The “endless runner” genre of games seems inherently stress-generating to me, since it implies running, without end. But Alto’s Adventure, the 2015 game from Toronto developer Snowman, provided an endless runner that was actively and profoundly relaxing, thanks to a mellow, immersive soundtrack and graphics that seem drawn from some kind of new-age zen meditation video. Getting Alto, the titular character, to the bottom of the mountain while scooping up his lost llamas along the way actually isn’t about getting to the bottom, but just about what it’s like to love the trip down.
Three years later (almost to the day) Alto is back with his next journey, Alto’s Odyssey, out February 22 on iOS and Apple TV (you can pre-order now to have it ready to play as soon as it goes live). It’s an iOS-first launch, since Snowman’s team tells me Apple’s hardware is the best showcase for their work, but it’ll come to Android, too, eventually. The new game, which Snowman has been teasing for a while now (the first teaser trailer dropped last February), but building something that’s a successor to the Alto franchise while not being a straight sequel is a challenge that took time, and great care, according to Snowman’s founders Ryan Cash and Jordan Rosenberg.
The game’s producer Eli Cymet also took to heart the responsibility of building on the success of the original, while still avoiding the pitfall of delivering a rote sequel, and making sure that Alto’s world still felt like Alto’s world. In an interview, he explained that this responsibility and the decision to make sure Alto’s Odyssey struck the right balance is what stretched out the game’s development timeline – and why the new game feels distinctly different from the first one, while at the same time also feeling reassuringly familiar.
So what does it mean that Alto’s Odyssey feels ‘different but the same?’ After playing through and unlocking most of what’s on offer in terms of bonus characters and features, I think I have a good grasp. Basically, it still feels like Alto’s in terms of control, physics, mood and the brain space you occupy while playing it, but Snowman has added a lot in terms of new mechanics, set dressing and challenges to make sure that even Alto’s Adventure diehards won’t feel like they’re already Odyssey pros, too.
The new game features three complete ‘biomes’ – each equivalent in content to the original mountain from Adventure. There’s the Dunes, the Temple City and the Canyons, and each come with their own environment features, slightly different play style and atmospherics. You don’t move through each sequentially, as you would in a traditional level-based platformer – instead, you transition smoothly between them procedurally, with features from one environment fading into the next as you shift subtly between.
For players, the different biomes offer different kinds of experiences in terms of mood, with varying ambient lighting effects, but also significantly different gameplay elements, including waterfalls, pools, rock wall faces and more. These change how you play the game, with wall riding (once you unlock the board, early on in gameplay progression) being the most significant. Each environment can provide elements better suited to beating some challenges, too, so there’s the added gameplay complexity of surviving a run until you make it to the next one in order to get something done.
New ambient lighting effects, including sandstorms, solar accents, rain and more add up to a lot of variety of experience in terms of what you’re looking at, too, which helps Odyssey feel different to its predecessor. UK artist, designer and developer Harry Nesbitt, who worked with Snowman on Adventure, is back again and really stretching his wings to build on the visual style of the original.
For the most part, the new effects and visuals are amazing, and deepen the experience while remaining true to the look and feel of the original. Snowman and its graphics team did a lot of work to ensure that even when things can get confusing on screen, effects like a contrast color highlight for your character ensure you know what’s going on. Even so, I still felt the game was a mid muddled in places in terms of the look, and I indeed found myself longing for the rare breaks in the game when it’s perfectly clear out, with full mid-day sun, because the weather and other visual occlusions really could be a bit much at times. It resulted in a feeling of being overwhelmed I never experienced in similar situations with Adventure.
Despite sometimes feeling a bit over-busy on the graphics-side, the game is otherwise well-balanced and a true joy to play. The soundtrack is a fantastic, soothing companion to gameplay, and the reward loop is perfectly balanced to make sure you never get too frustrated when in pursuit of your goals. I put in plenty of hours during my pre-release time, and plan to put in plenty more when the game is out.
When Snowman first began teasing Alto’s Odyssey, it felt to me like it was going to be a major departure in terms of gameplay and mechanics. In the end, the game feels like an expansive addition to the continuity of the first, which is both good and bad. In some ways, it doesn’t feel different enough, but at the same time, the team’s decision to make sure that fans of the first won’t feel like they’re not playing an Alto game is an admirable one.