won’t win any prizes for dazzling descriptive engagement. Cramming encyclopedic facts into a personal diary doesn’t work well here – in my opinion, edutainment games that provide separate in-game links to reference material do a better job of teaching it. Data necessary to solve each conundrum is highlighted in yellow in Kai’s diary, so you could technically play the entire game just for this and skim right over the story and physics. But if you did, you’d quash one of the main reasons for playing Odyssey.
Controlled from the first-person perspective, you use the keyboard for movement and pan with the mouse. Odyssey does not contain a hotspot highlighter, though it’s usually fairly apparent when you can interact with something. (A major exception occurs late in the game, which led to intense frustration and, finally, reference to a walkthrough.) The game also includes a small inventory, whose item uses are also generally obvious. Your progress is recorded via autosave only, often immediately after you pick up new diary pages.
The environments encompass sunlit rocky islands (including one that’s intricate, almost maze-like), wooden huts, towers, a dark grotto, and an underground area where lava bubbles. An aura of mystery prevails throughout, especially while exploring the remnants of a WWII base left abandoned here for decades. Immersion as you explore is aided by the realistic use of light and shadow, with random mist drifting by. Though the scenery is lovely, the graphics aren’t quite as sharp as other 3D locales I’ve experienced recently: the rock surfaces up-close are sometimes pixelated, while the leaves on bushes are unrealistically thin, moving stiffly in the breeze. Sometimes as I explored, trees in the distance would suddenly pop up on the horizon. You’ll hear the buzz of generators spewing fumes, you can watch and listen to waves lapping against the rocks, and hear the chittering of bugs. The background score includes deep, mournful strings and chant-like vocals that suit the atmosphere but become repetitive if you linger. One of my favorite moments occurred while zooming down a zipline, a whiz-bang ride celebrated by joyful orchestral music.
As you wander about, you will find all of Kai’s experiments, which were set up with the help of her family to aide in her discovery of astronomical phenomena. These have all been turned into defensive mechanisms against the invading sailors, so that each must be solved, adjusted to the right pattern, or tuned to a specific point described in Kai’s diary so that a door will open or a key item will be uncovered. (Kai explains in her distress call that the pirates don’t seem intelligent enough to solve all her science projects, though she hopes her rescuer will be able to.) For the second half of the game, you gain access to a new island, and this one is so full of pathways that (until you figure out how everything is linked) it can be confusing. I mapped it all first, then as I started solving the puzzles, realized that actually I hadn’t needed to do all that mapping. Still, I was glad to have my bearings so thoroughly established before taking on the conundrums.
The challenges in Odyssey, which range in difficulty from easy to quite tough, include understanding and arranging astronomical symbols, experimenting with pendulum devices, interpreting graphs showing how objects fall, moving planetary models into the correct alignment, and using clues to locate a hidden entryway. You’ll do some simple math and will probably need to take a few notes to hash out the most difficult concepts.Continued on the next page...