Review: Odallus: The Dark Call

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Plenty of games claim to be retro or retro-inspired, but it’s a tough label to do justice. The classic NES titles that inform so many indie games now were products of very different times and sensibilities, and much of what worked then doesn’t fly today. That’s what makes games like Odallus so special, because they manage to bring the good parts of retro design forward and merge them with modern concepts. The result is an adventure that looks and feels like the games you grew up with, but plays with all the intelligent balance and conveniences you’ve grown to appreciate.

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The old gods are dead, and the new ones are not the kind and forgiving type. In fact, they like to torch towns and carry off children, which is precisely what happens to your William Wallace-looking hero Haggis. He’ll have to travel a dark fantasy world of crumbling ruins and haunted forests to reach the castle of the evil deity who ruined his life, and kill hundreds of twisted creatures along the way. There’s also plenty of ancient secrets to unearth like legendary swords and armors, inscriptions of the past, and relics that can grant Haggis fantastic new powers.

It’s something of a level-based metroidvania, where each stage features open spaces and multiple paths to explore in search of new treasures and secrets. “Vast” is a completely apt term for the realms you’ll traverse, too, because it can be quite a hike or series of jumps to reach the distant corners where goodies lie hidden. Right from the start there are blocks to push and climb on, hidden walls to tear down, and ledges to mantle up. That last one is key not just to exploration but to gamefeel, as you can hang from any ledge and pull yourself up to reach new areas. Needless to say it’ll also save you from some frustrating falls, and will also be used for its own tricky platforming challenges in later areas.

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Mantling up is a prime example of how Odallus brings modern sensibilities to classic gameplay. Without it the controls would stray towards the old pre-Iga Castlevanias with their stiff movements and all-or-nothing leaps. But the tight air control and mantling option opens up the levels to free exploration, and the later character upgrades open it up even further. Aside from the usual double-jump there’s a cloak that slows your descents, a dash move, a bracer that lets you move huge blocks, and the ability to breathe underwater. Because of how vertical and how varied in topography each level is, unlocking a single upgrade can open up new paths in almost every area and often grant access to the game’s many secret levels.

Secrets are the lifeblood of Odallus, the reason it ends up being such a compelling platformer. Each level has four to six big ones, including life upgrades, bag upgrades for your subweapons (which are also used to uncover secrets!), new swords and armor, and exits to hidden levels. This is on top of all the hidden chests containing souls, which you trade to a skull-wearing fellow peddling spears and torches and soups. It’s worth mentioning, though, that hidden levels aren’t really optional here. There’s only four levels between you and the final boss but you need seven pieces of a gem to face him, one from each level boss and that includes the hidden ones. That means Odallus isn’t really a title for gamers who like to book it to the end, but it’s a dream for secret hunters and completionists.

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Fans of dark fantasy will also find plenty to love here, especially in the enemy designs. A friend observed how close many of the foes look to the nightmarish monsters in Berserk, and they’re absolutely right. You’ll be facing all sorts of twisted creatures with hands coming out of their eyes and heads on writhing stalks and spines and needle-teeth everywhere. The blocky NES look is faithfully recreated with prominent color palettes for each level and enemy, and stiff but evocative animations. The sound design is nice and moody as well, and while I didn’t like the huge UI bars on the sides of the screen I soon got used to them, and found that the game is mostly designed with them in mind. And that’s the thing about Odallus, nothing was really left out of its design. It takes all the best parts of classic NES games, polishes them up with secrets and fair challenges, and gives you a huge game to explore and enjoy them in.

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