Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses

Developer:  In Utero
Publisher:  Cryo Interactive Entertainment
Year Released:  2000

Review by Steve Ramsey (September, 2000)

It is 10 years since the Trojan War ended, but the people of Ithaca are still waiting for Ulysses, their King, to return. Tired of waiting, and in the face of growing tension, his wife Penelope secretly sends his friend Heriseus in search of him. Heriseus is searching not only for Ulysses, but for his own redemption. He has been banished from his own island for a murder which was an accident, and he hopes by finding Ulysses to be forgiven. Heriseus starts his quest where Ulysses was last known to be - the fallen city of Troy. As Heriseus, you step from your boat onto the jetty at Troy, and the Odyssey begins.

For me, it almost ended shortly afterwards. First impressions are important, and my first impressions were not good. Having worked my way through a confusing (albeit artistic) set of options screens, I was confronted by the game interface. Fifteen minutes later I was ready to quit.

That I didn't is largely because of my general enthusiasm for Cryo games, and a desire to see how Homer's classic tale had been brought to life. I ultimately won the interface battle, but it was touch and go for a while.

Keyboard navigation
The game is played in the third person, and you move using the keyboard arrow keys. There is no capacity to configure the keyboard differently, or to utilise the mouse at all. I find this annoying, as I prefer to move using the mouse. I confess that this stems from my Quake training, but I see no reason why options can't be available.

However it was a minor irritation compared to the "camera" angles. As Heriseus moves, your game view is from a "floating" camera with a definite mind of its own. You have no control over it. You cannot centre your character at any stage, or force the camera to orient itself differently (which are both options I have encountered in other games using this type of view). Therefore, however the camera decides you will view each scene or screen, is how you have to view it.

If it picked one view (eg following along behind and just above head height) then it would be easier to live with. However it constantly changes perspective as Heriseus moves. You might be walking towards what looks like some buildings. The camera is behind and panning up as Heriseus walks away, so the buildings are coming into view. Suddenly, the camera is now ahead of you, watching you come towards it. The buildings have gone. Clearly they are up ahead, but you can't see them. They are now behind the camera. You keep walking, assuming the camera will change view. It doesn't. It stays where it is and keeps you in the centre of its view. Essentially, it watches you walk under itself, and then swings to watch you walk away. Except you can't walk very far, because you have reached the buildings. So you turn left to explore, and the camera pans to watch you. You spot what looks like an opening up ahead, but after a while the camera gets sick of where it is, so it jumps ahead of you again, and the opening has gone. You find it again and turn in. You disappear from sight. Usually the camera will come and find you. Sometimes it won't.

And then some ...
And so it goes on, though admittedly not always as dramatically. In some scenes you can watch Heriseus run so far away he almost disappears. In other scenes, you will be piloting Heriseus towards an objective as you look from overhead, and suddenly the camera will be at ground level and Heriseus will be bearing down on you almost completely filling the screen. It is disconcerting, and plotting a course can be awkward to say the least. And everything is accentuated if you run. A few quick backtracks as you go under a swinging camera is almost enough to make you queasy.

Clearly I didn't like it. But I have to confess that you get used to it, and you can learn to manage it reasonably effectively, or at least ignore its excesses. It helps if you walk rather than run.

If the game was full of hunting for very small objects, things would be even more difficult. There are indeed things to find, and people to talk to, but the objects are usually large (or at least prominent) and sometimes there is more than one of the thing you need to find (a nice touch I thought). Once I had persisted for a while, got in some practice, and realised that I was not going to be hunting for needles in haystacks, I settled into the story and began to enjoy myself.

One last gripe on the camera thing though - it can really get you in trouble in the action scenes. Yes, there are some action scenes, and you can die. When you are trying to stay out of the clutches of the Gorgon, at the same time as developing a strategy about what to do, it doesn't help to have the camera decide to leap to a perspective in which you can no longer see yourself and/or the Gorgon. I died more than once not knowing where the Gorgon was relative to where the camera now was, or because I couldn't see myself and couldn't get Heriseus back into the picture before the Gorgon got him. Again, after a few attempts, I learned where not to go in order to keep both protagonists in view.

(By the way, the first time you die - and you will die - wait a little while before restoring the game, in order to watch the procession of the dead march down into the underworld).

Of Gods and Graphics
As I said, I did begin to enjoy the quest. The realm of Ulysses offers scope for the imagination, and some of its settings are almost surreal. There is a general eeriness about much of the game, and the soundtrack adds to the atmosphere of the particular scene. Indeed, the sounds are superb. Given the mythical and mystical nature of the game, some of the problems posed will require some creative thinking. They are not illogical, just a bit different - remember, the gods (and goddesses) can do truly wonderful (and at times capricious) things. The plot has scope for strange and interesting turns, and Heriseus will be betrayed more than once, by god and mortal alike.

Given that it is a Cryo game, I was a bit disappointed with the graphics. Some of the places Heriseus will visit are truly spectacular. The transformation you experience in the lotus eaters realm is itself almost worth the price of admission. However some of the detail can be "pixelly", and there is a "blockiness" about some characters. Also Heriseus will at times reach through, or merge with, the edge of other objects. He also "glides" as he walks, so that each step takes him further than his actual footstep. I had difficulty manoeuvring him through doors at times (although I think that was more me than him).

Given his mortality, conveniently he can't fall off (most) things. If he gets to the edge he simply stops or turns away. He can however be made to walk into water and stay there till he drowns.

You will question many people you meet by utilising a one word prompt from among several available dialogue choices. On occasion, you get no choices; you just continue the conversation by pushing the appropriate key. Some dialogue is disjointed in that subjects never discussed are suddenly raised, seemingly from nowhere. There is no character lip movement.

Walkthrough to the rescue
The game is reasonably straight forward and most of the time you will know what you are trying to do, even if how to do it still takes some working out. The problems you have to solve are reasonably well integrated into the plot and generally make sense. A smattering of knowledge of Greek mythology will help with some of them, and looking at the description of an item in your inventory will often provide some useful knowledge or insight into what you might do with it. I did need to resort to a walkthrough though on more than one occasion.

Predominantly, the need for help involved the action scenes. Too often I got tired of dieing whilst trying to sort out what I was supposed to do. Action scenes are anathema to many adventure gamers, and there a more than a few in this game. There is a variety of action, and whilst much of it involves a puzzle rather than out and out action (eg to slay the Cyclops you don't hack and hew with a sword whilst your health diminishes - either you will work out how to do it, or you will step outside your hut and be eaten), there is no doubt this aspect will deter some would-be adventurers.

In retrospect, a lot of the exploration and interaction in Odyssey is not necessary as far as advancing the game is concerned. There is a fairly direct path through the game, which means that you won't be punished if you miss finding a character and don't have a particular conversation (a good thing). Obviously there are some you have to have, and as you won't necessarily know which conversations are important and which aren't, you will probably have them all, but failure to have every single one, or have them all in the right sequence, will not bog you down.

One thing that did bog me down was a problem with the load game function. It worked fine for a while, but saved games would then refuse to load, and the system would hang. Several reinstalls, some restarted games, and saving and restoring saved games in separate temporary files were necessary. I am aware of other players who have had this problem, but at the time of writing I have not had a response from Cryo.

The game installs from one disc and plays from another. There is no disc swapping, and all dialogue has the option of being subtitled. Finally, the game manual (and elsewhere) refers to the character you play as Heritias, although the in-game dialogue refers to him as Heriseus (the latter is certainly how it sounded). rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2000. All rights reserved.

System requirements
Minimum: Windows 95/98, Pentium II 233 MHz, 64 Mb RAM, 12X CD Rom, 350 Mb hard drive space, DirectX 7 (supplied)
Recommended: Pentium II 300 MHz, 3D Accelerator card, 24X CD Rom