Osmos Review

By: Ben Barrett

Published: September 17, 2009 Posted in: Review

I am utterly terrible at this game. There’s no getting past it, I just don’t have “what it takes”. A week ago I was calmly anticipating an atmospheric, if easy, little game with not too many complexities where my main complaints would be generic and everyone would go home with a nice 75-80%. You know, like the demo.

In other words, playing Osmos was like getting knocked out by a sharp kick to the face from an eight year old. The premise is simple enough – you are a ball of organic matter, absorb smaller balls to get bigger. To move you eject small amounts of yourself in the opposite direction; propelling you across the 2D “map”. The movement system works entirely on momentum, so if you fire yourself in one direction; the globes you released are going to push away something else.

osmos shots: Osmos Title Screen

For the first few levels you’re simply tasked with becoming the largest in a sea of easily navigable opposition. One of these contains an “attractor” that operates like a star, turning the level into a giant solar system. This, incidentally, is beautiful. The entire game is. Simply zooming out and adjusting the speed would make a brilliant screensaver, and the music cannot be praised enough. A wonderful ambiance fills the entire game, producing an atmosphere that’s unbelievably calming.

Which it really, really needs to be. I have never been so frustrated with such a simple concept since I spent literally a year of my life stuck on the same levels of N. There is a devastating difficulty curve that ramps up as soon as the introductory levels are completed. One mistake can ruin fifteen minutes work and send you spiralling back to the start of a map. The impasse levels, where you must carefully maneuver around gigantic spheres until you are big enough to absorb them are lessons in patience, with mistakes from the beginning not coming into effect until the very end of a level.

The number of game modes that have been developed from this one premise is reminiscent of Plants Vs. Zombies. Each takes a particular mindset to get past and uses different aspects of the physics present. Things get particularly difficult (and pretty) when trying to negotiate around several attractors, before they get big enough to be unabsorbable, or to catch target spheres orbiting them. The easiest (and weakest) set of levels involve “fighting” against other intelligent lifeforms, a sort of simulated PvP. The race-like situation this results in – as you continually struggle to catch up to, surpass and then absorb your opponent(s) – is a very intense piece of gaming that the AI present perhaps does not make it as good as it could be.

osmos shots: Whoops

This variety is extended by the fact that every level can be “randomised” with a button press. This is useful for allowing a change without giving free progression to the player. The inverted commas are in place to signify that a level will always be the same when you first start it, and each randomisation press will become the same variation – but there are enough pre-set versions that this is of no consequence. Effectively, the game is at least ten times as big as the number of levels it has.

However, I must protest that in a game that is as easy to get angry at as this, that there is no way of saving your progress through a chapter of levels. Many times I have beaten the first in a set only to be frustrated by the second and, thinking I would get back to it another time, quit. I don’t mind frustration – it’s kind of the point, and the feel of the game allows it to occur without the usual accompaniment of smashed keyboard and broken monitors – but I don’t want to have to repeat my successes to reach my failures every time.

The following problem seems unbelievably petty, but hear me out: it takes too long to restart a level. Take two other games that feature levels that require a lot of repetition to get right: N and Trackmania. In either one, a single button press is enough to go right back to the start (admittedly in N, this is only once you have died, but before then you do not need to), at which point the map instantly restarts. Osmos takes just a little. too. long. to do so.

It is, however, difficult to fault a game as pretty and well put together as this. Moreover, for the worst of us, it’ll last decades.

Ben Barrett