The term "rogue-like" has undoubtedly been slow to grow in popularity, but in recent years it seems that it's finally starting to catch on. It's a phrase that comes from a sub-genre of RPGs that abide by a set of game design choices, including procedurally-generated worlds and permanent death — which titles like Don't Starve and FTL: Faster Than Light have recently brought attention to. Now, Abyss Odyssey — developed by ACE Team — attempts to follow in the footsteps of the rogue-like genre, while also taking a welcome step back to a time of traditional dungeon crawlers and fighters. Does it have what it takes to convert the uninitiated into rogues, or should it stay concealed in the deepest and darkest corners of the Xbox Marketplace?
In Abyss Odyssey, you must enter the Abyss — a descending multiple-routed pit into darkness — to defeat a demonic-being called the Warlock, who is hellbent on destroying the world. The plot is as generic as they come, but it is good enough to provide meaning to your journey. There are three champions to choose from: the bold warrior Katrien, the staff-wielding ethereal Pincoya, and the Ghost Monk. Each character has their own unique combat style with its own pros and cons. For example, Katrien is better for ranged and quick attacks, where the Ghost Monk is a hard-hitting tank. Going into a fight as Katrien and playing like Ghost Monk will put you at a disadvantage, since Ghost Monk can take more of a beating. But the most important character in Abyss Odyssey is probably the Abyss itself — yes, you could consider the Abyss to be a character or, at the very least, an extension of the Warlock. The Nouveau art style of the flowers, plants and highly-detailed backdrops compliment the 2.5D graphical design, making the world feel alive and more significant than just providing a bunch of platforms that you can run across.
Abyss Odyssey is procedurally generated, which means the game itself creates the level from a collection of assets instead of coming pre-rendered before hand. No level or playthrough is the same, and even if you die, the level is redesigned. The Abyss has 15 floors to descend through, each with its own difficulty level. Each floor also has three horizontal chambers that can be reached by using the maps at the end of each floor to track down the doorways across. Looking at the map as often as possible can help you plan your route down to avoid harder levels or even mini bosses ahead of your current path.
No matter which path you take, you can always meet shopkeepers to buy weapons, discover secret areas and, most importantly, you can find mystical altars, which are key to your survival. There are many to be found, each with their own uses; some offer powerful weapons, while others manage your characters skill points, in turn unlocking new abilities. Altars can also double as checkpoints, but to turn an alter into a checkpoint you need to place checkpoint markers. These turn up pretty rarely in the world, though you can purchase a few markers from a shopkeeper for a high price — so place them wisely.
Before you can efficiently descend through the Abyss, you have to come to grips with the combat and controls. This isn't as easy as you may think considering the combat flows more like a traditional fighter instead of a brawler. If you start a combo, you can't change direction mid-flow; you'll have to wait till the combo is over or cancel it by using a special move. You can do a basic double combo strike with the X button, but if you wish to perform the full arsenal of high, mid, and low strikes, you have to use the primary combat control on the right thumbstick. It makes the combat feel clunky at first — especially if your reaction is to throw your sword around like a mad thing — but with practice, you'll develop the precision and timing to dispatch tougher foes with epic combos.
The enemy monsters won't go down without a fight, though; they act very smart and can be a challenge depending on their size and strength. In most cases they respond to your actions very well; however, sometimes it feels like the game is matching your inputs — much like an old fighting game — rather than having dynamic AI. This is clear when an enemy is able to block, parry and counter an aggressive ground-to-air combo just moments after it struggled jumping over a minor obstacle. You could call it cheap, but since you rarely find the odds completely stacked against you in a fight, it's not too big of a deal. If the game ever gets too hard for you, inviting a friend to join in on the action via local or online co-op can help a great deal.
It's important to always remember that Abyss Odyssey has a permanent death state. This means once you die, you'll lose all of your items and get taken back to start — do not pass go, do not collect $200. To balance the fear of permanent death, you can carry the soul of an enemy creature as a support character, which can be found in the world or bought from shopkeepers. Each support character comes with their own set of moves and you can transform into them at any time by using the D-pad. The support characters have their own degrees of usefulness in combat and navigation — some can devastate enemies, while others can open secret areas. Should things go south and you die, there is a mechanic in place that turns you into a soldier and gives you one last chance to survive. The soldier character may have weaker attacks, but he's durable and can take a bit of punishment. If you end up as the solider, the top priority is to find one of the special altars in the world to resurrect your main character. If you fail to find an alter nearby and the solider is killed, you are taken right back to the surface. That is, unless you placed a checkpoint on a previous level.
One of our biggest criticisms with Abyss Odyssey is the lack information given to the player on screen. In many situations you will be given multiple item drops — whether it be weapons or souls — and there is no real visual display to tell you what's what. Items, for example, can have different stats, but since this information is sparingly displayed on screen, you'll have to pick it up and enter the inventory to get any real idea of what you've acquired. Souls are the worst for this later in the game, where you will have multiple souls in the area and you have to pick each one up, then transform to check which support character it is. In a worst-case scenario, you might even end up losing the most useful support character in all of the clutter.
Once you've made it to the end and defeated the warlock, don't worry, the game is far from over. Once completed, Abyss Odyssey unlocks harder starting points, which spawn you further into the Abyss, but your weapons, inventory, and skills are set as if you started from the top. Should you feel more adventurous, you can always try the biggest challenge in Abyss Odyssey: Nightmare mode. The main game can be challenging enough, but Nightmare mode turns up the difficulty level to the max, and the game throws everything it has at you. We won't lie...it made us rage quit once or twice.
Abyss Odyssey is a pretty decent game. It's a 2.5D combat-driven platformer that can be fun and unforgiving in equal measure. Though the legitimacy of the AI's intelligence is questionable, the level navigation and difficulty options make it as challenging as you want it to be. Fans of the rogue-like genre can attempt to conquer Nightmare Mode, whilst newcomers can naturally learn and progress through the game with ease. If you still think Abyss Odyssey may not be your cup of tea, there is also a free demo that you can try out. Since there aren't many games like this on Xbox Live, we say that it's definitely worth considering.