'Ohklos' Combines the Humorous Abstraction of 16-bit Games with the Slickness of a Modern Game
Ohklos could pass any elevator pitch, but it never grows beyond that elevator pitch.
OhklosPublisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Coffee Powered Machine
Release Date: 2016-08-18
Ohklos sounds great on paper. The citizens of Greece get fed up with the oppressive rule of their gods, so they revolt with a mob led by philosophers. Add in some winking anachronistic humor, some cool looking 2D/3D art, and a great soundtrack, and you’ve got a game that could pass any elevator pitch. The challenge lies in expanding it beyond that pitch.
As a roguelike, the game implies a certain depth of mechanics, but as a “rogue-lite”, it’s not out to punish the player. It rewards us just for playing.
Each attempt takes you through several cities, fighting several gods, and picking up several heroes along the way. Each run also earns you some permanent upgrades, mainly new heroes and mob leaders that alter the mob's starting stats/skills.
The controls are potentially confusing since you’re moving two entities at once, the philosopher leading the mob and the mob itself, but the game handles its many moving pieces with skill. Each entity is controlled with a control stick, but the camera moves with the philosopher, always keeping him in the center of the screen. The mob does what a mob does best: rampage. They’re faster than the philosopher, so they can quickly run around their leader, from one end of the screen to the other, wherever they’re needed.
That speed is important because the philosopher is essentially the player. If he dies, it’s game over, but the rest of the mob is expendable. This makes them as much a shield as a sword. You can guide them to attack buildings and the mythological monsters the gods place in your way, but many of those monsters will make a beeline to the philosopher, so it’s good to have the mob between them as a destructive buffer.
Each level is a different city -- Delphi, Sparta, Atlantis -- and each level is broken up into several stages featuring a random boss at the end. The cities all have their own look, but the layout of each stage never really changes. Atlantis looks different than Delphi, but playing it doesn’t feel any different. This similarity becomes a drag on the game after a few runs, since you’re really just playing the same stage over and over again.
There’s a system of mob management that, in theory, would make the game more dynamic and strategic. The mob is made up of several types of characters, each with their own abilities and stat boosts, Slaves are weak but can carry items, soldiers add attack points, other philosophers give you an extra life, and so on. You can trade some characters for other characters at upgrade stores, between stages, giving you some control over the make-up of your mob.
It’s a neat idea that hardly matters in practice. You can’t really control the make-up of your mob because you can’t control who you pick up, which means that you’ll never who you’ll be able to trade. Bystanders are automatically added to the mob if they touch the group, but since the mob is always running around in a chaotic mess members are killed and immediately replaced without you ever knowing it. But even if you had better control over the individual members, even if you could recall the exact number of soldiers/slaves in your mob, it would hardly matter because the game plays the same regardless of who is in your mob.
Despite all of its structure as a roguelike and the upgrade trappings of an RPG, Ohklos is really just a beat-em-up in the vein of Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. There’s no strategy to using the mob, just point them towards the thing that you want to die and mash the attack button. That’s what you do in the first five minutes, and that’s what you’re still doing after five hours. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only fun for an hour or so, and then you’ll start to wonder if there’s more to it. There’s not.
Ohklos has a great style, but I wish the game itself were better. I love the art: 2D pixelated character sprites moving around a 3D city with 3D buildings. It’s a great style that combines the funny abstraction of 16-bit games with the slickness of a modern game. I love the humor: There’s a frame narrative concerning a guy retelling the story of the mob, but he can’t quite remember any of it correctly. There are a ton of meta jokes, but they’re not mocking or cruel. They’re more like friendly jabs at the game itself and its conventions. I love the music. The classic-sounding bells and drums that you hear during gameplay give way to some smooth jazz-bar music in the upgrade menu. Everything about the presentation is anachronistic and absurd and wonderful.
But none of that can stave off the boredom that sets in after an hour. Ohklos is beautiful but painfully shallow.