Being a particle is fun for a little while.
Osmos is a beautiful, ambient physics puzzler about a single-celled organism navigating its way to greatness. The detailed graphics, clever gameplay, and inventive controls are immediately engaging. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t do a whole lot with these elements.
You play as a single-celled organism called a mote. Every level starts you out at quite a small size floating around with a series of other motes—some bigger, some smaller. As you propel your mote about, it absorbs smaller motes and grows larger. If you run into a mote larger than yourself, it’ll absorb you and you’ll have to retry the level. You get different objectives for each level with some instructing you to absorb a specific mote, but most of the time you’ll receive one of two objectives: “Become the biggest” or the charmingly straightforward “Become huge.”
The controls are actually pretty fantastic. It might initially go counter to your expectations, but you tap anywhere behind the mote to propel it forward. You must tap repeatedly to accelerate faster. What’s actually happening is your mote is expunging tiny particles of itself in the opposing direction. This means the majority of the game is about precision movement and, when in pursuit of other motes, trying to judge how much of your mass you can afford to lose without getting so small that you’ll be the one absorbed once you get there.
You are also able to slow down and speed up time by swiping your finger left and right respectively or holding down and sliding left and right for more accurate time control. This becomes key as you can save your mote from certain death, Max Payne style, by slowing time to a crawl and quickly expelling loads of mass. Alternatively, once you’ve gotten fairly big you can speed up time and allow gravity to bounce you around the level, picking up remaining motes.
Pinching and spreading your fingers zooms in and out. You tap with two fingers to retry after game over or to move onto the next level at each level’s end. Tap with three fingers at once to open the in-game menu. These may sound like minor things, but I’m always very impressed with titles that demonstrate that intuitive thought went into working with touch-screen controls. It’s a simple, but ingenious idea to consider making menu access a simple matter of using more fingers, rather than clogging up the screen with a menu button.
The graphics don’t change up much from level to level, but zooming out to a huge field of little motes all packed together is a pretty awe-inspiring image. And zooming all the way in on your mote is consistently impressive. Considering that, from afar, it’s just a sparkly blue dot, up close your mote is a shockingly detailed thing complete with particle effects, wispy animated lines around its outside, and a funky design at its center. For what the game is, the graphics don’t really feel as though they had to be that impressive, but it’s clear a lot of work went into them all the same.
The music completely fits the game’s mood. It’s essentially all ambient, electronic stuff from real artists (artists I’ve never heard of, but then these aren’t really tunes from my favorite genre). Make no mistake; none of this music is going to get stuck in my head. But it’s definitely the correct genre for the game’s patient pacing. Furthermore, when you speed up and slow down time, the music does so accordingly as well, which is a great little effect.
All in all, Osmos is really wonderfully and carefully designed. The only problem is that it feels like a lot of work went into a few mechanics that were never further built upon. There are two modes: Odyssey and Arcade. Odyssey is really just an introduction to the different gameplay variations. Some levels have your mote floating around in space while in others you’re stuck in an orbit you have to alter. And then other levels introduce you to different kinds of motes, like those that repel you so that you have to determinedly chase them to suck them up and sentient motes that have the same goal as you.
After finishing these different gameplay types in Odyssey, you get to try further, more difficult, randomly generated levels in Arcade. But that’s basically it. It doesn’t take long to work your way through Odyssey (you’re also allowed to skip levels) and then you’re just playing levels with harder versions of the stuff you’ve already seen.
It’s sort of hard to judge Osmos considering I really don’t think there’s anything bad about what’s there. Every element from sound to graphics to control has clearly been crafted with a lot of care and effort; it’s just that those elements are quite limited. I was quite taken with the game at first, but then discovered it had showed me all its cards in just a few hours. If you really enjoy what Osmos offers you from the start, there’s a lot more of it in the Arcade mode. But if you’re hoping for more concepts or for the game to build further upon what it’s already showed you, you’ll probably lose interest before long.