For imitation is natural to man from his infancy. Man differs from other animals particularly in this, that he is imitative, and acquires his rudiments of knowledge in this way; besides, the delight in it is universal.
“The following is a contributor post by the Mail Order Ninja Mage.”
Prior to this review I had never heard about Odallus: The Dark Call, or the developer JoyMasher for that matter. Yet here I was, finding out about not only Odallus but another retro inspired game of theirs called Oniken releasing on the same day on consoles as well. That sister game is being reviewed by a certain Mage in Red that you might know of, but I’ll let him cover that on his review here.
As closely as I follow games, hearing nothing of one until shortly before release is usually indicative of a game’s poor quality. Granted, for the most part I don’t really follow PC releases, but you usually hear about the best by word of mouth and the cream of the crop often make their way to the consoles. If you, dear reader, are like me than you too are in for quite a pleasant surprise, I would imagine. So let me likely be the first to introduce you to this retro romp.
Odallus: The Dark Call is a game that wears its Castlevania inspiration on its sleeve while simultaneously improving upon the aged formula of that game by introducing more Metroid-like elements to the mix. Instead of navigating a large interconnected world ,you will instead make your way through a series of levels that play like platformers of old, with slower and more methodical controls that seem straight out of the NES era of gaming. This is complimented alongside more modern conveniences, like optionally-activated checkpoints and some changes made to the level persisting even after you die.
Odallus often seeks to capture the nostalgia of yesteryear while also improving upon it, and it more often than not achieves its goal. So, let’s talk about the ways in which it does so.
Critiquing the visuals of Odallus is something that I found to be a difficult task, one that I often struggled with as I thought of a score to give it. The developers were clearly aiming for and nailed a very specific style of game with a pixel laden look that would be well at home on the NES. This is complete with simulated scan lines, a slight warping at the edge of the screen like old school CRT tubes, and the blurring around the edge of a sprite that resembles a splitting of colors and pixels. When looking at this I can’t help but feel that these simulated effects, along with authentic pixel art, are the epitome of what the developers were seeking to emulate.
To put it simply this game looks exactly like an old NES game played on a CRT TV–for both better and worse. The levels that the developer went to in order to achieve this effect were above and beyond what I’ve seen with other retro inspired titles, and there are times I was playing my Switch when it had this trans-formative effect on my HD display, turning it into a window into the past of entertainment.
There were other times, specifically blown up on my TV screen or in motion within the game itself, that I found the effects sometimes off putting and causing additional stress to my eyes. I went back and forth on this honestly, sometimes booting the game up and thinking it looked incredible, and other times wishing there was some sort of option to turn it off entirely. Scouring the very limited menus was to no avail, so if like me you assumed there would be an option to rid yourself of it then you are mistaken.
This visual nostalgia is difficult to convey through static screenshots alone–you really need to play Odallus to get the full effect–and your mileage of how much you like the aesthetic will likely vary wildly. I only deducted a single point for not having at least the option to turn the effects off, but I would be remiss for not applauding the absolutely faithful recreation that the team at JoyMasher has achieved here. This is what happens when vision of a premise meets near flawless execution. If you love NES style graphics and pine for the CRT days of old, this game is for you.
I realize now that a good majority of my review might be extolling the authenticity of Odallus, but it is the crux of the experience as intended by the developer, and in this regards, Odallus reaches the pinnacle of this authenticity. More so than visuals I feel that this hurts the overall audio experience, as the developers sticking to the sounds capable from an NES makes some of the more detailed sound effects sound tinny and muffled.
This was done intentionally, not due to a lack of effort, and does increase the nostalgic bit of the game, however, it also lessens the quality by stubbornly sticking to what came before. There is a NPC that you buy items from, and he spouts something in this tinny muffled voice that after 5 hours with the game I’m still not sure what he is saying.
That being said the tracks are extremely solid, and sound like some of the best that 8-bit had to offer. They might not match some of the masterpieces of Castlevania history, but they do a good job in creating a great soundtrack for me to repeatedly die to.
Odallus: The Dark Call reminds me in all the best ways of something like Shovel Knight or The Messenger when it comes to gameplay. Unlike some portions of the visuals and audio, the developers took the best of the nostalgic parts of the NES era and enhanced it with some small modern touches. This leads to a game that plays the way many of our nostalgia remembers some of those older titles, while improving upon several mechanics.
This game plays very similarly to its oft compared spiritual predecessor Castlevania. Instead of a whip, you’ll be armed with a sword, but the jumps are slow and deliberate, and the strikes are as well. Everything has a weight to it, and the protagonist does not dart about the screen with fancy dodges. Make a mistake of a jump by a few pixels during enemy attacks and you’ll find yourself sorely damaged. Jumping and miscalculating a jump by a few pixels can often lead to your death.
You’ll have several different sub weapons available to you throughout the game, but unlike days of old you’ll be allowed to retain all of them at once, switching between them at will as each new situation would demand it. The way they function is very familiar–toss a torch on the ground and the flame will follow that platform in a line–and their use will typically mean the difference between victory and defeat with some enemies. In addition, some sub-weapons are needed in order to access new paths through levels, thereby uncovering new secrets and further power ups.
This is combined with finding new armor, weapons, swords, and abilities that lend the game some Metroid-like aspects. Instead of navigating one cohesive world with a map though, you’ll be heading back to each level from a hub screen and finding secrets you missed using your new equipment. Often if you took one path, instead of playing the whole level again, it’ll give you the option to start at the split, something that I was very appreciative of.
Odallus: The Dark Call can be a difficult game, but never one that I felt was unfair. Typically if I died it was because I made a mistake, or got a little too hasty in trying to make it back through a level. Bosses hit hard, and can frequently destroy you in a few hits, but finding certain items and equipment can give you an easier time, making the game somewhat similar to Mega Man in those regards. I’m sure there are speed runners out there now that know exactly what items you should get and when to maximize your run, and probably as many that relish in plumbing the game for every secret it holds.
The one issue I had was another conceit to bygone days–not having a map. There were times I was missing one necessary upgrade and I couldn’t for the life of me hunt it down, and I had to resort to searching for guides online. This led me to believe that only a select few had ever heard of the game, as cohesive guides are non-existent and only small forum posts gave me hints about where to go next. While the developer couldn’t possibly have kept people from posting guides about their game, it made me wonder if they didn’t have some black magic they employed to make this experience as much like the NES days as possible. I half expected someone to leap out and offer me a strategy guide as I played, such was the lack of guidance.
Dying isn’t quite as punishing an affair as it was back in the days of NES though, as once you lose your lives you simply have to start the level over. Typically, doors you’ve opened or puzzles you solved remain so, and it is a welcome improvement over having to redo those small things over and over. In this way the game is far less punishing than those more hardcore experiences, but never in a way that feels easy. You do essentially have unlimited lives, but the days of starting all over without a continue are, thankfully, far behind us.
Overall though, the authenticity in this case works in favor of the overall experience, and the things it borrows from the games of yesterday and the indies of today are combined into a truly remarkable experience, even if it is on the short side of things.
It almost isn’t fair to Odallus to add narrative to the list of eight things I could have chosen here as a category, but it is one of the main things I play games for and thus judge games based on. In this regards the game mimics the NES games of old and gives you just barely enough to justify killing baddies. You are Haggis, a former soldier, and your home is threatened by demonic hoards. Your son is apparently taken by these monsters, though Haggis doesn’t know if he is alive, and you spend the rest of the game on a murdering spree to get him back. You’ll also collect the shards of something called the Odallus, but outside of the original retro style cut scene and a smattering of dialogue from NPCs you aren’t given much context apart from that.
The story exists almost solely as a means to give you an excuse to be a dude in a cape cutting up bad guys, though it does have its moments of surprise and an ending I liked. On one hand, that is about authentic as you can get, but in a world where The Messenger does retro style gaming with a fantastic and clever narrative to boot, I feel we can do better.
While there is no shortage of more Metroid-like experiences available in the marketplace today, there are far less that play like the original Castlevania games. Since Konami seems content to let the IP linger in the gaming hell of Pachinko machines, it is up to indies to step up and make games that mimic the gaming giant.
It is strange I find Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon as my Xbox Games with Gold in the same month I get to play Odallus, as both of them are similar in some regards. They both take the erstwhile Dracula-hunting games of yesteryear as clear inspirations, and both are of a quality I would consider well above average. These games are easily grouped together though because of the very reason that there are very few games that are designed that feel like Castlevania, most games leaning harder into the Metroid-like aspects typical to the genre. By this metric alone Odallus finds itself in rare, but fantastic, company.
My favorite part of the game is undoubtedly the fact that you have a lot of choice of how you approach it. I could have plowed through all levels available as far as I can tell, never doubling back to search for secrets. If I hated the idea of checkpoints, I didn’t have to engage them, and I never had to buy health, sub-weapon refills, or extra lives from the vendor. Still, all of those things were available to me if I choose to use them in order to moderate the difficulty in the way in which I choose. This allows the game to be approachable by a wide array of gamers. Whether you favor newer modern design or retro design you’ll most likely find something to love in Odallus.
That doesn’t mean this game isn’t difficult though, even if you are taking advantage of the various means of making the game more approachable. It takes skill in platformers and games of this type, and there is a learning curve that is doable but gets steep quick. The game asks you to pay attention to every pixel just like games of old, and it has no problems with punishing you if you don’t. I fought one boss memorizing their patterns probably a dozen of times before I beat them, and while I’m no pro gamer, I’m quite skilled at platformers in general.
While the game is accessible and I don’t feel it has too crushing of a level of difficulty, you do have to have some skill in games of this nature if you hope to ever see the end of the game.
Odallus is a game that you can 100% in one play through with no real issues, as it is easy to go back to levels and uncover secrets. Upon beating the game myself I continued playing, as helpful counts on each level would let me know I was missing alternate paths or hidden secrets within. There is a veteran mode that is available on completion for absolute sadists as the game is made much harder, but overall outside of speed runs I can’t see a pressing reason to return to the game aside from simply reliving the boss fights once again.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I did not expect to like Odallus as much as I did considering it seems to be a game nobody was talking about, but it is a game that I feel everyone SHOULD be talking about. The developers at JoyMasher clearly have a deep and abiding love for retro games, and they use that love to nearly perfectly recreate the experiences of the NES era–in visuals, sound, and gameplay. There are moments when embracing those limitations do hurt the overall experience, but they are outshone by the exceptional execution that the developer manages to achieve on their overall vision.
We’d like to thank JoyMasher for furnishing us with a copy of their game for this critique!
Aggregated Score: 7.3
The Mail Order Ninja Mage loves video games across every console: an assassin of fanboy nonsense. He also really loves martial arts and pizza, though that is of no consequence here. To read more of his random word soup, or to view daily(ish) photo mode screenshots from his favorite games, visit him at Home Button.
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Categories: Game Review