Review In Short
Ben says: "A rare gem indeed, a decent sequel that leaves the core formula alone and adds just enough extra touches to be exciting without being overbearing. Another must have game from Snowman."
After a fairly long development cycle, Alto’s Odyssey finally released a day early yesterday1 transporting us from the snowy peeks of Alto’s Adventure to a new desert-based area. The gameplay is exactly the same; you snowboard (or sandboard?) down a peak whilst jumping over rocks and doing neat tricks in order to go faster and faster. You’ll have three challenges to complete on a run with more challenges being unlocked as you level up. At some point you will either fall as a trick goes awry or you’ll be caught by someone chasing you. Rinse, repeat, and enjoy.
In Odyssey, the similarities with the previous game are almost enough that you might wonder if this was just an update to the original game if you saw it over somebodies shoulder. The same characters are playable2 and unlocked at the same milestones, the same zen modes and photo modes exist, and there are only minor tweaks to the existing design with snow becoming sand, bunting becoming balloon flags, and the elders becoming lemurs…
Beware the lemur
Yes, you are now chased by lemurs at certain points within a run and they are a little more dangerous than the elders of Adventure were. For example, you could outwit an elder by grinding on some bunting as they would travel beneath you - if you slowed down you’d get a boost as soon as you landed. This anomaly is resolved here as the lemurs take the higher path and will catch you if you grind3 to a halt or drop down on you from above if you take the low road.
There are several other tweaks to the formula as well such as the lotus flower that replaces the previous hover board; rather than protecting you from poorly judged backflips and rocks, the lotus flower only protects you from rocks on the floor. This is symbolised by your character glowing with a pink shield whilst rocks that can be destroyed also glow pink. This seems a smart choice as the ability to always land on your feet with the hover board always irked me in the original game.
Biomes are also new with three distinct areas for you to board through each with their own set pieces and functionality; the dunes contain rising balloons and tornados, the canyons have wall runs and rope bridges, and the temples have snapping vine grinds and waterfalls. It can take a while to travel through to the various biomes but a new compass item (available for 4000 coins) allows you to fast travel to one of your choice (for a 1000 coin fee) which can help when you have challenges requiring a specific area.
Wall riding can sometimes be tricky but it feels awesome
The main upgrade to the gameplay is the introduction of the sandboard early on in the game that allows you to “wall ride” within the canyon biome. This is done via a series of patterned walls in which you can either hold your finger down whilst at the base to do a rising grind or can be done as you sail past to add an extra trick to your combo. It makes movement feel really cool in a similar vein to Titanfall but it can be a little tricky to master. For example, whilst you can gain a lot of height when boarding from the base of a canyon stack, hitting one mid-way can lead to a substantial loss of speed which can be critical when they are placed over chasms. One particular combination that would appear for me is a chasm with two wall running columns that need to be used to get to the other side; I’d nearly always fail as the start of my backflip would prevent me from grinding until I’d lost too much height. I think you also need to lift your finger at just the right time to get a little jump at the end but my timing never seems quite right when I need it most.
My favourite upgrades within Odyssey are the beguiling pieces of visual flair that hide an extra piece of functionality. For example, there are cascading waterfalls that often lead to a pool of water within the nook of a jump. If you are just gliding down the mountain then hitting this pool will lead to a Sonic the Hedgehog style surf across the top; if you are backflipping and plunge into the pool, you’ll instead be bounced back out allowing you another few spins to extend your combo further. Similarly, the rising balloons can be bounced on in the same way as rocks but with a vastly expanded hit box and a fun little “boing” animation.
One thing that didn’t make it into Odyssey is the llamas that you used to try and herd as you went down the mountain. Whilst it would have been easy to have kept the mechanic and just replaced the sprites with camels, the developers have instead added birds of paradise that fly alongside you at certain points. The further you progress and the more tricks that you do, then the more birds that will fly with you. This can be fun, especially with the wingsuit, but I do miss the little llamas that would sit when you glided past or when they reached a chasm.
Usually a ship in a desert is a camel
As you can hopefully see from the screenshots, the design is still as beautiful as ever with a colour palette reminiscent of Monument Valley as in the first game. The day and night cycle is still present but the weather has been expanded with raging sandstorms that reduce visibility and thunderstorms that will light up the sky. Stars wheel overhead during the night, the sunrise feels like the opening to The Lion King, and sunsets reduce the foreground lighting leading to silhouette gameplay incredibly similar to some of the levels within Donkey Kong Country Returns. A subtle lighting effect, but one of my favourites, is that the canyon walls that pass between you and the sun in the background affect the global light leading to very minor dips in brightness as you sail pass.
The music is gentle but driving and continually pushes you forwards whilst shifting gears between each biome. The sound effects too are perfect with the cry of the lemur as you escape sounding particularly good whilst the chirps of the birds of paradise would constantly set my pug barking. Mention should also be made of the taptics which connect tightly with your jumps and the external sounds (such as lightning storms) making the whole experience far more immersive.
Whilst the gameplay is sublime and ultimately not far removed from Adventure, I did have a few issues. The first is becoming a bit of a bugbear of mine and is the iPhone X home indicator. I mentioned it last month in my review of Abi but the persistent indicator at the bottom completely breaks the immersion especially when placed atop such a beautiful world. As an iOS developer, I know this can be disabled but I’m not sure if Snowman have failed to add this setting or whether it is the OS itself leaving it on the screen. My hope is that the indicator will simply be removed in a future iOS update as it really isn’t required.
My only other issue is aimed more at the nature of the endless runner and is something that was a problem in Adventure. There are only three challenges available to you at a time and the set has to be completed before you level up and another three are added. The issue I have is that once you have completed a set of challenges, you have to wait until your run ends before you level up and then unlock the next set. This means I’ll frequently just ditch into the ground on purpose as there is no point to me continuing a run beyond getting a new high score. My suggestion to resolve this is that the number of coins you receive should double if all of your challenges are complete but the terrain could get harder; this would add an extra incentive to keep going whilst also making it more likely you’ll fail. I’d also be interested in a “hard” mode that requires all three challenges to be completed in the same run rather than allowing each to be unlocked via different runs.
The balloons slowly rise in the air requiring careful jump timings
The one saving grace about the lack of change to the fundamentals is that the business model is also untouched. You’ll pay £5 to download the game (which is then playable on iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV) and there are no in-app purchases at all. This is incredibly rare in this day and age especially when it would be so easy to add a coin-doubler or the ability to buy packs of coins in order to unlock items like the wingsuit early. I would play a lot more games on iOS if others followed suit.
Alto’s Odyssey is a rare gem. It’s a game that changes none of the things that made the original successful but doesn’t try to oversell itself with new baubles that aren’t necessary. It’s a mobile game with a currency that you can’t buy with real money. It is both a highly competitive game where you’ll yearn for one more run but at the same time a zen-like meditative experience. It is the perfect sequel and a game that should be on your phone.