Today’s adventure takes us far under the sea. No, not to Spongebob Squarepants. I can see you all getting your jokes ready already, so calm down. No, the game here is not sponges, but rather squids. These tentacled denizens of the deep can be anywhere from adorable to terrifying, and Squids Odyssey spends it’s time swaddled snugly in the former. But this Wii U/3DS title is more than just a cute face, as it turns out, and is actually quite a surprisingly complex mass of tentacles and ink. Put on your scuba gear and make sure it’s been an hour since you ate last, and let’s dive into the waters of Squids Odyssey.
If you enjoy turn-based RPGs but find the standard fare a bit dull, you may turn to tactical strategy RPGs. This kind of game is usually turn-based within an arena structure, and typically puts you in command of a group of characters with varying abilities. In Squids Odyssey, you are put in command of a small squad of up to four squids collecting treasure, fighting foes, and whatever else the game dictates. Most strategy RPGs stick to the typical “kill all the dudes” objective religiously, but Squids isn’t afraid to get more creative. This sense of variety helps compel you to play on its own, just to see what gets thrown at you next.
What most immediately sets Squids Odyssey apart, though, is its gameplay. Simply calling it a strategy RPG doesn’t actually describe it quite well enough, because Squids incorporates physics-based strategy into the mix. Each squid you control is pulled pack and launched to move, either with an analog stick or the touch screen. Different squids will have varying amounts of maximum distance per launch, as well as launches per turn, and how far you draw the squid back dictates how far it will shoot. Each level is designed with obstacles like spiny barnacles, but with the right thinking, even these can be used to your advantage. Using obstacles and the edge of the arena to your benefit is a core part of the strategy. There are also item capsules scattered across the levels, which can give squids a variety of useful temporary advantages, such as a spiky shell or a chance of evading oncoming attacks.
There are four basic kinds of squids. You have your scouts, which can get an extra burst of movement a certain number of times per turn, launching them in whatever direction they’re already facing while moving. This can be useful when reaching far distances, but is somewhat unstable and can be hectic and inadvisable in cramped, hazardous spaces. Healers help their teammates regenerate health by bumping into them or being bumped into, and have far reach to maneuver to injured teammates with ease. Shooters and troopers both have good offense, as well as their own special attacks. A shooter can blast away an enemy from a distance, while a trooper can preform a quake attack that hits every enemy within a radius. Both of these powers can be used once per turn, so plan accordingly. All squids can also attack enemies simply by being shot into them, with varying amounts of power depending on speed and strength stats.
The application of physics to a tactical strategy RPG is a really fresh step to take, especially for those getting bored of the standard turn-based RPG starting to feel too formulaic. You have to consider where to launch each squid based on their power and how much distance they can cover, and see what you can hit in order to affect the most stuff around you. It can be a bit tricky to get the hang of at first, but once you’ve gotten used to the unusual groove of the game you’ll find yourself setting up traps for hordes of oncoming enemies, and causing triple-damage chain reactions that gain you cool bonuses. When it comes down to it, Squids Odyssey brings a sense of genuine fun that too many modern RPGs have strayed away from. At it’s best, it’s a complete blast.
Now, hold on there Jay. You just said “at it’s best,” and then neglected to follow that up with an “at it’s worst.” What’s the deal, homie? Well, my young friend and so-called “homie,” this is where things get a bit tricky. The flaws in Squids Odyssey are really subjective to the age, skill, and thought process of the player. The main issue the game’s design faces is that some levels just don’t seem adequately designed to accommodate the kind of gameplay the age runs on. Why is this subjective, you may ask? The answer is that what I’m saying comes from someone who honestly isn’t good at physics games. If you’re a pro at stuff like Angry Birds and Peggle, you’ll be soaring through the seas with significantly more ease than someone like myself, who finds myself throwing my squids off cliffs and into spikes far too often. It’s a game of trial and error, and your error count will slow as your skill and practice increases. What one person might see as design flaws, another could see as sheer challenge.
Squids Odyssey starts you out with three characters, but will give you fourteen tentacled troops by midway through the game. This will include a couple of each squid type, with varying stats depending on what the situation requires. You can have four squids on the battlefield in any level, which may sound like too little, but actually works fine as long as you know how to arrange and maneuver your party members, depending on the situation.
Instead of different types of armor and weapons, Squids Odyssey works with a much simpler item system. Over the course of the game, you’ll gain access to various hats available from the shop, which provide various stat bonuses to your squids based on their type. What first came off as odd is that when you give a squid a hat, you can press a button to automatically apply the hat’s stat bonuses permanently. This means that every squid of a given class can be given all of the stat bonuses from all of the hats of a given type, then freeing you up to leave the given squid with whatever hat you think they look coolest with. Despite what you might think, though, this isn’t actually something to write the game off for. Squids Odyssey is intended for an all-ages audience, and this choice allows them to focus on making the core gameplay challenging without the often over-encumbering feeling of having to deal with equipment on top of everything else.
Hats aren’t the other thing that can be purchased with your post-battle cash. Spending pearls is actually what gains you level ups. Like with the hats, this may seem like a poor choice at first, but it actually works based on when situations require higher-level squids. If you find yourself stuck in an area, just backtrack to an earlier level, give it a couple replays, ace some bonuses, and watch the aqua-dollars flow into your wallet. Soon, you’ll be able to buff up your dudes and move on.
Squids is great because you never know entirely what to expect from a level. A lot of levels in the first world might have the standard “kill everyone” or “survive X number of turns” objectives, but others will challenge you to do things like set up traps for oncoming foes, shifting emphasis temporarily over to the physics puzzle elements of the game. Not long after, you’ll find yourself in levels where your team is predetermined based on the story, often forcing you to adapt yourself to types of strategy you normally would not. This works because if you have a couple characters who have become horribly under-leveled and are suddenly being put on the front lines, giving them a level boost isn’t much of a hassle. The above-mentioned hat bonuses also help even things out in this kind of situation.
The other huge draw of Squids is it’s presentation. Menu screens can be a tad choppy, and cutscenes are restricted to dialogue boxes and character stills, but it’s really hard to convince oneself that any of that matters. Each and every background and scene in the game is beautifully illustrated, and set to a soundtrack that transforms from The Little Mermaid to an old western classic. The sound effects and character animations have a ton of charm, enough so to carry the game for a good length even if it were utterly mechanically dull. There are even a smattering of clever references to other games, like the story chapter called “Red Squid Redemption.” I found myself laughing at completely inconsequential little things in this game a lot more than usual, and it’s a nice feeling. Squids Odyssey is a game that straight-up makes you smile.
The final notable bit of the presentation of this salt-water soaked saga is its story. The setup is simple enough, with the undersea world suddenly under attack by a mysterious black ooze that lays siege to the squid-ruled communities of the deep. There’s evil. What do we do when there’s evil? WE STOP THE EVIL! However simple the plot, though, it’s taken with the perfect balance of seriousness and silliness. Each squid in your party is characterized uniquely, and they all share plenty of dialogue. Some have brooding backstories, while others are simply along for the ride, and they’re all likeable. The story even has its small tragedies, and even though these are predictable, the characters react to them enough to engage players enough to keep going. Both the comedy and the drama are cheesy, but delightfully so, and never overbearingly. On top of this is some very decent worldbuilding, with four distinct kingdoms to make your way to over the course of your extensive journey.
Squids Odyssey is important because it reminds us that a game can be flawed and beautiful. Some might find the physics mechanics arduous and hard to get the hang of at first, or perhaps be annoyed by the simplification of some elements of the game, or even take issue with the occasional design of a level. But some of that is arranged the way it is for a reason, and that reason is to build a game that more than makes up for its small shortcomings. It is simple, and it does trivialize its hat system, but the game is still challenging at its core, enough so to hook experienced gamers through their entire run. There may be a slight difficulty curve for new players, but it doesn’t last long, and getting a handle on the mechanics is extremely rewarding. Once your sea legs have been acquired, this squid-slinging bumper cars-esque nature of this unusual tactics RPG is damn satisfying. At the end of the day, Squids Odyssey is fun to the point of addiction, and consistently charming throughout. This gift from the great Kraken himself is born of pure, satisfying fun, and slings itself 4.5 combat-ready cephalopods out of 5.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Wii U (Reviewed), 3DS; Publisher: The Game Bakers ; Developer: The Game Bakers; Players: 1; Released: May 22nd, 2014; ESRB: E; MSRP: $14.99
This review was based on review code provided by Squids Odyssey’s developer and publisher, The Game Bakers.