Regardless of dietary preferences, regional menu choices or personal tastes, there’s one universal constant when it comes to the food cycle: big things eat little things. It should come as no surprise then that this rule isn’t restricted to consumption here on Earth. Osmos is a game that takes the food chain and applies it on a cosmic scale. Equal parts hypnotic and majestic, Osmos takes zen gaming to a whole new level.
The driving principles behind Osmos are nothing we haven’t seen before. You play the role of a "mote," or a bright circle floating in space. Your mote will grow larger if it consumes smaller motes, and smaller if consumed by a larger mote. While there are a variety of objectives to be met in Osmos, they all usually boil down to "eat something to get big" or "get big and eat something." The food chain approach to gaming is far from new – even relatively recent release like Flow and the early stage of Spore all share a similar structure to what you’ll find laying at the core of Osmos.
Please don’t confuse the comparisons to other games as a complaint about a lack of originality. No, if anything Osmos goes to prove that, like the very principle that drives it, the eating things genre is growing. Rather than relying on the simple eating mechanic to pull it through, Osmos offers up a tremendous bag of tricks that make this title stand out amongst its peers.
The biggest element that Osmos brings to the table is a strong sense of physics. Movement in Osmos offers a strict adherence to Newton’s laws of motion – your mote will keep moving in the direction and speed you tell it to unless it is affected by an outside force. Absorbing a smaller mote will make you denser which is going to slow you down. Getting too close to a massive mote will force you into its orbit, thereby knocking you off your expected course. It’s this attention to physics that really shapes what Osmos has to offer.
On its own, eating and physics sounds like a great combination. But a good gameplay mechanic only works if the rest of the game shaped around it is good. Again – this is another place Osmos really shines. Rather than keeping a single "reach a certain size" objective stage after stage, a variety of tweaks to the formula will keep you using that same mechanic to complete different goals. Sometimes you’ll need to grow large enough to consume a specific mote. Other times you’ll begin as a tiny spec circling a sun-sized mote, and you’ll need to break free of its orbit and grown large enough to eat it.
The puzzling isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Some stages may in fact leave you completely stumped. I was completely taken aback the first time I realized that to solve a certain level I needed to feed some of my mass into a larger mote to put it into motion so I could pass. There’s a certain level of genius in some of the more challenging level designs. In fact, the only real downside is that some gamers may not have the patience needed to tackle the challenge that’s there.
Patience is a key word when it comes to discussing Osmos. This is not a fast-paced game. Even in the earlier stages, there’s an element of strategy involved that will lead to you taking as few actions as possible and waiting for the result. Much of this can be attributed to the controls. You don’t really control your mote as much as you control your mote’s mass. To move your mote, you’ll place your mouse cursor in the place you’d want to push him (if you want him to go left, your cursor would be on the right). Clicking your mouse will cause the mote to expel some of its mass, propelling it forward. Clicking faster will expel mass more quickly, causing you to move faster. The flipside to this? Expelling mass means your mote is going to get smaller. The smaller it gets, the more quickly it turns from predator to prey. This means you’re going to want to scope out the area, make predictions on where the other motes will arrive, and aim for the biggest thing you can eat. If you don’t have the patience for it, Osmos is a game that will leave you tearing your hair out.
That’s really the only bad thing to say about Osmos. The stages offer a great deal of challenge in the second half of the game, and if you’re frustrated by the slow pace at the beginning you’d go mad with the planning that you’ll be going through by the end. Still, the puzzles are never so difficult that you won’t figure out what to do, and if you’re having trouble doing something you can always choose to randomly generate a new layout for the level to get a fresh start.
Much to our delight, Osmos was as much about atmosphere as it was gameplay. The simple visual presentation wasn’t trying to force your attention with fast movements and flashing colors. The soundtrack was comprised of pleasant ambient music.
Zen gameplay titles aren’t nearly as common as they should be, but Osmos is a shining example of the zen gameplay movement. This is the type of game that mellows you out rather than winds you up, even when you’re being challenged. The team at Hemisphere Games have crafted a beautiful and unique indie gem that should be experienced by any gamer with the patience to appreciate what’s being offered.