Erratic game runs hot and cold, and is likely to leave you disapppointed
*** (three stars out of five)Introduction
The game Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses
, by the French company Cryo, released in 2000, is based on The Odyssey
, written by the classical Greek epic poet Homer. The back story is as follows. After a ten-year battle to conquer Troy, the victorious Ulysses (or Odysseus as he is called in the original Greek text, hence the title) and his comrades try to sail home to Ithaca, but meet fierce opposition from the god of the sea Poseidon. Through Poseidon's interventions, Ulysses' crew keep getting lost at sea for another ten years, causing great distress to his faithful wife Penelope and their son Telemachus. Telemachus then embarks on a quest to find out if Ulysses is still alive and where he might be.
Instead of making the obvious choice of Telemachus as the leading character looking for Ulysses, the game invents the new, non-Homeric figure of one Heritias, oddly called Heriseus in the English version. This old friend of Ulysses, who has fallen into disgrace after an apparently accidental murder, sails off in search of him. He visits a number of locations which closely follow Homer's epic tale: the ruins of Troy
, the Island of Aeolus
, the Land of the Lotus-eaters
, the Land of the Cyclops
, a number of dangerous encounters with Poseidon
, the Island of the Laestrygonians
, the Island of Circe
, and finally a voyage to Hades
, the realm of the dead. As in The Odyssey
, I would have loved to have seen (and heard!) an interpretation of Ulysses' confrontations with the Sirens, and the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, but Cryo decided to skip those chapters.
Its adherence to the literary source makes the game a piece of so-called 'edutainment', meant to entertain and educate in equal parts. It was a theme that ran through most of Cryo's games. According to an advert at the time, they tried to capture 'the mystery of mankind in software technology', envisaged as 'an exciting journey through the cultures, mysteries and adventures of our history'. Navigation
Luckily, reading some reviews on this board and elsewhere prepared me for the keyboard-only navigation, where the arrow keys are the only way to move your character around. Once I got the hang of it, I could handle it, though it was never easy. I'm used to a first-person perspective, where you always look straight ahead of you, and the Cryo-type games, which offer you a full 360-degree view of your surroundings, as opposed to going through what often amounts to a slideshow of static views. The third-person perspective here reminded me a lot of Syberia
, in that your character sometimes walks away from you until he's only a speck on the horizon, sometimes faces you, or walks from left to right or the other way. But unlike Syberia
, the scene shifts were far more abrupt, and sometimes you lose sight of your character altogether, when he disappears behind a column or a wall. This can be very disconcerting, especially as you fear you might be startled by some assassin or other figure hiding there. The fact that you can't look ahead most of the time makes it hard to perform easy tasks, just as walking out a door, where you will often bump into the wall.
So though games like these are often called point-and-click games, here you can't actually point or click, which makes relatively simple challenges like handling or removing an object an arduous task. For instance, when I tried to escape from the prison, it took me a very long time to position my character in such a way that he would start to move an object, whereas this would have been dead easy, if I had been allowed to just click it.Character design
I think the look of the stylized, often elongated characters is partly based on antique paintings on vases and the like, which is a good thing, but the actual realization falls short. The figures are stiff and largely immobile, but the most striking aspect is that they are extremely polygonal. In other words, when you take a close look, you see they are entirely made up of overlapping triangles and other shapes, which sometimes come apart when they move, such that your characters' clothes sport angular holes. In particular, I thought all the multicoloured pixels in Poseidon's belly were a bit much, like a bad case of smallpox.Non-linear aspects
I liked the fact that problems and puzzles can be dealt with in more than one way, which will often influence the following actions. You can either be honest with some antagonists, lie to them, try to outwit them or even kill them to simply get them out of the way! Because I assumed that a lot of killing would affect my fate, I tried to avoid it wherever I could, and also because I just don't like it. And indeed, by the end you will be sentenced by three judges, on whose verdict the order of your visits to the various parts of the underworld will depend.Scenery
This is rather pretty and true to the story's settings (the Mediterranean), if you can see through the pixellated, spotty quality of the ground and objects like trees and houses. It didn't annoy me, because it's what is to be expected from a game made in 2000. Yet the design is sometimes so imaginative and beautiful, that it's a pity the rendering had to be so limited. If only the game had been made a few years later, its looks would have been pure eye candy.
For instance, the Island of Aeolus with its waving flags, fluttering ribbons, whirling petals, an air balloon, blowing air vents, accompanied by fitting sound effects, all convey perfectly the notion of wind in all its forms. In spite of some blockish parts, it's a great and inspirational scene.
[Outside the Temple of Aeolus]
One extremely thrilling aspect of the game is when Heriseus eats the narcotic fruit in the country of the Lotus-eaters. Suddenly the drab, neglected fortress of the city changes to a golden hue and other bright colours in fits and starts. It turns out the designers rendered the complete 3D-surroundings in two different palettes, simulating both a sober and a drugged view of the city.
[City of the Lotus-Eaters: sober view]
[City of the Lotus-Eaters: drugged view]
Near the end, the Netherworld of Hades is beautifully realized, with three stacked plains of the deepest, hellish pits of Tartarus, the sombre meadows of Asphodel and the green, sunny gardens of Elysium. It's nice touch to see that, indeed, the meadows of Asphodel are sprinkled with patches of the Mediterranean native flower Asphodelus ramosus.
[The Fields of Asphodel overlooking Tartarus]
[A commanding view of the Elysian Fields, with Asphodel
and Tartarus below]Literary dialogue
The language used throughout the game has a literary and poetic quality, strongly reminiscent of the Greek source. As such, it contributes greatly to the atmosphere of the game.
Troy is now but ruins and desolation. The camp stretching behind these walls is all that remains of the crushing victory of the Achaeans over the Trojans. Soon, the walls, too, shall disappear, and only Mnemosyne, muse of memory and its shades, will remember this once-celebrated city.
Rest assured that I respect your choice and understand your decision, Hakeus. But I am seeking Ulysses, the King of Ithaca and one of my dearest friends.His extended absence now renders his crown shaky, yet my quest has thus far led me nowhere. I've almost given up hope of finding him. You are my last resort.
When we landed upon these shores, little did we suspect the felicity that awaited us. Osiris, our god and benefactor, was expecting us and guided our every step. He honored us with his generosity and the hospitality of his city. Of all the gifts he bestowed on us, the Lotus alone fulfilled our every desire.
O, Tiresias, you who are among the most potent and wisest soothsayers, this blood is for you. For you, I have chosen the blood of the bravest, if most unfortunate, of all Titans. I promise you one hundred more sacrifices and one hundred more prayers, if it should please you to deign to appear before me.
In the Elysian fields, however, the quote "Here all is luxury, calm, and voluptuousness" is not by any classical poet, but a translation of Charles Baudelaire's French line "Là, tout n'est que [ordre et beauté,] luxe, calme et volupté" from the 19th century.Limited action and bugs
Since this is an adventure game, action elements are usually scarce, but here they turn up more than you would expect. When they appear, though, they suffer from limitations of the processor power and lack of memory of the day, and some poor planning. The movements of your adversaries are nearly always looped to save computer load, and this results in one Cyclops that trudges to and fro to the left of the cabin, who strangely fails to notice that you leave it on the right and climb the rock. Even worse, you're in full view of the second Cyclops on the beach and, later on, operating the catapult, but somehow he chooses to ignore you and wait for you to enter the dense forest, so he can kind of randomly stomp on you! Sometimes, the game suffers from poor movement programming. Heriseus can get stuck in a remote place where the screen freezes, or characters like the Laestrygonians bump into each other and run around in circles, until you hit 'Escape' and restart the game.
[Fighting the Cyclops]Traditionally inspired music
Gilles Sivilotto composed some very atmospheric music for the soundtrack, a bit reminiscent of Pierre Estève's scores for Cryo. It features Stephane Gallet on various traditional Turkish instruments, namely ney flute, and bowed and plucked tanbur (a kind of long-necked lute), Julien Levebvre on cello, and Thierry Cote on percussion. The Turkish influences come as a bit of a surprise here, because, though Troy is located in modern Turkey, The Odyssey
and also Heriseus' revisionist adventures of course completely centre on their conquerors, the Acheans - which we would now call Greeks. In spite of this, there are some highly memorable and quite fitting melodies, although some tracks, which are looped during gameplay, are in fact very brief.Mythology
Some have remarked that the derivative story insults the scope and vision of Homer's classic text The Odyssey
, but I disagree. For instance, contrary to their legendary status in literature and songs, like Tennyson's poem, the Lotus-eaters merit just one short paragraph in his story, which merely notes that the fruit induces drugged apathy, but doesn't tell anything else about the scenery, the people, their names, origins, clothes, habits or rituals. Same with the Laestrygonians. Just four paragraphs, in which we learn their city lies on a tranquil bay, surrounded by rocks, and that they are all ugly, man-eating giants. So all of this is left to the imagination. Homer's Odyssey
does tell you that the Laestrygonians lived on the island of Lamos, as in the game, and smashed passing ships by throwing heavy rocks at them, which is what the game recounts as well.
I already sensed in the initial Troy episode, that Poseidon
(the Roman god Neptune) or his henchmen would be my adversary. That is because of the trident that got Heriseus into trouble. The trident is the weapon always associated with Poseidon, and he got angry with Ulysses, because he killed one of his sons, the Cyclops. This curse carries over to Heriseus. The trident also appears as the dangerous weapon in the cutscene evoked by the oracle Hakeus near the Aeolus temple, and later as the weapon of Merops, Poseidon's accomplice.
Among the Greek gods, Pallas Athena
(Roman Minerva) is Poseidon's adversary, and the protectress of Greek heroes like Ulysses. The owl of wisdom is associated with her, and it is this owl that guides Heriseus through the Forest of Oblivion to a strange figure. This must be Pallas Athena, because she carries a shield which she had also given to Perseus to kill Medusa, one of the Gorgons. Heriseus is following in Perseus' footsteps here.
[Forest of Oblivion: Vision of Heriseus killing Mikis]
In the palace erected by Poseidon, Heriseus is confronted with the statues of the Minotaur
. The riddles they present him with reflect Greek mythology. The hero who slew the Minotaur inside the Labyrinth with the help of Ariadne's thread is indeed Theseus, who was also rescued from Hades by Hercules. Hercules in turn was continually harassed by Hera (Roman Juno), the wife of Zeus, who was justified in a way, since Zeus had fathered Hercules with another woman, Alcmene. The statue of Hercules shows the club he killed the Nemean Lion with, whose skin is draped over his head like a cloak. Prometheus was a Titan, a god, who was credited with both creating mankind and giving them fire stolen from the Olympus, for which he was eternally punished by Zeus. Accordingly, the statue shows Prometheus with fire in his hand and humans in his lap, and - only in the artwork - the hole in his belly where the eagle pecked his liver as punishment from Zeus. His punishment also involved, incidentally, the release of disasters on mankind from Pandora's box.
[Inside Poseidon's Palace: original artwork]
[Inside Poseidon's Palace: screenshot]
In this palace, our progress is hampered by a careless translation error in one of the riddles. In the original French, a specific person of indeterminate gender is held responsible for the harassment of Hercules and his father Zeus:
Moi, Héraklès, tout au long de ma vie, depuis mon berceau, jusqu'à ma mort, on m’a harcelé et cherché à me tuer.
Pendant toute sa vie, mon Père a été victime de ses persécutions et de ses suspicions.
This is translated into English as follows:
Throughout my life, from cradle to grave, I, Hercules, was harassed and everyone sought to kill me.
Throughout his life, my father was the victim of his persecution and his suspicions.
The problem is that in French, the possessive pronoun of the third person (son/sa/ses
, in English his/her
) agrees with the gender of the following noun, and not with the gender of the person it refers back to. Thus, 'ses persécutions et ses suspicions' is ambiguous, and could either mean 'his persecutions' or 'her persecutions'. In English, German and Dutch, the male referent would rule out Hera, and blocks the correct reply. If they had bothered to check the context of the riddle, a correct translation would have been:
Throughout my life, from cradle to grave, I, Hercules, was harassed and everyone sought to kill me.
Throughout his life, my father was the victim of this person's persecution and suspicions.
The goddess Circe
, as in Homer's writings, lived on the island of Aeaea (Aiaia), and had changed a number of Ulysses' men into pigs with a magic potion. Too bad that Circe could never have died, as she is a goddess, and the gods are immortal - though, as the fate of Prometheus shows, they can be wounded, and suffer a lot. And as a goddess, Circe lived in a grand stone palace, not a wooden farmhouse on top of a pigsty. The colour of Apollo would be yellow or gold, as he is often equated with the Greek Helios, the god of the sun, and accordingly rides a golden chariot and is portrayed with a golden halo. This fits in with Homer's description that Circe is Helios' daughter.
[Circe's house, her pigs and Aeolus' airship]
Some players complained that Circe's extensive instructions to enter Hades were shown only once, and thus impossible to remember. Well, they are written on a stone tablet in your inventory, which you can always check, and they are also taken almost verbatim from Homer's text:
Once you've crossed the ocean on your vessel, you'll find a little headland, with a small grove belonging to Persephone [aka Roman Proserpina], where the poplars and willows bear fruit rotting on the branches. Land your ship there, on the shore of the Ocean, where the whirlpools are deep. Then you must enter the slimy home of Hades. There, the Pyriphlegethon flows into the Acheron with the Cocytus, stemming from the parting of the Styx's waters. There where the two rivers gush into the Acheron is a rock. Approach it and dig a hole two feet round and two feet deep. Pour a libation for the dead around it. Then the soothsayer [Tiresias] will tell you your route, the distance, and the surest way of finding Ulysses. Before the Trojan war erupted, he was the greatest soothsayer of all. Now that he's in the Netherworld, he has nonetheless retained his extraordinary power.
[Put in the libation] first a mixture of honeys, then wine, then water. Make a blood offering to the gods, and promise them one hundred others upon your return to Ithaca. Sprinkle the libation with a little white barley flour, then make a blood offering to the gods, and promise them one hundred more upon your return to Ithaca.
Turn towards the riverbed and wait. Many deceased souls will gather. But hold your sword against your leg, do not move, and do not let the dead ones approach the blood before Tiresias appears.
(the name of both the Underworld and its god), you meet the ferryman Charon, as in classical myth, who you have to pay to cross the river Styx, usually with a coin hidden in your mouth. If you can't pay or haven't been buried properly, then you are doomed to wander around as a lost soul, haunting the living, and you can't cross to the realm of the dead. At that point Heriseus meets the ghost of his former, estranged companion Koppeas, just like Odysseus came across his deceased reckless comrade Elpenor, and some of his former brothers-in-arms. You also have to confront the hellhound Cerberus, who in the game can appeased by playing the flute - a twist on the Orpheus myth, who soothed the three-headed monster with his lyre when searching for his deceased lover Eurydice. As in the game, judges decide if the dead are rewarded or punished for their lives. Depending on your good or bad deeds, you are sent to either Tartarus
, the equivalent of hell, the Fields of Asphodel
, a neutral or twilight place, or Elysium
, a heavenly place for the blessed souls.
[Heriseus in Tartarus]
Just like Ulysses, Heriseus looks for Tiresias in the various places of Hades. In Tartarus, we meet some of the famous mythical damned souls: Tantalus
, the Danaïds
, and Prometheus
- Tantalus was a man favoured by the gods, which caused him to become conceited. To test the gods' omniscience, he had the audacity of killing his own son Pelops and serving him as a dish to them, just to find out if they noticed. Pelops was saved, but for his evil deed Tantalus was condemned to Tartarus, where the water would always recede, and a fruit tree would always lift its branches whenever he tried to drink or eat.
- The Danaïds were the 50 daughters of King Danaos, who were to be married off to the 50 sons of his twin brother Aigyptos, the King of Egypt. Understandably, the girls didn't like the idea, so when they were forced to marry, all but one of them killed their husbands. For these deeds, the girls were condemned to keep on filling a leaking vessel with water in Tartarus.
- Sisyphus was the King of Ephyra (now called Corinth), who was notorious for his guile and greed, which included randomly killing innocent people and defying the gods and even death. As a punishment, he had to roll a heavy boulder up a hill, which would always roll down whenever he reached the top.
- We've already come across Prometheus' fate above.
After the fine rendition of the Netherworld, the ending, however, turns out to be terribly disappointing. You would assume that the climactic battle with Poseidon would follow some logical pattern, not based on random guesswork, but have some narrative validation (i.e. following from the scenes that went before), or take its clues from classical history or martial knowledge. Here, neither is the case. A fully satisfactory pay-off would be the joyful or perhaps more tearful reunion of Heriseus with Ulysses, and ultimately with Ulysses' wife Penelope and son Telemachus. Yet here Heriseus meets what looks like the god Hermes (Roman Mercurius), and it is Hermes who assumes the appearance of Heriseus, runs to the nymph Calypso, and intervenes so that Ulysses is able to kill her. While it is true that, in The Odyssey
, Hermes was sent by the gods to inform Calypso to release Ulysses, the grim killing of Calypso is not al all in line with The Odyssey
- she is a nymph, a minor goddess, so she is immortal after all. We wonder where on earth Heriseus, our hero, went, we see no spark of real recognition or joy between Ulysses and Heriseus, and it all ends with a stiff and terribly inept tableau of Ulysses, and I assume Homer the narrator, some relatives and friends.
[Hermes and Heriseus on the shores of Hades]
Thus the outcome, I'm afraid, looks like one of these school projects where you spend a lot of time and ideas on the initial chapters, and then have to rush the ending because of poor planning. Which is a pity, because Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses
is an imaginatively and creatively designed game that is quite unique in its setting and atmosphere, and would have merited a better execution.