After a brief reflection on the newest Monument Valley installment, I was recently introduced to another mesmerizing mobile phone game: Alto's Odyssey. It's actually a follow-up to another Team Alto release, Alto's Adventure-- a collaboration between Canadian studio Snowman and lead artist/programmer Harry Nesbitt -- but my entrance to the series starts here. I'm discovering that I might have a certain taste for cerebral games; both are minimalist in character design but striking in their color palette and sense of environment (a picture says a thousand words is a pretty apt metaphor here), but that is where the similarities end.
The game opens on raspy, meditative chords, not dissimilar to the opening notes of Trevor Morris's theme for Bioware's Dragon Age: Inquisition. The association alone had my breath catching in my throat and tugging at my heartstrings. The title screen is set against a horizon awash in dawn and speckled with hot air balloons as the sun slowly rises to scorch the hills upon hills of sand. If I wait long enough even the text fades away, and I am alone in the middle of a vast desert. But, with a tap, a blur enters from the left side of the screen and Alto is there, sandboard slamming onto the slopes.
My choices are limited -- jump or not jump, flip or don't flip -- but that doesn't mean the experience has to be as well. I guide Alto through countless biomes in a never-ending cycle of day and night, of wind and rain and dusk. There are sets of three goals at a time -- such as "Discover The Canyons", "Break a pot using a lotus flower", or the easy-breezy "Backflip off of a hot air balloon" -- that string me along and give me a concrete reason to play. I collect glowing coins along the slopes, which I can trade in at the Workshop for stronger helmets, extra lives, and special items. The scarf trailing behind Alto grows longer the farther I'm able to go or the more combos I'm able to land in one run, and after a certain amount of time I can even spot brightly-colored Birds of Paradise hovering over Alto's shoulder, curious at my progress. I quickly sink into the rhythm of the game, calculating the time and distance of my jumps, distinguishing between rocks and plant life, and cringing when I overestimate the number of flips I can accomplish in one go. But the game doesn't seem to mind my many failures: it promptly tells me to dust off and try again. "Don't worry, crashes happen!"
The more goals I accomplish the more levels I ascend, which gradually allows my boarder to progress further into entirely new zones, with new platforms and abilities and characters to spice it up a little. When I find myself getting too incensed (usually because I can't shake a pesky lemur off my tail) I can return to the title screen and swipe to the left, activating what I'm calling Zen Mode and leaving me with only the horizon and a simplistic, rotating drawing of the sun. I focus on the sun and the swaying cacti as my breathing levels off, and I'm ready to try again or go about my day.
I know Alto's Odyssey has so much more to offer me -- hours of smooth gliding, new areas, contemplative tunes, and more characters to test out on the slopes -- but the game makes it clear that I must work for such simple pleasures. I have to fail many times before I can accomplish menial goals, each one taking me further down the slopes than the last. It knows exactly what kind of game it is, and excels in all quadrants: it has gorgeous graphics, runs smoothly, doesn't overload me with objectives or abilities, and is overall one of the most meditative games I've played just to pass the time. Perhaps the best way to wake up is with Alto in your cup!
Alto's Odyssey is now available for download on iOS devices in the App Store.