Review: Blacksea Odyssey

Blacksea Odyssey is a game I first came across earlier this year at PAX South, and I quickly became enamored by its mix of twin-stick shooter mechanics and roguelike elements. Now that the Xbox One version has launched, I’ve had time to dive deep into Blacksea Odyssey from the comfort of my home.

The premise is that every ten years space hunters gather to see who can take down the largest sea-like creatures roaming in space. Players are presented with a choice of several deep space hunters (three are initially locked until completing specific in-game feats) as well as a menu with a slew of bonus-boosting harpoons (again the likes of which are all locked behind in-game challenges). This leaves players a starting choice of being able to select the epically bearded Old Man and the default non-bonus harpoon. Once a hunter and harpoon are selected a map of the Odyssey is shown with a handful of initial rounds to select from.

Since the game is procedurally generated, each level option has different stats to choose from, as well as an assigned difficulty grade. Stats vary between things like percentage increases or decreases to enemy health, the rate of items or treasure chest keys dropping, the number of treasure chests, or the chances that enemies may or may not do more damage. An icon of which boss or main space creature also appears to help let players know what they can expect in the selected level.

Once the level loads up, the character appears in the center of the screen with a sonar display in the lower right that pings to indicate which directions groups or “schools” of smaller enemies can be found. The level design reminds me of PixelJunk Eden in some respects because there are plant or crystal formations that provide obstacles to maneuver around as well as the foundation where treasure chests may be planted.  These environmental sections can be flown around or burrowed directly through by holding down the left stick to engage the craft’s boost. As players get closer to the pings in the sonar, the range of where enemies are located widen to indicate proximity.

Shooting enemies is performed by pulling the right trigger to fire off the harpoon selected at the beginning of the game. The space creatures come in a wide variety of styles and specimen, their designs evoking the look of fish, crustaceans, and other creatures found in the sea. Some simply swim in packs, while others open gaping maws of sharp teeth and attempt to chomp on the player if given the opportunity. Others propel themselves by means of exploding poisonous blobs or spitting out crystal shards similar to a bullet hell shooter. Each creature has strong and weak points; some spots are soft and easily take damage, while others are plated with armor and block the attack. As one particular area takes on more damage, a “Harpoon” message flashes on the creature, indicating that the player can shoot out the tethered harpoon and rip that section from the creature’s body. As creatures can be various sizes, removing parts oftentimes is the only way to expose more sensitive bits to take more damage.

Depending on the percentage attributed at the beginning of the level, defeated creatures may drop objects to help players out. Various runes can be slotted to the craft for bonus augmentations, such as additional damage, elemental damage effects like fire, ice, poison or explosions, increased speeds of the sonar ping, quicker boost cool down, meteors that orbit the ship and cause damage to anything they collide with, or a trail of frost running behind the ship which can cause enemies to move slower if they happen to cross into the trail. Other loot includes repair kits, temporary shields, deployable mine fields, damage boosting steroids, treasure chest keys, and gold coins, which can be spent at the shop if the level is completed successfully.

There isn’t any real strategy to beating a given level, but taking on a boss without first clearing out the smaller groups of enemies isn’t wise. For one, there is a strong chance that the boss will end up wandering over to where the smaller groups of enemies are, and then players will have not only a massive enemy to tackle, but all of the other little guys as well. Taking out the smaller stuff first also nets players a chance to earn the game-changing runes.

Boss encounters follow a similar approach to fighting the smaller creatures–damaging smaller sections so that the tethered harpoon can be launched to rip off and expose deeper aspects of an enemy’s anatomy–just on a much more massive scale. However, some bosses do require learning patterns in order to even have access to the soft tissue bits before damage can be inflicted. An explosion of goodies often serves as a reward once a boss is taken out, but players must be quick to zoom around and pick everything up because once the boss is defeated there is a very short countdown before the level ends. I’ve sadly missed out on picking up one or two runes from time to time because I was too slow in collecting everything before the stage ended.

After a boss is killed the main screen reappears with the previous stages locked out and new stages available to choose from. These new stages have the same sort of procedural creation with an icon to indicate what boss to expect as well as the various advantages that can be found to enemy health or objects being dropped. The game progression consists of playing through each level like this until the Blacksea Odyssey is complete over the course of ten rounds in a single run. This main screen also allows players to visit a shop in the lower right corner, where a merchant has additional runes or other bonus items for sale. The shopkeeper will also buy back any runes that players may no longer need, as the ship bonus and attack bonus slots only hold five of each rune type.

Taking on higher difficulty stages early on and without the benefit of rune bonuses means that there is a strong likelihood that players will die and have to start over. I realize that the game is a roguelike, with permadeath and procedural generation, but there is nothing more disheartening than making it through the first few stages and collecting some wickedly powerful runes, only to encounter unbalanced randomization where nothing helps and the enemies just swarm and completely overwhelm without taking so much as a whiff of damage. Just making it to the sixth stage felt like an achievement for me, but recapturing that glory has been next to impossible due to the shifting variables for each level and boss. The moment to moment combat is a blast, but having to start over with very little bonus on the side of the player is less than satisfying. Sure, I’ve managed to unlock a few additional harpoons that add bonuses to damage or elemental properties, but there is no guarantee that those bonuses will actually help out on the next run.

Blacksea Odyssey is a fun yet frustrating game, ideally suited for players who aren’t afraid of a stiff challenge. I will admit that the visuals at times aren’t the best, and sometimes the enemies veer and dodge with an unexpected speed and grace that feels unfair, but I still enjoy my time with the game every time I play. Tackling bosses is an absolute adrenaline rush with the right combination of runes, but having a productive run where enough runes actually appear is not something that happens as often as you would hope.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Interesting sea-based space creature design
+ Tight twin-stick controls
+ Nice variety of powerful rune upgrades

Cons:
– Procedurally generated levels aren’t always balanced
– Permadeath means having to start over from the beginning often
– Unlocking new harpoons takes Jedi reflexes

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on PC
Publisher: Spiral Summit Games
Developer: Blacksea Odyssey
Release Date: Xbox One — 8/23/2017, PC — 6/1/2016
Genre: Action/Shooter/Roguelike
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam for $9.99 or Xbox Live for $14.99

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.