Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Diary Entry #41: Cryo's Odyssey, or How French People Never Realized that Adventure Games Weren't Cool Anymore

             Thousands of years ago, people verbally recited all of the travails of Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. Now, I need only play a PC game thanks to some French people.

             At the turn of the millennium, PC adventure gaming was in a dreadful spot. 3D was in, so companies were forced to develop fancy 3D engines if they hoped to compete with the Quake 2s and Half-Lifes. In 1998, LucasArts released Grim Fandango, a 3D adventure that played like Resident Evil with more lateral thinking and less action. The game sold below expectations, although the similarly designed Escape from Monkey Island fared better in 2000. Still, these two games were the final adventure titles in the LucasArts library, leading the company to release tons of Star Wars titles.

             Sierra, the other juggernaut of adventure gaming, fared even worse. King's Quest 8 plays like a better version of Ocarina of Time, although this is purely coincidence; both games were developed at the same time, released within a month of each other. Their final adventure title, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, was plagued by various delays, the biggest being a switch to 3D in mid-development. The game has one of the longest and most detailed puzzle in adventure gaming history, but it's buttressed by a variety of idiotic puzzles. Check this article to see what I mean. It hit store shelves in 1999 and sold below expectations. Now that action games could tell just as good of stories as your favorite point-and-click game, the adventure genre was no longer mainstream.

             Thankfully, Europeans never got the memo. The French company Cryo Interactive made some great adventure games throughout the '90s, with Commander Blood and Dune being bonafide classics. Both are quite innovative, reshuffling traditional elements of adventure games into something wholly different, whether it be wonky puppetry or bizarre grand strategy. Unfortunately, it was much more common for Cryo to release hackneyed clones of whatever was popular. Their long-running Atlantis and Egypt games managed to ape Myst to the breaking point.

             In 1999, Cryo opted to copy the 3D LucasArts titles instead. Evidently there's a trilogy of Grim Fandango clones: the original Arthur's Knights, Arthur's Knights 2, and Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses.

             Odyssey looked to be the most competent of all three, so I quickly snatched it up. As Heriseus, a representative of Ulysses's wife, Penelope, you are tasked with searching for the big U himself. For those of you without a high school education, Ulysses got lost after the Trojan war, being cast back and forth across the sea by various demented gods and lusty goddesses.

             Naturally, the search begins in Troy. On the streets, you'll find prostitutes, gamblers, and soldiers, all of whom might steal your money or kill you. One of the features I like is that Ulysses can kill anybody, although doing so will typically end in him getting killed by a soldier. A slave in the opening section is fair game though.

             Unfortunately, the only murder that gets you into jail isn't actually your fault. Early on, a rogue named Mikis offers to take Heriseus straight to Ulysses, but it's actually a plot! Regardless, Heriseus blacks out, and upon awakening finds the dead body of Mikis. Getting imprisoned for the game leads to one of the games sillier puzzles.

             Step one: get on roof of jail.

             Step two: pick up rock on roof.

             Step three: drop rock on guard.

             Honestly, I wish all of the puzzles were that simple. The next puzzle is far more complicated. Over a dozen tiles are placed into the walls and only four are needed to be placed arbitrarily into this door. This is the kind of obtuse logic I'd expect from Myst, not Grim Fandango. 

             The door leads to a teleporter, which sends you to the infamous city of the Lotus Eaters. This dude seems to be having a particularly bad lotus trip. The city shows off the game's excellent use of perspective, which often pans about as the player moves rather than cutting to different angles a la Resident Evil. It's a great touch, especially for the 2000s.

             Heriseus has to make this psychedelic potion in order to follow a specific Lotus Eater that transports him to the Medusa's forest. This is actually one of the worst parts of the game, forcing the player to go through a maze of sorts. While it's not actually a maze as birds often pop out and guides you, it frequently disappears, so you'll be clambering to find the starting point over and over again.

             The actual battle with Medusa is incredibly frustrating. It's terribly dark, and Medusa never gives up. Sneaking up is impossible, not to mention the whole turning you into stone gimmick.

             Constant reloading is the only real technique. I finally beheaded Medusa on my eleventh try, grabbing her head and quickly pressing onward. There's a rather strange puzzle involving a deep, dark pit that looks like a puddle. I stepped on it and instantly died, requiring me to reload and beat Medusa again. Many curses were spit out.

             Next up is the island of the Cyclops. In the original story, Ulysses tricks some Cyclops who is the son of Poseidon. Your prisonmate from the beginning of the game is found in a small shack here, although he quickly admits that he's trying to lure you into a trap. A hungry Cyclops appears outside, and your flesh is as good as any. Heriseus needs to find a way out of here quick.

             There are several solutions to the Cyclops problem, giving the player options that most adventure games skimp on. First off, you have to determine a way to get rid of your comrade. You can let him run out of the cabin and get eaten by the cyclops, slay him with your sword, or flash Medusa's head at him. Next, the Cyclops can also be stabbed or have Medusa's head flashed at him. I personally prefer turning everything to stone.

             Unfortunately, while Ulysses blinded Poseidon's son, you murdered him! Poseidon's pissed and wants you to go through his challenge palace, promising to be ever so magnanimous if you pass his challenges.

             The trials are really some statues that ask very obscure questions regarding Greek mythology. One will make a statement regarding a myth. Your task is to push three buttons on the floor reflecting three people or things related to it, which becomes rather difficult considering a few of the answers are INCORRECT.

             Consulting a walkthrough is mandatory to press on, but the next section is definitely the most interesting. Heriseus must pose as a slave to gain access to a castle inhabited by giants. There's a brief stealth portion, a usually groan inducing affair in early 2000s games, that honestly doesn't ruin the experience. 

             Even with expert stealth skills, the entire plan fails miserably. The giants intend on eating you, and give you instructions. For five days, you will be their servants. The first, third, and fifth days you will cook in the kitchen, while the second and fourth days will be spent chilling in some random room.

             If Heriseus doesn't escape after five days, the giants feast on him in a fabulously graphic cinematic. This game over is so detailed, it might as well be considered an official ending! The actual escape route is appropriately ridiculous, requiring you to smooth out a cliff bottom in order to gracefully escape through the kitchen's garbage chute.

             Back on the boat, Heriseus's dead wife tells him to guide his airship over to Circe's island. Sorry I forgot to mention the airship, but so much ridiculous stuff is crammed into this game that the flying boat feels a little inconsequential.

             And Circe turns you into a pig. 

             The following section is rather silly, requiring piggy Heriseus to drop pillows and vials into specific spots. Still, it's better than putting stuff into doors at random.

             Poseidon's henchmen comes and stabs straight through Circe. Despite her earlier malevolence, Heriseus gets her a curative potion and Circe restores his human form.

              The next stop is Hades itself, where Heriseus gets to cut in line.

              There's a strange and lengthy portion that follows where three giant statues analyze the various deeds of Heriseus. I thought that I had played the game conservatively, not killing anyone or anything needlessly, but the statues act like I'm a total dick. 

              Even weirder, it's immediately followed by a section where you're Mikis, the guy Heriseus allegedly killed in the beginning of the game. The premise is simple: Heriseus kills Mikis, and if you don't figure out a way to save the poor fellow, the scene simply replays to give you another opportunity. This leads to Mikis getting killed over and over and over again until you determine the rather obvious solution.

              Hell is not a cool place. There's fire, brimstone, lava, the works.

              Not only that, but the actual denizens of Hades are pretty big a-holes. Sysiphus can trick you into taking his job of pushing that boulder up the hill, which sounds pretty contradictory to the original myths. I guess it's good that I don't care at all.

              Cryo's artists did a great job on some of the locales. I love the mixture of photo, video, and 3D effects mixed together, even if the results are more bizarre than aesthetically appealing.

              The final battle with Poseidon eventually unfurls, although it's pretty awful. You have to select three randomly determined weapons from a list of seven and attack Poseidon with each in a specified order. If the correct weapon is used in the right sequence, Poseidon falls to one knee. If it's the right weapon in the wrong slot, he gets slightly stunned. 

              In the end, Poseidon dies...

              ...the whole thing ends up being a story reiterated by Homer (imagine how many reloads he'd have to describe in his tale)...and then it ends. Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses is a fascinating snapshot of where people thought adventure gaming was going circa 2000. It's the exact same stuff you do when playing a 2D point-and-click adventure: use item A to further story, get item B, use item B to further story, etc. There are some interesting choices that recall Dynamix's excellent adventures, Heart of China, Rise of the Dragon, and Willy Beamish, but they really don't matter in the end and hardly effect the game's outcome: you find Ulysses.

              Original reviews for Odyssey: Search for Ulysses don't really know what to make of it. They lambaste the interface, although I didn't have any real trouble with it. Puzzles themselves polarize reviewers, with some claiming they're overly simplistic while others think they are too complex. You'd think it couldn't be both, but at times it truly is, although the word "complex" might as well be exchanged for a phrase like "totally random".

              Despite all this, I'd probably rather play this than Grim Fandango or Gabriel Knight 3. It does a lot right, and what it does wrong is still better than the bulk of adventure games. The reason the adventure genre disappeared: 3D brought absolutely nothing new to the table except weird polygonal figures.

              I've played more graphic adventures recently, but I've spent so much time describing Odyssey that it's best left for another post. One of the others is also based on a classic story: Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. While many of the game's elements recall The Colonel's Bequest, that probably has more to do with Roberta Williams's Agatha Christie boner than vice versa. I might blog about that next, but then again, maybe not.

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