Saturday, January 27, 2018

Alien Odyssey (1995)



Date: 1995
Developer: Argonaut Software
Publisher: Phillips Interactive

System Requirements:

- IBM PC compatible 486/DX2-66MHz
- 8MB of RAM
- DOS 5.0 of higher
- 8MB HDD space

Where to purchase?

 - It is not sold digitally anywhere, so your options are limited to resellers like Amazon and Ebay.  Copies go for anywhere from $2 - $40, so it is pretty cheap


For the next game on RPDG, I'm playing a game that is completely new to me: Alien Odyssey by Argonaut Software.  Alien Odyssey is a game that is difficult to categorize, it is kind of a mix of genres.  Based on my reading about it, it supposedly combines FMV rail shooter sequences like Rebel Assault or Cyberia with third-person adventuring like Bioforge or Alone in the Dark.  As I mentioned, I've never played the game so this understanding is based on the background reading I've done on the game, I could be completely wrong.  But I'm curious to find out.

FMV or pre-rendered rail shooters had a period of brief popularity in the mid 90s as CD-ROM technology was first establishing itself on the market.  Games that combined rail shooting sequences with other genres like third person adventuring also seemed to be a popular niche in PC gaming for a short while from what I can remember.  I've played a few games that fit that description and I don't remember them being particularly fun, but maybe Alien Odyssey will change my mind.  Let's find out!




- Development -

There is not a lot of information available regarding the development of this particular game, so I'll do the best with what I could find.  
Alien Odyssey was developed by Argonaut Software, a development company that has a reasonably large game library spanning quite a few different platforms.  They developed games for the Commodore 64, Atari ST, Amiga, DOS, Game Boy, SNES, Windows, Playstation 1 and 2, Nintendo 64, Gamecube, Sega Saturn, and Xbox spanning from 1984 to 2004.  Argonaut Software was founded by Jez San in 1982 and spent most of its life based in London, with an overseas office opening in California sometime in the 90s.  I think they are most famous for helping develop Star Fox for the SNES, but some older gamers will know them as the developers of the popular Starglider games for the Amiga and Atari ST.  Starglider was actually the basis for the early prototypes of Star Fox running on the NES and SNES prototypes.   

Starglider 2 for the Amiga...I'd say that looks pretty good for 1988
At some point in the early 90s, Argonaut developed a 3D graphics engine and dev toolkit called BRender.  BRender would go on to be used in such games as Carmageddon, FX Fighter, and Alien Odyssey.  I could not find much else about BRender other than it was licensed to companies developing games for Windows, DOS, and Playstation, and it supported Intel's short-lived MMX technology.

The early 90s saw the rapid rise of the CD-ROM as a viable and then revolutionary media for gaming.  Prior to CD-ROMs, the standard media for PC games was the high density 3.5" disk that holds 1.44MB of information.  A normal CD holds 650-700MB of data, so that is over 400x more information.  Games like Myst and 7th Guest showed gamers and developers how CDs could be packed with 3D pre-rendered graphics and FMV cinematics, and there was a rush to develop games that could take advantage of this new technology.  

While 7th Guest and similar adventure games used static, pre-rendered backgrounds to deliver otherwise standard point-and-click adventure gameplay, other companies were experimenting with using all this new storage capacity of the CD-ROM to make new kinds of action games.  The Star Wars game Rebel Assault was really one of the first games to deliver the "rail shooter" experience.  In these types of games, the player follows a preset path through a pre-rendered environment, usually but not always in a first person perspective.  The player's cursor acts as the target and functions much like a light-gun at an arcade game.  The player moves the cursor around the screen shooting enemies while having little or no control as to the direction the player takes through the game world.  These are called "rail shooter" games because the player is, in essence, on a rail like a rollercoaster and unable to deviate from that rail.   

Rail shooter Cyberia (1994)

Rebel Assault (1993)
Argonaut Software decided to enter the CD-ROM rail shooter market in 1994 with the PC and Playstation game Creature Shock, a game I actually bought new when it originally came out.  I was going to play it instead of Alien Odyssey, but I wanted to play a game I had never played before.  In making Creature Shock, Argonaut went a step further and added in primitive flight simulation and first-person shooting gallery type elements to the game.  Both of these additional game modes are fairly basic and the main part of the game is the rail shooter action part.

Creature Shock is a weird game
   
A year after Creature Shock, Argonaut released Alien Odyssey.  Alien Odyssey retains the rail shooter gameplay of Creature Shock and, from my understanding, adds in 3D adventuring and also makes use of Argonaut's BRender engine.  Since I have played Creature Shock, I'll be curious to see how Alien Odyssey improves upon its immediate predecessor.  I have also played Bioforge and Alone in the Dark, the games that I see Alien Odyssey's 3D adventuring parts compared to, so I will have some basis for comparison there.

At the time of it's original release, Alien Odyssey received only average reviews.  I'm going to fire it up and see if it is any fun to play.

- The Game -

Installation is quick and straightforward using DOSBox.  I always like old DOS sound setup menus, it brings back some good nostalgia feelings.


Luckily the autodetect for settings worked for both MIDI and Digital, so I did not have to mess with IRQ and DMA.  I can remember always choosing the same numbers, but I can't remember which numbers those were.  

After a smooth and quick install, time to fire it up!  It starts with the standard pub/dev logos and then a cool logo for the BRender engine that I presume is used in the game.  I'm kind of surprised this game was never released on the Phillips CDi, given that is was published by a Phillips company.  I assume those two Phillips companies are related. 

Publisher

Developer

Engine
After the logos, the intro cinematic begins playing.  I was able to track down a manual, where there is a brief backstory description:
Your scout craft emerges from the launch bay of the huge mothership that has transported you. Psaph Abal. far from your home planet of Taola. As the rays of a distant sun star fall on your craft's hull, a planet glides into view, its surface hidden below a vaporous, swirling atmosphere.
For thousands of years, your advanced race has sought out new worlds and life forms in the quest for knowledge and an understanding of the universe. New discoveries involve complex data collection procedures - a complete study of every physical, biological, chemical, elemental and socialstructuring detail. Only then will everything be in place to make that tentative first contact.
As a scientific surveyor, it's your mission to initiate the first data collection run on the planet slowly rotating before you.
Your craft, a very advanced machine of liquid metamorphic metals, goes into a high orbit around the shrouded planet and starts carbon lifeform scans, by performing a routine mapping of terrain several miles below. Incoming data is transformed into a 3-dimensional holomodel of the landscape below - initially nothing but swamp and vegetation. After mapping a complete orbit, a carbon form of sentient life is detected in a single pocket of forest close to the equatorial belt. But there's something corrupting several of the data streams and you can't deduce any further readings - so you decide to break with protocol and ease down through the atmosphere to see for yourself.
Almost immediately, a warning beacon screams. You're on the edge of a swelling, electromagnetic storm right in your flight path. You've no time to avoid it...a fork of lightning strikes, the rear of your craft melts and you're in an uncontrollable downward spiral.
Suddenly you're through the lower cloud layer. There's a forest below. For seconds you regain some control and guide the craft towards a sparsely tree lined area bordering the horizon. As you and your craft smash on to the planet's surface, your world goes black...but...
someone, something is watching...
TL;DR is I am a scientific explorer sent to explore a planet and I crashed on it after detecting life.

My mothership


The planet

Me

I'm giving her all she's got captain!

Going down

This fellow watched my ship crash

Title screen
There's a lot of cutscenes so far, so I'm trying to balance posting too many screenshots while also showing how the story is established.  I'll try to be careful not to overload the page with cinematic screenshots.

After I crashed, I'm shown laying on the jungle ground after being thrown from my ship.  The alien that watched my ship go down runs over to me to help (I hope):



Resurrecting me?
The alien puts some kind of purple orb into me and I rise up and emit a purple glow and then regain consciousness.  My new alien friend looks like a mix of gazelle and ant, and like most aliens he/she/it does not wear pants.  Just as I am asking who the alien is and what happened to my ship, some bad guy enemies come flying out of the jungle on jetbike speeders just like in Return of the Jedi.  The alien gets on his jetbike and gives me one that I jump onto and then...the game cuts to the main menu.  It's kind of like a cliffhanger to make sure you want to actually start a new game.

Main menu
The main menu is pretty standard.  Difficulty options are Normal and Expert, I'm starting on Normal.  Game Configuration is mostly control options, of which there are a lot.  There are options for mouse, joystick, joypad, and keyboard control, cursor speed, and whole bunch of different language selections.  I guess being a European developer must have helped  in having all these language options.  I'm not used to seeing Dutch as a language option.   

Selecting Start New Game puts me right back into the game, sitting my jetbike with my new alien partner motioning for me to follow:


Me

Alien partner
Gameplay starts

Here is the gameplay of the first level in action.  I'm shooting at two enemies while they throw bombs at me.  I destroy one of the enemies at the end of the GIF:


The whole sequence really is a lot like the speeder scene in Return of the Jedi, except here the stormtroopers are evil cyborgs and Leia is a bipedal gazelle.  I get a few seconds to shoot at the enemies and defend myself by shooting the bombs they throw at me before the game cuts to a quick pre-rendered cutscene for a few seconds, then cuts back to gameplay again.  Killing an enemy results in a pre-rendered death animation.  The bars in the console in the middle of the screen represent my health (orange) and the gun energy (green).  Shooting causes the gun energy bar to rise and if it hits full, my guns slow down their rate of fire until they cool down.  The actual shooting isn't bad for what it tries to do.  I like that there is an actual animation of the guns firing, and the sound is what I imagine a machinegun or autocannon on a futuristic jetbike would sounds like.  I can't complain.

I can complain about the music though because its awful.  It reminds me of a Saturday morning cartoon action scene from the 80s, which in itself isn't bad, but here it doesn't set a very tense mood.  The graphics are nicely rendered and smooth, which is all I can ask for from this kind of game.  It reminds me of a lot of other typical 90s DOS and early Windows CGI graphics.

After blowing up about 10 of the enemies, my new friend and I make our way to what I assume is his home village.


We walked into a large temple-looking building and immediately the guy above starts yelling at us and accusing me of being an intruder.  Luckily he and everyone else here speaks English, so there is no awkward language barriers.  This ant/gazelle leader also does not wear pants by the way.  But he does look quite strong so I'm duly intimidated. 


Luckily my new alien friend comes to my defense, at which point I also learned his name is Gaan.  That's a nice name I suppose...Gaan.


At some point in the conversation, the leader reveals that his species is fighting a war of survival against the cyborg enemies that attacked Gaan and I.  In the distance past, these two peoples were actually the same species, but the cyborgs became too attached to their technology and the two species diverged.  Now the cyborgs oppress and exterminate Gaan's people, who are unable to fight back against the cyborg's superior technology.  The leader makes a proposal to me:

Seeing as how I don't have much a choice...I'll take it!
The first step in fighting back against the cyborg gazelles is taking out an outpost not far from the village.  Gaan and I are to sneak in and blow the place up.

I have the subtitles turned on but there is voice acting throughout the game so far.  The voice acting is not great but its no worse than other games of this era.  The main character and my sidekick are kind of cringey, but surprisingly the village leader voice actor is doing a nice job.

The outpost


I'm already making jokes and acting quite comfortable around my new alien friend.  Gaan takes out the lone guard with a ninja star, and then he and I sneak into the outpost through this sewer pipe.  Once we got inside, Gaan was immediately grabbed by a cyborg enemy and taken through a door that locked behind him and his kidnapper.

"Gaan!" I yelled
After Gaan is taken, the game switches to the 3D adventure mode.  The village leader mentioned earlier that he is a telepath, so assume that is him talking to my mind below.



OK, the 3D adventure part of the game.  It is as awkward to control as I thought it would be.  The camera is fixed and you move the character around my turning left or right and then pressing UP to go forward in that direction.  The basic movement controls are similar to games like Bioforge, Alone in the Dark, and even the game I just finished playing: Crusader: No Remorse.  And like those games, the controls are difficult to use.

And also like those games, the camera is fixed and sometimes it is fixed at inconvenient positions that makes it so you can't see where your character is going.  I'll try to find a bad one for a screenshot later on.  I'm starting out in a sewer pipe here so there isn't a lot to say about the background graphics besides the fact they are fine.  There is no mistaking that this is a game that came out early in 3D polygonal graphics technology though.  I can barely tell that my character has a face, his entire body is heavily pixelated.  But I'll give the game a pass for that since it did come out in 1995.

The first thing I'm going to do is check out that conspicuous blue thing on the wall.  My copy of the game is just the jewel case, but I was lucky enough to find a manual online so I could check the controls.  "1" draws my weapon, CTRL fires, and SPACEBAR uses things.  Using the blue thing brings up a computer interface in an alien language.

Indeed
In a nice touch, I can use the top button in the middle of the interface to access a database of...stuff and the bottom button to access a map.  I can even click on parts of the map to bring up options to do things like open and close doors.  Cool, I like that.

Maybe this is an enemy?  From the database



Map (also, I like the reflection in the screen)
After messing around with the computer for a bit, the only way forward is to walk further down the pipeline.  The depth perception in this game is pretty horrible, I can't tell if the pipe goes on for a hundred feet or 5 feet.


 

After less than 5 feet, I fell down a hole into another pipe, and this pipe has a fan that is sucking me towards it!  I can run against it and escape its pull, but if I stand still it pulls me in.  Also, notice how I don't really have a face.  The red ring around the fan makes me think this might be a bad idea, but I'm going to try running through its blades since I can't think of any other way to go.

That didn't work
Instead of running through the blades, the blades chopped me up into pieces.  Maybe shooting the fan is an option.  My weapon shoots a green laser and does not appear to be limited by ammunition, which is good since the aiming is so impossible so far.

Ha
I was able to shoot the fan which destroyed it and opened a passageway forward.  After dropping down into a few more holes and jumping over another fan, I came to the first enemy that I could easily see.  It is a small lizard type creature that does not seem sentient.  In fact, it is just kind of sitting there even after I shot at a it a few times.

Shooting at a lizard creature
 The next room seems to be a dead end, unless those conspicuously placed barrels could be explosive...?

There's something about the way those barrels are placed...

They are explosive

That opened up another passage way.  I'm thankful there haven't been any difficult puzzles to solve yet, especially involving that alien computer interface.  Although I have a feeling I'll be using that later.  The game has been linear so far, but I've gone done some holes and taken an elevator, so I'm moving around a lot vertically.   It was not long before I found my first cyborg enemy and fought a pretty one-sided duel with it.  It shot back at me a few times, but it was pretty easy to kill.

My first encounter with an enemy cyborg
It seems to have the same kind of weapon that I do.  Which makes sense because I'm using a borrowed weapon from my new alien friends, and they evolved from the same species as these enemies.  

I killed one of these guys and it dropped one of it's hands that I assume I can pick up since none of the other cyborgs were dropping a hand.  It took me a long time to figure out that crouch (Z) is also the pickup button.  You have to lined up exactly on the item, so I spend a few minutes bobbing up and down walking around in circles trying to pick up that damn hand. 

The hand
Now that I have the hand, I can't figure out to do with it.  The controls are very simple, there is only one weapon and one fire button and no inventory, so I know it's not a second weapon I can equip.  I finally had to break down and check an online walkthrough, and it turns out I need to go back to earlier computer console and use that console to upgrade my laser.  I don't think I would have found that out on my own.

Now it's my new hand

Upgrading my laser
After upgrading my laser (it now shoots red and faster), I find my way to much more open environment of raised platforms over a deep pit.  Even my character comments how big it is.



I'm a little worried about falling off these platforms, since this seems exactly like the kind of game that would have that be a possibility.

*sigh*


OK so I need to be more careful around the edges.  Actually, after reloading my game and walking around, it turns out the part where I fell off the platform is the only part you can fall off, I think.  Everywhere else, the railings do their job.  There were two enemies on the platforms that I dispatched, and then I mapped what else is up here.  There is one computer terminal, one elevator, and one broken looking piece of platform.  I'm going to use the computer terminal first before going anywhere.

It brings up the usual database and map options.  On the map option, I can click on two things.  Clicking on a big wrench symbol (aliens use wrenches like us!) plays a video of a repair droid coming down to fix the bridge but instead it breaks the bridge, creating a ramp down to the lower level:



The other thing I can click on the map is a doorway button that when clicked brings a clear tube across to connect to the dead end platform that I fell off earlier.  I followed the ramp down and it brought me eventually to a dead end where my character won't go on because it's too dark.  So I must need to turn on some lights somehow.

Taking the elevator down lead me to a new kind of cyborg enemy that did some nasty damage to me and also resulted in a dead end door that I could not open.

The silver blob is the new enemy
So the only other option is to go across the clear tube that I activated on the computer terminal.  I found a room that has a lattice-work of lasers across the floor, and an item to pick up on the otherside of the room.  If I've learned anything from videos games about lasers on floors, its that walking through those lasers will trigger some kind of trap.

It's a trap!
Yep! Those green lasers are shooting at me from the turrets that rose up in the corners of the room.  I was able to pick up the thing and it is an Audio Key.  Checking the manual lets me know that Audio Keys are used to open security doors by using them to match the notes made by the doors.  I'm glad I checked the manual again because I also learned that the enemies are called "Daks" and I learned the game has 4 levels: The Forest (which I already played), the Mine, and two Dak Bases (Armory and Outpost).  So that gives me an idea of the length of the game.

Using the audio key here was easy since the security door I needed to open only made one sound, but I'm sure they will get more difficult later on.

Audio key interface
Those yellow bolts are coming from an enemy I can't see
I'm now coming to some larger rooms that are made difficult by the terrible camera angles.  In the screenshot above, a Dak is shooting me from outside the screen, so all I can do is blindly shoot back at the direction the Dak's bolts are coming from and hope I hit him.  Look at my health too, I'm doing so great.

Again
Whoa, I let this post get out of hand again, it is getting way too long.  I need to work on posting less detail I think.  I'll try to wrap this one up soon.

Now that the levels is opening up with some larger rooms, I'm having issues getting my bearings and keeping the rooms straight.  A lot of these big hangers look the same.  I'm also dangerously low on health and I'm not finding any health pickups.  I did find another powerup for my gun though, so I have "more firepower", as my character says.

Button pressing puzzle
 This was a timing puzzle that took me a while to beat.  The three consoles all have to be activated and running at the same time.  But when I turned one on, it only stays on for 10 seconds or so.  So I needed to rush to all three consoles and turn them on all within 10 seconds of starting the first one.  I actually prefer timing puzzles like this over platforming puzzles.  As I've said many many many times already on this site.  Sorry.

After completing that puzzle, I received a message from my alien ally that I need to find and disrupt their communication beam by finding its terminal.

Health!
The final part of this level was confusing so I'll just outline what I did.  I ran back to an earlier part of the level and boarded a tram to a central computer room.  There I turned off a bunch of things on another alien computer interface screen.  I then took the tram back and went to a big central room where I had to crouch to shoot a laser lens that was not obvious at all.  I then went back to another seemingly random computer terminal and turned the laser back on, which resulted in a self-destruct sequence where I have limited time to escape.

I am probably just getting older and I'm probably not as invested in this game as I should be for a legitimate playthrough, but there is no way I would have figured this out on my own.  I used a walkthrough to finish this last part of the mission.  I think there are a couple reasons why I found it so difficult.  First off, like I mentioned, I am not super invested in this game.  If I was, I may be more inclined to remember which computer terminals control what and which doors remained locked vs. which can be opened by switches, etc.  Also, this kind of difficulty was just more prevalent during this era of gaming.  Without these puzzles, the game's levels are not that big and could be rushed through in an hour.  But this game requires the player to backtrack a lot and re-try all of these terminals and buttons that the player has already passed by.  There is a lot of trial and error and backtracking that adds length to the game.  I suppose if you paid extreme attention you could remember that there was a terminal further back in the level that had a button that you couldn't press at the time, and could therefore intuit that maybe that button would be active now.  But that is a lot to ask of a player (me) right now.

But back in the 90s, we didn't have easy access to walkthroughs online, so if we bought a game like this, we put in the time and effort to solve these kinds of puzzles.  I'm just not willing to do it right now.  Also, I don't like this game very much.

ANYWAY...

Add caption
Now I have a timer to escape, it starts at 4:00.  I need to run back through a lot of the level to escape.  Again, I would not have any idea to go without a walkthrough.  I end up finding a door that had been previously locked and opened by using a computer terminal that had a button that I previously could not push.  Clear as mud.

Timer in the upper right

That big mech looks dangerous
I found my way to this big hanger guarded by the biggest enemy I've encountered yet.  A huge purple mech.

Fighting the purple mech
After destroying the big purple mech, I ran do a door and started a cool first-person shooting sequence where I need to shoot an oncoming truck.


I kind of liked this quick sequence, too bad it only lasts a few seconds.  The game should include more of like it.

After that, the escape cinematic plays of me escaping the exploding outpost:

Action hero style!
As soon as I return to the alien village, the elder immediately tells me to attack the Dak armory where Gaan and some other prisoners are held.  Come on man!  Can I at least get a snack and a shower?  The main character actually complains about needing some down time.  But nope!  The next sequence is a rail shooter sequence:


Not doing too well...
This sequence is pretty tough.  I need to shoot enemies, their bombs they throw at me, and oncoming pylons.  The game also seems to hint that I need to roll my ship to line up with the tunnel openings, but I can't figure out how.  Maybe I am supposed to use my shields and just absorb the hits I take from hitting the tunnel debris?

I failed
I tried this sequence a few times, but I think it's time to call it quits on Alien Odyssey.  I put a few hours into it and I'm ready to move on to the next game.

- Review -

Alien Odyssey is definitely a product of its time.  The gameplay is just not very good in any of its modes, but that was considered OK at the time because it had great graphics.  Developers were so excited to make use of the new possibilities of CD-ROMs and improving computer graphics that a lot of times they forgot to make the gameplay good.  There are many examples of terrible FMV games that exist solely because they are FMV.  Alien Odyssey is not as bad as many of those games, but it is not good either.  

The graphics are difficult to criticize because while they look horrible when compared to today's games, they were really good when it originally came out.  The voice acting is not great, but it was notable that it had voice acting at all.  Also, the main village elder does a nice job.  

The opening scene on the jetbikes is not bad.  It is a rail shooter with pre-rendered graphics and that's all there is to it.  It's hard to nitpick on that kind of gameplay because there is so little to it.  The cursor is responsive and I like the sound of the machine guns.  That's all I can really say.  Similarly, the sequence in the mine at the end of my playthrough is good enough, even though I died trying to get through it.  It reminds me a similarly frustrating sequence in Rebel Assault 2.  

The 3D third person adventuring was not any fun.  I had more fun on the rail shooting scenes even though they were just a small fraction of my playing time.  The adventuring portion has poor control and confusing puzzles.  A big problem is nothing is ever explained to the player, I never really had any idea of what to do.  Essentially, I was just constantly trying to progress to new rooms and hope that another cinematic would trigger and move the story forward.  Without a walkthrough, I would never have figured out I was supposed to shoot the lens while crouching and I would have never figured out which computer terminal to use to start the self-destruct sequence or which ones open some of the doors. 

Even though the game has most of its emphasis on the adventuring part, it is not as well developed as other games of the time.  You don't have an inventory, there are no NPCs, no backstory, and a really wimpy sounding weapon.  I do like that I was able to upgrade my gun though.   

After spending a few hours with Alien Odyssey, I can say that I don't recommend it.  It's not a terrible game, but it contains a lot of the tropes that were common in the 90s (sacrificing gameplay for graphics, obtuse puzzles) that will drive modern gamers crazy.  I give it 1 Alien Odyssey Hero out of 5.


Thanks for reading my post about Alien Odyssey!  I'm not sure what the next will be.  If anyone reads this and has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

1 comment:

  1. I happened to stumble across this blog as I randomly remembered this game and felt the urge to google it. Ended up reading through a whole bunch of other entries too. I just wanted to take a second to send some appreciation your way for the work you put into the entries and the blog as a whole. From the comprehensive specs/history, playthrough with screenshots & gifs, and the overall review of the game, your documentation of these obscure and near forgotten games is second to none.

    Anyways, whether or not you continue with this blog or you've moved onto something else, your work here is appreciated.

    Thanks man.

    ReplyDelete