Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses Review

I'm sure there are people out there who will like Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses. I just happen not to be one of them. Although Odyssey tells a decent story, I didn't think it was much fun to play -- a poor interface and too many puzzles that kill your character for a wrong choice make this the kind of game that can easily try your patience.

Odyssey the game picks up on the story of Homer's Odyssey. You play the character of Heriseus (also spelled Heritias if you prefer), a friend of Ulysses sent to search for him 10 years after the end of the Trojan War. You start in Troy and then follow Ulysses' trail to encounter characters from the original Odyssey like the Lotus Eaters, Cyclops, and the sorceress Circe.

The mythological setting of the game is a bit unusual for an adventure game, and the designers occasionally make something interesting out of it. One enjoyable sequence, for example, has you running around as a pig while you look for some way to change back to your human form.

More often than not, though, the puzzles seem arbitrary, so that the game is little more than a guessing game with a mythological setting. And I'm saying this as a frequent player of adventure games who's seen plenty of adventures with quality puzzles, not as someone indiscriminantly attacking an entire genre.

In some cases, the puzzles can be solved only through trial and error combined with frequent saving and restoring. One such puzzle requires that you find a way into a palace where Ulysses was reportedly held. There are four people who say they're willing to help you, although all but one of them will lead you to your death. There are no clues within the game, so the only real puzzle here is blindly selecting one of the four and hoping you don't die as a result.

Even some of the puzzles with more potential have a similarly arbitrary feel. Another puzzle sends you to defeat a gorgon, whose very look could turn you to stone. Of course, fighting her directly is nearly impossible -- this is the sort of situation that could have proven far more interesting if it had been done correctly. Unfortunately, the puzzle basically comes down to finding a particular place on the screen to use an inventory item. If you use the item in the right place, you'll set up a trap for the gorgon that can eventually kill her.

But use the item in the wrong place, and your character will do nothing at all. Even if you get an idea of how to solve the puzzle, it's quite possible that you'll still be killed by the gorgon just because you're in the wrong place, and you'll have no idea you're on the right track. Odyssey is often quite picky about where your character is standing -- being just a few pixels off can keep you from solving a puzzle. In this particular puzzle, there's also no logical reason for using this item in the spots required by the game, since the same object would serve roughly the same purpose elsewhere.

While it's usually possible to find a few bad puzzles in any adventure game, these sorts of puzzles are the rule, not the exception. The puzzles certainly aren't helped by a very basic interface -- you use the keyboard to walk Heriseus around the screen and you can pick up objects or use items already in your inventory. That's about it. There are no descriptions of on-screen items or even an indication of when you're approaching an item that you might be able to use, as you can often find in other keyboard-controlled adventures like Grim Fandango or the Blair Witch games.

Even dialogue is limited. While your character will have a lot to say once you select an option, the menu items you must choose from are usually limited to a single word. Sometimes, it's not clear what you're going to say until after you've made the selection, and that might be an acceptable limitation if all conversation items were safe. But when you can sometimes die from picking a single wrong word, conversation can become quite tedious.

At least the graphics are better, but even they aren't particularly great. Cut-scenes are generally well rendered, but they also tend to be brief. The background graphics are drawn in 2D and placed on a curved surface -- sort of the effect you'd get if you were using a fisheye lens on a camera or looking at a curved mirror. As you move your character across the screen, the perspective shifts a bit, until you switch to a new camera. The fisheye camera and large jumps in camera angles do take some getting used to, but the overall effect actually isn't all that bad. More screens with brighter colors would have definitely helped, though, as would have less aliased characters on top of the backgrounds.

In spite of some serious problems -- particularly too many bad puzzles -- Odyssey does show some potential. If the designers had added a little tolerance for error, this could have been a much more entertaining game. Even removing the seemingly random deaths that lurk around many corners or making it easier to interact with on-screen items in some way would have helped a lot. There is something to be said for the story, but I'd rather watch a good movie or read a good book than play an otherwise weak adventure that has little more than the story to speak for it.

-- Jason Strautman