Despite being Gamer Limit’s resident Indie Guy, Osmos flew right under my radar when it was released back in August. It wasn’t until the game was nominated for a Spike VGA (ugh, I know) that it popped to the forefront of my “to play” list.
Is it truly one of the finest indie games of the year, what with its ambient electronica soundtrack and simple controls? Or, is there a reason it lost the “Best Indie Game” award to the experimental PS3 gem Flower? The answer to both of these questions, dear readers, is “Yes.”
Osmos plays a bit like PopCap’s Feeding Frenzy, but you control a bubble instead of a fish – they’re called “motes” in the game but they look like shiny bubbles, so I’m calling them bubbles! You start off small, and you absorb smaller bubbles while avoiding bigger ones to grow larger. After reaching a certain size, you win the level. Simple.
A key difference between this game and PopCap’s fish life simulator is that, in Osmos, you shoot out a small portion of your mass to move. To move left, you shoot a bubble to the right by clicking the mouse in the appropriate direction. Click a lot and you’ll move faster, but at the sacrifice of some of your bubble weight. This forces you to be more patient and strategic with your movements, especially in the later levels.
Luckily, using your mouse scroller and right-clicking affects the speed of time (for no apparent reason), enabling you to hurry the level’s evolution along, or slow down time to make more precise movements. You can zoom in and out on the action too, and you’ll spend much of the game slowly inching past giant bubbles and sprinting toward smaller ones before they’re absorbed by other, bigger bubbles.
There are three different branches of levels in Osmos.
- In Ambient, you are thrown in with a bunch of other bubbles with the simple task: “Become the biggest.” This is by far the best and most playable mode.
- In Force, gravitational orbits play a large role and change the way you move around the level (try not to get sucked into the sun while you feast on tiny bubbles). Figuring out how to manipulate your orbit to slingshot from one star to another takes some getting used to.
- Survival is the most aggressive mode. You have to speed around the level and become large enough to eat the similarly growing enemies before they get big enough to eat you. The last “boss” of this mode, the Ferax, will provide hours of frustration, as it starts the level larger than you, and is infinitely faster and more maneuverable than you are. Prepare to get eaten, a lot. Within fifteen minutes, you’ll be shouting, “FERAX! AHHHH!!!”
The mere existence of Survival mode in the game really threw me off. Reading the Steam description, you’ll find adjectives like “soothing, relaxing, and ambient”, and “chillest game ever.” Before playing Osmos, I pictured fl0w. I was wrong. While the game starts out “soothing, relaxing, and ambient”, after a few hours it becomes “harrowing, frustrating, and oh-so-meticulous.” You can’t just swim around collecting bubbles and having fun, Katamari-style. Each level has boundaries that you can’t escape, and the amount of bubbles for your consumption is very limited.
In this way, the final stages morph Osmos into more of a puzzle game than a relaxing ambient one. You have to be patient while rationing your mass-fueled movements. It’s not bad, by any means. Just… unexpected after the mellow early stages.
One thing Osmos does very well is presentation. The simple title screen/spacey aesthetic strike heavily of Quantz, another $10 Steam puzzle title. Osmos has a clean layout with some pretty sparkles and some headphone-worthy tunes. Using science, I deduced that you will actually enjoy the game 1.79 times more if you play it while wearing a nice set of Bose headphones.
And, finally, it’s only $10. If you enjoy electronica, liked Feeding Frenzy but thought it was too fast-paced, or just enjoy the thought of playing an ambient game that evolves/devolves into a slow-paced puzzler/high-speed feeding race, then check out Osmos.
One of the best indie games of the year? Mmm, it’s alright. Try the demo. The production values will certainly help it compete with the big boys, but the jarring genre shift halfway through steals a sense of consistency from the title. At least this keeps it from becoming repetitive.
Clean and pretty, yet not too graphic-intensive. Like swimming in the primordial soup... in space. Almost too like Quantz at times, however.
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Eat smaller bubbles. Run away from bigger bubbles. Mellow at first, but an intensity increase towards the later levels made it feel almost like a different game, and not in a good way.
Immersive electronica music is a great change of pace from basically every other game on the market right now. The sound effects are merely passable, but the music deserves a good set of headphones to fully appreciate.
You'll get about 10-20 hours out of this - not too shabby for a full retail release, let alone a $10 indie Steam game.
At least $10 worth of entertainment, especially if you're an electronica aficionado or an ambient game/puzzle junkie. The mid-game shift from "mellow" to "frantic" will lead many gamers to never complete it, however, and it will leave a bad taste in your mouth after the blissful sweetness of the early levels.