August 15, 2009 1:58 PM | Michael Rose
At first glance, Osmos looks like another one of those 'organism vs organism' eat-em-ups. Dodge anything bigger than you, consume everything smaller, grow in size, repeat. It's a tried and tested formula of late - yet a formula which is in need of some serious alterations to keep it fresh.
Hemisphere Games have attempted to take this idea to a new level, and as a result Osmos is not just the pinnacle of organism simulation play - it's also a fantastic action game and a damn good puzzler to boot.
The basics first: You follow a tiny living cell which must navigate an equally miniscule world by sacrificing itself bit by bit in an attempt to propel its matter around. Other such beings are dotted around the level and colliding with anything smaller than yourself will absorb them into your cell, resulting in your blob growing in size. Finding the balance between sacrifice vs absorption is essential and perfecting this will eventually see you through.
Rather than run with one single idea of eat-or-be-eaten, Osmos is split into three different sections, each brilliantly represented as chemical elements. Each of these gameplay directions use the exact same playing field and control scheme, but must be approached in a specific way.
The fl0w-style AI-populated set of levels are all about speed and efficiency. Hang around too long and all the larger ectoplasms will have gobbled down the smaller ones - and you'll be the only thing left on the menu! Of course, they aren't stupid either - go in for the kill and rivals will turn tail and scarper. The constant threat of being out-sized makes for a more frantic, fast-paced experience than Jenova Chen and his team offered.
Then there are the levels best described as the puzzle section. It's all about precision and timing here and you must possess a great deal of patience to make it through safely. Initially overwhelmed, slight nudges can be used to propel enemies away, clearing a path to success. It is possible to speed up and slow down time for all the precision perfect movements - and by God, you'll be doing that often. Many situations will require you make a move then simply sit and watch for a lengthy amound of time whle the results slowly unfold, so you'll be praising the ability to speed things up. Let me just reiterate again - you will need an inhuman amount of patience to see certain parts through.
The third game type - easily my favourite - involves gravity, orbits and serious strategy. Think the sun with everything spinning around it and you've pretty much got the idea. So not only have you got to navigate your way through tons of moving organisms, you also need to understand and handle the forces pulling your own little guy around. What is absolutely fantastic is that your line of orbit is visible and can show you whether you're cruising for a bruising or sailing along safely. The later orbiting levels are especially good fun as they involve multiple 'suns' and trying to move your blob into a safe path is genuinely fascinating.
All of this wonderful gameplay is helped along by the beautifully polished and tantalisingly atmospheric feel Hemisphere Games have pumped through the entire experience. It looks gorgeous and those little special effects here and there make all the difference. The musical score, too, fits the mood to a tee and causes full immersion between your head and the Osmos world.
I noticed quite early on that I received an achievement for unlocking every zone in the game. This was probably after about an hour's worth of play, so I assumed Osmos must be quite a short title. How very wrong I was - for, although the number of levels is a little 'bare minimum', the sheer amount of time it takes to complete some of the final zones is intense. This is no walk in the park - Osmos is incredibly difficult and only the most patient will see it through to the end.
Which brings me on to another point. This isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. It's a very specific genre and if you've played titles like this before and not really enjoyed yourself, this probably won't be any different. Sure, Hemisphere have expanded on the idea to a great degree, but it is essentially still an eat-em-up at heart. Fortunately there is a demo available for those sitting on the fence.
Osmos mixes puzzle, action and strategy remarkable and all the while does it with great finesse and style. It's packed full of seriously good fun and will genuinely force that brain of yours into motion. Going for a mere $10, you'd do well to check it out.
[Osmos is currently available to pre-order via Direct2Drive, where they have a brilliant 'two copies for $11' offer on at the moment. The game will also appear on Steam at some point soon. Osmos is to be released August 18th]