OSMOS / Hemisphere Designs / PC
Upon first playing Osmos I couldn't shake the feeling I'd played this before not too long ago. As it turns out, I had! It's somewhat derivative of a number of recent releases, not just Jenova Chen's fl0w, but Nintendo's Orbital and Katamari Damacy.
It's what indie publisher Hemisphere Designs calls an "orbital osmosis simulator", and what that entails is basically playing as a single-celled organism in a world full of other single-celled organisms. You can absorb those smaller than you to become bigger, but if you touch one bigger than you, it absorbs you and the game is over.
The "tweest" that separates this one from the others titles that are very similar is that to move about, you have to propel yourself by jettisoning your own mass, making you smaller as you go. So you could be trucking across the screen to eat a tasty organism a little smaller than you, only to end up just smaller than it when you get there and be the eatee instead. The other thing, which only comes into play in certain later levels of the game, is the use of "orbital manuevers" to successfully navigate about given tight quarters and a lack of mass to propel yourself at will.
The game advertises itself as a "chill experience" and a part of the "Zen games" movement. This presumably is due to the soothing color and light schemes and the use of various peices of soft, ambient electronica. The thing is, though, that only holds up for the first few (simplest) levels. Then the game becomes a real frustrating ball buster, and not really in any kind of a good way.
There's three different types of levels. The first is "ambient", where none of the other organisms actively moves or has AI, though they do drift in a set path. These are generally the easiest levels and at first are sort of the Zen, "chill" experience that the games marketing advertises. Pretty soon, however, they turn into these huge mazes of organisms that are colossal compared to you right at the beginning, and the level is now a matter of tedious precision navigation in between them to try to eat whatever tiny bubbles are still left. These are randomly generated, and you're sometimes dumped in a completely unwinnable situation, so what's the developers response? Keep generating new random levels until you get one that's actually playable! Cool level design, bros.
The next type of level is "sentient", which are a battle with one (or more) AI-controlled organisms that behave in different ways. These tend to be a chore as these things just flat-out move and manuever much more efficiently than you possibly can. There's also a ridiculously huge and fast boss enemy that pops in in some of the levels, when you see this thing you might as well just give that level up, it's so unbalanced it's basically unfair.
Finally there's the "force" levels, which is where the "orbital physics" come in. Now, seriously, on the Hemisphere website, they actually recommend you brush up on your "orbital physics" before playing by reading this. Come on, dude. You need to decide whether this is a relaxing casual desktop game or a NASA training tool. If it's the former, that is way the hell more work than anyone wants or needs to be doing.
Small gripes with the control also impact all three of these level types. You move the mouse freely, and position it behind your organisms current position in the opposite direction of which you want to go and click to accelerate. This is a bit clumsy for the quick "twitch" reactions that a lot of these levels require. I can't help but think that gamepad support would have worked a lot better - hold the pad or stick in the opposite direction and use a button to accelerate. Way quicker response time than dragging the mouse around cumbersomely. Also, the game frequently communicates with you with little text blurbs, but you can't just click these away ... you have to push the space bar to clear them, even though when they come up you're not using the mouse for anything else at the time. Why?
Osmos is pretty and has some interesting ideas, but the final package doesn't work for me. At first I thought maybe it was keyed to stressed-out office jockeys (i.e. most game reviewers) and they would appreciate the "chill" and "Zen" aspects more, but the super frustrating jag in difficulty past the first handful of levels negates that theory. Really, if you want the "chill" experience the designers are peddling, you're better off with freeware fl0w.
* Official site
* Gameplay Video