Blacksea Odyssey is a very different type of rogue-like combining the stage-based elements of The Binding of Isaac with the twisted inventiveness of Dark Souls‘ enemy design.
Though there are some small problems in terms of sound design and balance, they are easily over-lookable and do not detract from a great journey into the primordial Blacksea.
The game’s premise is simple. Every four years the bravest (and maddest) hunters in the galaxy gather to compete in a competition to pursue and kill the most gargantuan and dangerous monsters in the universe. The tone is often light-hearted and humorous, subtly self-satirising. You start the game as the Old Man who is something of a mix of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. Instead of losing his leg like Ahab, the Old Man had lost his arm to the white whale, and will not stop until he has found redemption in slaying the beast.
The game is filled with neat allusions to nautical stories and myths, often playing on them and dressing them up in cyberpunk clothes. The dialogue and item descriptions have been designed to add to a sense of history behind Blacksea Odyssey: Lucidity, for example, is a spear carved from the eye of the Cyclops king who tried to destroy Asgard. This mish-mash of mythologies (Cyclops from the Greek and Asgard from the Norse) works well in a game where the premise is that the best hunters have journeyed from the far corners of the universe. This lore-building technique is not new, of course, it was pioneered by Miyazaki in Demon’s Souls, but Blacksea is such a radically different genre and game type that it doesn’t seem too much of an encroachment on this territory. Blacksea is not trying to create an immersive, dark story experience that has to be pieced together, such as with Darkest Dungeon or the Dark Souls series. The writing is not profound – it does not poetically raise questions about reality – but it does give you a sense that the developers are piecing together their own combined mythos. The setting and world of Blacksea Odyssey is not so much an attempt at originality, but a highly inventive way to draw from as many sources as possible.
The awesome enemy design goes a long way in telling its own kind of story. There is a huge diversity of creatures to be found in the Blacksea, though perhaps still not as wide in scope as The Binding of Isaac. Often these enemies move and attack in surprising ways (excreting poisonous clouds from their rear ends, jabbing with humongous tongues, folding in half to reveal secret mouths). The enemies have interesting weaknesses, and finding these weaknesses is the name of the game in Blacksea Odyssey due to the unique combat mechanic of “harpooning”.
As well as the standard ranged attack common to all rogue-likes, you can also right-click to cast a more powerful harpoon into a fleshy part of a creature. Certain appendages are key weak points. If you damage these limbs and then harpoon them, you can drag your harpoon back and break off the limb, causing catastrophic damage (and producing satisfying explosions of blood). Many creatures will have several limbs which can be removed, creating a frenetic, furious combat as you dance around the monster, looking for the final, tearing deathblow.
Couple this with an interesting series of status effects including poison, frost, flame and most spectacularly, hallucinations (caused either by the psychedelic mushrooms sprouting from the gnarly boughs of asteroids or from the poisonous whalefrog tongues) which make your screen blurry, manipulate the colours of the game and even can confuse your control-inputs. In the early-access version of the game, the power boosts (essential to any rogue-like) were quite limited in scope, but since they have added in a greater variety. These include frost-trails which slow and damage enemies, wards which knock enemies back if they touch you, and bonkers runes that, for example, increase damage the further away you are from your target.
The music is excellent though at times an issue from an older build of the game still occurs and it will flip between soundtracks if you are in and out of an enemy’s threat radius (think of the Oblivion fighting music starting up when a mudcrab is somewhere on the map). The transition between the tracks is abrupt, like a record jumping. If the individual songs had been better integrated the soundtrack might function more smoothly and jar the player less. On the other hand, the boss battle music and the shop music are both epic: capturing the vibe of old-school video-games and providing a real ambiance.
One other small gripe is that there are no enemy or combat sounds. Dialogue is entirely text. Though I can understand the team behind Blacksea Odyssey is small, in this particular genre it feels like they are missing an important auditory dimension. Imagine what Dark Souls would be like if it was just music with no horrible, slithering noises in the dark. Most of the atmosphere would vanish. That the colossal gargants in Blacksea are silent makes them feel less unique and also less threatening.
There is only one game-mode, which is common to most rogue-likes. Sometimes, the early stage map (the “Swamp” zone) can become repetitive after a few deaths (especially when you’re learning the game), but that, again, is the point of most rogue-likes. When you see the complex and challenging levels waiting for you just over the next boss, the early stages start to feel dull and trivial. Unlike other roguelikes, where the boss battle comes at the same clearly defined point, Blacksea Odyssey has a variance in that you have to explore the area to find the boss. When you a start a level, there will be four or five flashing points of activity on your radar. Investigating these will eventually lead you to the boss, or a nest of poisonous frogs, squids or any number of horrors. All this is a bleed on your health before you fight the big fight. One small problem with this is that though it adds an exciting level of the unknown (and makes you feel like an actual colossus-hunter searching for the big beast) it can also mean you have virtually no health left at the end of a close battle. In Blacksea, you will find to your horror, your health carries over to the next zone. Health barely ever drops. Good luck getting through the next exploration and colossus on 13 HP.
In an early build of the game some of the bosses were quite easily exploitable, but that has gone away now and instead you have to take them on the harpoon way, brutally pulling them apart (otherwise your projectiles will do you as much good as toothpicks). There are some wonderful specimens: tremendous crystalline beasts with razors for legs that shoot shards of gemstone, massive pyramidal monsters that open up to reveal line on line of poison-spouting orifice. You might get the picture from my descriptions that this is not an easy game. It requires immense mouse-accuracy and bullet-hell skills. I struggled for a long time to even get past the second stage – but because of the expert design and the variety of builds possible, I became eager to know what’s out there in the dark. What hadn’t I seen that was waiting for me?
Blacksea Odyssey is by no means perfect, but it does get a lot right. And more than that, it gets the right things right. Unlike so many studios now who seem to nail the production elements but fail on variety and creativity, Blacksea is the other way around. The sound could be smoother. The balance could be adjusted. But man, the enemies are fun. The first time the butterfly splits itself in half and reveals rows of razor teeth, I couldn’t help but suppress a joyful laugh. I was so glad to see something at first so apparently beautiful turn out to be wacky and horrifying as hell (and try to kill me). They’ve learned a lot from Dark Souls: the boss victory screens are even reminiscent (and satisfying), but that’s okay, because this isn’t a big triple-A title. Its aesthetic is wildly different: cartoonish and full of bizarre nautical cornucopia. Everything is helped by the fact it’s taking itself very un-seriously indeed. Despite its humour, there is a sense of mystery; if you’re at all curious to know what’s out there in the depths of the Blacksea, and if you like that Dark Souls-esque moment of “you got me”, I suggest this game might be for you.