Thursday, April 13, 2006

Odama: After Six Levels

Odama is a very interesting game.

It seriously wants to be the best damn feudal Japanese military pinball game in the world. There is a tremendous amount of charm there, from the faux-historical opening to the clever way they refer to the Path of "Ninten-Do," or the Way of Heavenly Duty, to how the narrator refers to you as "me liege," uses the system time and date clock to make remarks about how long it's been since you last played (a sly reference to Yoot's previous game Seaman, in which the commenting was done by Leonard Nimoy!). The narrator starts out each battle upbeat, then as you replay it over and over, and OVER, again, trying to win, gradually becomes more desparing, eventually remarking that Nintendo players tend to be a bit too fanatical(!), and that playing too much could be bad for the eyes.

Also charming is the reactions of your soldiers, who in addition to having to defeat a far superior, seemingly-inexhaustiable force, also have to do it while dodging a gigantic pinball tearing across the battlefield.

The game itself works like this:
Each battle starts you off with the number of troops, rice balls, cavalry troops and extra balls left over from the last batter. At the start of the game, you have a smal number of troops and rice balls, no cavalry, and only one ball, so defeat comes swiftly if you're clumsy with the flippers.

About those flippers. There's two at the bottom of the playfield, operated by sumo wrestlers. Between them stands your general, who will slay any troops of cavalry who try to attack the flippers, but at the cost of paralyzing them for varying armounts of time. Ordinary troops freeze them for a second or two at most, but cavalry getting by can render them inoperable for up to ten seconds. While the flippers are frozen you ALSO cannot tilt the board, so unless you just sent the ball off on a trip to the far side of the field, you've probably just lost it.

Starting from between the flippers and slowly making its way across the battlefield is your army's totem, the Ninten Bell, also carried aloft by sumo. Usually your troops form a perimeter just in advance of it. The Bell cannot be destroyed, but it can be forced back by the enemy army. If it is forced beween your flippers you lose the battle and the narrator expresses his dismay yet again. If it makes it through a gate somewhere on the playfield then the battle is won, but usually the gate is heavily guarded. Hitting the Bell (not one of its bearers) with the ball causes it to ring, stunning enemy troops depending on how far they are from the bell and how hard it was struck.

The rest of the playfield contains objects that, more or less, fulfill the roles of traditional pinball obstacles, but all (except for buttons, which look out of place) depicted realistically as features on a battlefield. The "plunger" is a cannon (and is aimable), targets are huts and houses, gates are actual gates, and so on. Some of the huts leave swiftly-vanishing powerups, either green orbs, hearts, barrels, extra balls, or hourglasses, which I'll get to later.

A few leave important objects like keys or scrolls. Keys, pulleys, and so on are objectives that you order your men to carry and do things with. Scrolls give you new voice commands, that you deliver to your troops by holding the X button and speaking into the included microphone. An interesting thing about it is that you start out with absolutely no possible commands to give, and only acquire them as you collect scrolls. If you finish a level without getting a certain scroll, then you end up doing without that command, it seems for the rest of the game. Some of the commands are hard to get, but worth it: the "flank and destroy" command seems to be the only way I've seen so far your guys can actually *kill* opposing troops. Voice recognition is generally excellent, although in the heat of a battle, it typically becomes harder for the game to recognize one's increasingly-frantic voice.

Every level (of eleven), in the best pinball tradition, contains at least one major gimmick. Frequently they are floodgates that can be smacked with the ball to open or close it. Ball control is fairly important, since unlike traditional pinball where there are usually no "bad" targets (just better places to shoot), a wayward ball here can strand your guys behind a torrent of raging water, or even drown them in an instant.

Unlike traditional pinball, the only "score" you seem to receive during the game is the amount of time you have left upon finishing a board: you get one extra ball for every 100 seconds on the clock upon exiting.

Of the game objects, perhaps the most valuable (besides extra balls) are the orbs that turn your ball a glowing green. While green, your troops are *immune* to getting crushed by the ball (they won't even dodge out of the way), and any enemy troops struck, instead of being killed, are added to your reserves! This seems to be the ONLY way to gain more troops, and besides that sometimes your men must walk between the flippers and important shots, so keeping the ball green as long as possible is important. Every orb collected extends, not replaces, the green time. Getting a heart causes the Bell to glow, and hitting a glowing Bell with the ball also gets it into "heavenly" state. It seems that you can stack hearts on the Bell, redeeming them for ever more green-time once it's finally hit.

Another item, the Rice Balls (obtained by collecting barrels), isn't explained by the game very well. After you launch the ball, the cannon is still active and is controlled by the control stick. In addition to tilting the board, the stick also moves an aiming cursor (not to be confused with the Rally cursor!), and pressing A will launch a rice ball at that location. Any enemy troops near a rice ball will drop what they're doing and run for it, exclaiming things like "Free stuff!" and "Why fight when I can eat?" At the beginning of a battle, when typically your bell carriers are undefended against a sea of foes, a rice ball is a potent aid. Unfortunately, you can only have one rice ball onscreen at once, and while it's there you won't even see the aiming cursor.

A problem with the game is that it throws the player into the thick of battle without much hand-holding. The first level is fairly simple, but the game soom becomes quite difficult. The thing about it is, it ultimately seems less difficult with practice (a mark of a well-designed game, in my opinion), but there is a lot to learn and there's no real tutorial to teach it to you.

It is absolutely essential that the player read the manual, otherwise several important controls will be neglected by him. For example, the 'B' button is how you send captured cavalry onto the field to fight for you, but more importantly the Control Pad is how you select different targets for your troops to rally to, and ultimately capture. Without that piece of information finishing some levels is impossible, but nowhere does the game reveal this control on-screen.

There's still more to learn! Your troops also have morale, and if it's low they won't obey your orders! You lose it when things are going badly or you accidently crush troops with the ball, and you get it back by sending in reinforcements and telling your men to Rally on a rice ball.

One thing that caught me for several levels before I got used to it: at the end of a level, when your bell is right in front of the gate but has to get through the sea of enemy troops that typically stands between you and victory, you must use the Press Forward command, acquired fro the second scroll on Level One, to get through. You'll know when it's worked because your men will chime in "Press Forward!" and the target box around the bell will get several arrows in front of it. It seems that Press Forward will allow the bell carriers and your troops to move forward for a few seconds regardless of enemy troops, although they seem to take a hit in numbers and morale in the process. To actually win a level, you usually have to use Press Forward several times in a row to keep them going. I dare you to avoid adding little insults to the end of your frantic, repeated "Press Forwards" as your men muddle around inches away from victory as the clock counts down the last few seconds.

Here are the levels I've seen so far, as best as I can remember them, along with the number of times I failed it:
Level 1: A simple field with a river running horizontally through. Hitting the floodgate stops and starts the water. Neither side's troops can cross the water, but your bell carriers can make it through. Water doesn't stop the ball at all. You typically want the water stopped here, since if it's going before your troops cross they can't advance, if it's going after they're across then reinforcements cannot join them, and if it's going while they're across... well, then they're fish food. The time limit is quite short here, but there's no rigamarole to go through other than the river so it's not a big problem.
Commands acquired: Advance, Fall Back, March Left, March Right, Press Forward.
Times failed before first victory: About two.

Level 2: I forget much of this level (the horror of Level 4 washed memory of some of the details from my head), but I do remember this is the first level with cavalry in it. The arrival of cavalry is heralded by the sound of loud galloping, and soon by from seven to ten horsemen stampeding down the screen towards your general. Stopping them from reaching their goal is a dire imperative, since the more that make it through, the longer your flippers will be locked. Even one making it by, however, will take them out for a good few seconds. They're difficult to dissuade (although I don't think impossible) with Rice Balls, so hitting them with the ball is the only good defense. Unfortunately, that also means the ball has to be near the flippers, so if they do make it by there will probably be an immediate drain. Crushing all the cavalry, however, will makes a great bowling pin noise and leaves behind an Extra Ball (which, unfortunately, quickly vanishes). Better yet, hitting them with a green Odama adds them to your troops. Unfortunately I haven't had much opportunity to play around with friendly horsemen, so I can't say much about them.

This level also contains a ramp with a scroll on it, "Flank and Destroy." In open areas where you outnumber your foe, this can be an effective way to wipe out large numbers of foes at once. It's a bit hard to reach, but well worth it to collect! Easier to get is the essential Rally command, which is used in conjunction with the control pad to give your men objectives to accomplish.
Commands: Rally, Flank and Destroy.
Times failed: about five.

Level 3: There's also cavalry here, and they're much more of a problem this time and will probably require several attempts. Even worse, there's three rivers to cross, and each has a different way across. The first one is stopped by hitting a floodgate with the Odama, the second one you have to first hit a hut with the ball, leaving a pulley, then have your men Rally on the pully and move it to its gate (then you can use the essential "Close the Gate" command to stop the water), and the third is forded by having your men rally on a ladder. Between all the rivers, and the ease of accidently hitting the first floodgate, it's easy to get your men trapped away from reinforcements here.

An optional scroll found here, Charge, seems like it should be useful but I've yet to get much use out of it.
Commands gained: Close the Gate, Open the Gate, Charge
Times failed: about fifteen (damn cavalry)

Level 4: The bane of my existence. First off, if you don't carry many men with you through the gate (I only brought 29) you'll have a tough time of things.

This level is notable for many reasons. The first of which is a pair of enemy flippers(!), which cause the ball to glow black when they hit it. You can dispel the evil aura by simply hitting the ball with your own flippers, but until that happens, enemy troops are immune to the ball! More importantly, the black glow will instantly cancel any green glow, making it difficult to bolster your forces. My strategy was to fire strong shots at the walls that would bounce across the playfield, tearing sideways through the enemy lines. You can capture the flippers with only a few men each, by having them rally to them. This not only stops the black glow from happening, but also allows you to control that flipper, which is important since the upper playfield is where the real action is.

There's an extensive set of fortifications up there, consisting of stone walls and fire-bombing towers, that prove deadly to any of your troops that get near, so it's a good idea to avoid having your men advance too far until you've knocked them all apart with the ball. Possibly the most satisfying thing I've seen in the game so far is when you get the ball between the stone wall and the towers, causing it to rapidly smash back and forth between them like a Breakout ball. Eventually all the walls and towers will fall apart at once, revealing the gate and a boss.

The boss is a gigantic enemy soldier (a general, supposedly). You don't have to kill him (done by knocking him down with the Odama then telling your men to rally on him), but you get an extra ball if you do it. It is possible to waste several games trying this however, so my suggestion is to just Press Forward through the gate.

In the previous levels, you could sometimes get through with only occaisional Press Forwards, but the doors are positively swarming with troops this time, so you're gonna have to command them over and over to get them by.
Commands gained: none.
Times failed: At least thirty. I had a real bad time with this one.

Level 5: Compared to the last two, this one was a cinch, and I finished it on my first try. You have another floodgate to close (although the river is vertical this time) and a complex playfield. No cavalry here, thank god. Orbs are common. So long as you get your guys to Rally to the right places, and can make the shot to the upper-left area while it's green to decimate opposition without taking casualties yourself, and this one's easy.
Commands gained: none.
Times failed: Zero.

Level 6: Another one-attempt victory, even though it looks formidable indeed. The key here is to have your men rally can capture catapults, to keep them out of the hands of your enemy. It's very easy to smash your own troops with the ball here as the path to the gate is vertical and entrenched, so don't try to "help" with your ball unless it's green.
Commands gained: none.
Times failed: Zero.

Level 7: I haven't played it yet, but it seems to be a boss level....


Dan-o said...

Much thanks for this detailed write-up, which is far better than most of the reviews I've read for the game so far.

I was on the verge of getting Odama, but the more I read about it, the more I feel like it's more of a rental for me. In particular, the difficulty, combined with the innate randomness of a pinball game, makes me think I'd probably never manage to finish it.

How's the "carry-over troop" thing work from level to level? In some ways it seems like this makes the game harder to start and easier if you get lucky and win successive levels with a large amount of troops to carry over to the next level.

JohnH said...

I have to say that the same seems a little expensive at fifty bucks, but it does come with a microphone (that some other games that require it also comes with).

The more I play, the more it seems to me that the difficulty comes from its being skill-based, with the need to learn all the controls early but without all of them being explained by the game, and from not all the game's rules being explained to the player (especially needing to Press Forward over and over at the end of a level, three of those failures on Level Four came from this). The game is actually quite fair if you know what you're doing and don't fling the ball in too many unfortunate directions, and I believe it's masterable. In any case, there's only eleven levels and I'm already on #8 now. Completing them all unlocks a Free Play mode that lets you muck around in any level as much as you want.

The carry-over thing lends continuity between the levels, but it can definitely be a problem if you pass a level without many men. (That, I think, was part of why I had so many failures on Level 4, I only had 29 men going into it.) You can abandon a level and replay the previous one from the mission start screen, so in dire situations the game does provide an out.

One thing about the troops is that, when you send the bell through the gate, there's a period of about 15-20 seconds where all your men on the board run for the gate. These are the men you take into the next level. Any troops who don't make it in time are lost! I'm not yet sure about troops left in reserve (I usually send in my guys as soon as I can), but I suspect they may be lost too.

Anonymous said...

In fact, reserve units DO pass on to the next level, similar to unused cavalry, rice and odamas.

JohnH said...

In fact, reserve units DO pass on to the next level, similar to unused cavalry, rice and odamas.

I'm unsure of this. However, I HAVE observed, since writing this, that when the bell goes through the gate, both friendly *and enemy* troops rush through the doors to join your side in the next level.

JohnL said...

I watched Odama closely since I first heard about it at E3 2004. It intrigued me because not only does it incorporate two of my favorite genres - strategy and pinball - it also is set in fuedal japan, an era of history I am really into. I was skeptical upon reading some reviews, but so far I really enjoy the game. It has tons of charm and subtltey - the earmarks of a good Saito game. Its also difficult, yet rewarding, and the learning curve is pretty good. I found your write up on the game because I bought it used and do not have the manual, so I had no idea how to beat the spider temple. I must've played it for an hour, just collecting hourglasses to stay afloat. Now I should be able to pass it. :-)