Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Osmos Review

Osmos, developed and published by Hemisphere Games.
The Good: Simple controls, clever use of gravitational physics, informative yet minimal interface, three distinct game modes, procedurally randomized levels with constantly changing layouts, mostly fair difficulty, time scale changes for the impatient or careful, nice graphics and fitting musical score, quite inexpensive
The Not So Good: Requires high level of precision and patience, repetitive, lacks multiplayer
What say you? A high-quality gravity-based absorption puzzle game: 7/8

A distinctive puzzle game is a hard thing to come by, as the genre is overpopulated with matching and click-management titles. So much so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to think of unique introductions for each and every puzzle game I review. Woe is me! The vogue things now are to combine several types of games together and to incorporate realistic physics to inject a sense of realism to the puzzling puzzles. That (I think) brings us to Osmos, a puzzle game that relies heavily on gravity as you guide your circle thing (I think we’ll call it an orb) around, absorbing smaller orbs in order to get big. It’s like Katamari in space. Or something.

Osmos is entirely in 2-D, but it has a nice minimalist presentation that highlights subtle graphics and music that should run quite smoothly on a wide range of systems (always nice for a casual game). The orbs have pleasing animations that make them appear to be living things; it almost makes you feel bad for absorbing them (almost). The backgrounds are a plain assortment of points of light, but honestly anything more detailed or varied would be distracting during gameplay. The haunting music selection is a nice arrangement of relaxed tunes fitting for the game’s setting. Sounds are subtle and effective in their occasional use. In all, Osmos has minimal graphics and sounds done right.

Being the nice orb-thing you are, your job in Osmos is to inappropriately touch smaller orbs and absorb them in order to increase in size. It’s survival of the fattest! This is done through three game modes, each with their own unique idiosyncrasies. The more relaxed ambient mode puts you in the middle of lots of orbs of varied sizes that are commonly given some initial speed to make things interesting. The force mode puts everything in orbit around a massive central mass (I believe it’s called “Valerie Bertinelli”) for some neat astronomical physics effects. Finally, the sentient mode introduces five AI enemies that are also competition to attain maximum size. They have a range of skills, from lackadaisical to aggressive to speedy to really tough. The forty-seven levels all play differently in terms of aggressiveness and how fast you can (or should) move, and the replay value is increased as you can randomize the initial starting positions somewhat (it’s procedural) of other objects with a simple button press (Alt+Z). For only $10, this is the amount of content I would expect, but online competitive multiplayer would be a fantastic addition (hint, hint, developer!). Maybe for Osmos 2: Uranus’s Revenge.

So maybe Osmos doesn’t sound terribly difficult: just avoid big things and make your way to the smaller objects, right? Well, not so fast, my friend! Moving expels mass, so you must make very precise and careful movements, or the target you were aiming for might become larger than you, derailing your entire plan. Luckily, the minimal interface does a terrific job clearly showing which orbs are smaller and can be absorbed successfully with blue and red shading. Moving your orb involves placing the mouse behind you (initially counter-intutive) and pressing the mouse button. Other controls allow you to influence time, letting you speed up during boring parts when you are waiting to slowly traverse to a target, or slow down during those times that require the utmost precision. Osmos is quite a strategic game, because you can't move too much or you will decrease in size: you really need to plan ahead in order to be successful. The game is challenging even without a time limit, because of the number of other orbs and the fact that the layout is constantly changing because orbs are absorbing other orbs, altering the forces. Changing the time scale is a godsend, because the game rewards patience and otherwise Osmos would be completely impossible (instead of nearly impossible). You have to be really aggressive in the beginning of a level, since other objects are combining and slowly (or not so slowly) becoming larger than you are. The game, especially in the same game mode, can become repetitive, so Osmos is best in small bunches. A single level can last quite a long time, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Still, this challenge will reward more experienced gamers looking for a different puzzle experience.

Osmos is unique and varied enough to make it a distinctive puzzle game. The control scheme is very straightforward, making the game easy to learn. Each of the three level types comes with a different approach, from a more relaxed and exacting approach to aggressive, chaotic levels. Osmos ships with forty-seven map layouts, but each can be randomly generated using a script for essentially infinite replays. The underlying strategy is quite interesting: since your overall goal involves becoming the largest object (or large enough to successfully absorb a target orb) and moving expels matter, you really have to plan ahead and make smart moves. This makes the game quite challenging despite the lack of an artificial time limit, as many layouts require precise moves. Luckily, you can accelerate time as you wait for your orb to sllloooooowwwwly move across the screen. Your AI competitors don’t make things any easier, as they are trying to become the largest object as well. Their high skill level compensates for the lack of competitive multiplayer (hello, Osmos 2?). The interface clearly indicates which orbs can be absorbed without cluttering the screen. The high difficulty might prevent some people from accessing the later levels and fully enjoying the game and the levels do become repetitive, but Osmos is still great value at an inexpensive price point. The game is definitely worth it for fans of the genre and those looking for a quality casual game.