Review: Yumi's Odd Odyssey (3DS eShop)

Ocean Belly River's back!

In some games, just moving around is a joy. Soaring through the skies in Pilotwings, loop-de-looping in NiGHTS into Dreams, wet-jetting around Isle Delfino in Super Mario Sunshine, and tumbling through town in Gravity Rush are all exhilarating experiences in their own right, as memorable as the games built around them. Umihara Kawase — released for the Super Famicom in 1994 — adds an unexpected form of in-game transit to that list, with its titular heroine using a fishing line to fling herself artfully through surreal two-dimensional platforming stages. The novelty and impressive implementation of Umihara's fishing rod hook propelled the otherwise-unassuming title to instant-classic status among Japanese and import-savvy overseas fans, leading to a PlayStation sequel, ports to the DS and PSP, and — most recently — a brand new entry on the 3DS.

Yumi's Odd Odyssey — or Sayonara Umihara Kawase, to give its original Japanese title — is the latest game in this now-legendary series, and the first one to wash up on Western shores. It's also quite a catch; with superb, skill-based puzzle-platforming gameplay and a delightfully bizarre style, fishing your way through levels feels as fresh and fun as it did in the Super Famicom original, and platforming fans will have a blast with Yumi's semi-aquatic adventure.

There are hints of a time-travelling tale in Yumi's Odd Odyssey's digital manual and character bios, but as with most narrative setups from gaming's younger days, any real story is left strictly to the imagination — the gameplay is the star of the show. Here, that means guiding a young, backpack-toting schoolgirl through a fever dream of fish-flavoured platforming puzzles, swinging around on an impossibly elastic fishing line and avoiding enemies and obstacles on the way to the exit.

Yumi isn't the nimblest of platforming heroes by herself, but her human shortcomings are more than made up for by her fantastical fishing rod. You can cast the fishing line in eight directions, and — once it's latched onto a wall, ceiling, or floor — reel it in or let out slack, with Yumi free to run and jump while you're temporarily tethered.

It might not sound like much, but skilful use of these few simple actions coupled with the fine-tuned, beautifully bouncy physics of the fishing line opens up a whole world of platforming possibilities. Yumi can latch onto overhead objects to swing Spiderman-style between surfaces, pull herself across gaps, and make last-minute saves from misjudged jumps. She can anchor her lure to the ground and repel safely to platforms below, or stretch out the line with a running start to slingshot herself in the opposite direction. She can catapult herself over seemingly insurmountable obstacles with elastic grace, climb up sheer surfaces with repeated casts, or use the momentum of a pendulum swing - by tightening and loosening the line at rhythmic intervals - to arc herself up and over platforms from below. Perhaps anticlimactically, she can also use the tackle to hook fish, in the form of the bizarre, bipedal marine creatures that patrol the game's platforms from time to time.

The masterful level design takes full advantage of every one of these tricks, so that progressing through the game's fifty stages feels less like a typical run-and-jump excursion and more like a puzzle game, with each level a self-contained platforming puzzle that only Yumi's angling abilities can solve. Along with all manner of walking nightmare fish monsters, levels feature conveyor belts, trampolines, spikes, icy surfaces and moving platforms.

Some stages have alternate exits, which lead to branching paths on the stage map, and hunting down these hidden doorways is the only way to see all fifty levels. Some of them are tucked away in obscure corners of a stage, only accessible via best-guess leaps of faith, while others are plainly visible but require daring feats of fishing line finesse to reach.

Occasionally, you'll also come across a stage with a particularly fearsome, particularly peculiar aquatic adversary — the first of these features an enormous legged tadpole that lays frogs. These boss battles are intense and involved; it's often not exactly obvious what you need to do to win, so they require some experimentation in addition to lure-swinging skills, and go well beyond the "bop three times" format of many platformers.

For a game so focused on movement and momentum, control is everything, and Yumi's Odd Odyssey gives players all the precision they need to cast with confidence. Everything is tight and beautifully responsive; running, jumping, and throwing your line all feel great, and the simple button layout stays out of your way and keeps the focus on the fishing, where it belongs. The default setup maps movement to the D-Pad, jumping to 'B', and casting to 'R' and 'Y'. There's also a 'Classic' mode which uses 'L' and 'R' to send up the line at 45° angles in their respective directions, as in the original Umihara Kawase, and in a very welcome move a 'Custom' option lets you map the controls exactly how you want them. One oddity is that the Circle Pad needs to be specifically enabled through a menu before you can use it in any of these modes; once it's turned on it works wonderfully, adding some on-theme, springy resistance to Yumi's rod and reel.

Of course, just because it's easy to control doesn't mean it's easy. On the contrary, Odd Odyssey's easygoing exterior hides one of the most difficult platforming experiences of recent memory; like its predecessors, this is a seriously difficult game. Careful jumps and good intentions will get you through the first few stages, but making it as far as the first boss requires stringing together acrobatic aerial angling routines, and mastering advanced techniques like the pendulum swing and the slingshot. Even once the trickier moves become second nature, it's still tough going — the game keeps a running tally of how many times you fail each stage, and we pushed more than one of those counters into triple digits.

Practice makes perfect — or at least 'better' — however, and while the difficulty curve is steep, it's still a slope, not a cliff. Incremental improvement is what Yumi is all about, and honing your skills over dozens of attempts is a big part of what makes the game so much fun to play. The feeling of progression from flailing around with a fishing line to being able to do exactly what you want with that same fishing line — swinging and snapping your way across stages with boundless style and glorious intentionality — is incredible, and turns Yumi's Odd Odyssey into an amazingly rewarding experience.

And though the levels themselves are tough as nails, in other ways the game is fairly forgiving. There aren't any lives to worry about, and your progress is saved after every cleared stage, so there's no need to work your way up from Level 1 each time as in previous games in the series. In-game tips teach the basics and help get you get going in the beginning, and you can view tutorials — in the form of full replays showing how to clear a level — for the first ten stages, ensuring you'll be able to make it to at least the first ending without getting stumped. There's even a 'Time Stop' feature mapped to the 'X' button that lets you freeze the action for a moment as you aim your next cast.

It also helps that, for the first time in the series, Yumi isn't alone in her adventure — you can also play as Emiko, her half-Norwegian childhood friend, or Noko, her detective descendent from the future. Each of these alternate characters has her own ability that mitigates the game's difficulty somewhat: Emiko can restart once from mid-stage checkpoints, and Noko can continue to move in slow-motion while using Time Stop, helping players line up jumps as well as casts.

There's also a commendably comprehensive Play Log which tracks and records each stage attempt you make in a play session. You can view any of these replays after the fact to see where you went wrong or to show off your skills, and when you do finally nail a perfect run, you can save it permanently to Replay Data for posterity.

Finishing all 50 stages and finding every door is an odyssean task in and of itself, but Yumi's journey doesn't end with the credits. With its compact, cleverly-designed levels, lots of room for skill-based shortcuts, and dozens of different ways to finish each stage, this game was made for speedrunning, and trying to beat your best times adds a tremendous amount of replay value. The competition isn't limited to local play, either, with online leaderboards for each individual stage letting you see how you stack up against others in your region.

For a truly old-school experience, you can tackle the Survival Challenge mode, where you start at Stage 0 with three lives and play until you either reach an ending or give up the last ghost. All of the levels you've cleared in Survival Challenge will be linked by a red path on the stage map, instead of the normal blue, so painting the town red should make for massive Miiverse bragging rights. If you do manage to reach the end of one of the stage map's branching paths in Survival Challenge, you'll be rewarded with a spot on the online leaderboard for that particular ending.

Treasure hunters will also be pleased with the pickups found throughout Yumi's trip. Most levels have one or two of her trademark pink backpacks hidden somewhere within the stage — often tantalizingly just out of easy reach — and collecting enough of these will unlock alternate costumes and even another character. Beyond backpacks, there's also a Gallery and Jukebox to fill as you work your way through the levels, with plenty of unlockable art and music to keep you playing.

Apart from the welcome extras, Yumi's Odd Odyssey doesn't stray too far from its predecessors in terms of gameplay. Visually, however, it's a different story, with the sprite-based approach of the first two games dropped in favour of simple 3D graphics — at first blush, it's not particularly pretty. The chunky, chibi character models look 32-bit at best, the interface is a bit clunky, and though the multilayered backdrops were made for stereoscopic viewing, the framerate sometimes takes a hit when the 3D effect is turned on in the busier levels.

All that said, it does grow on you, and there's a lot of quiet beauty in the game's low-key look: the fact that different levels are presented in different lights, for instance, from shimmering summer sun to brilliant, burnt orange sunset and moonlit night, or the way the camera moves slowly and subtly back and forth as you play, panning and swinging delicately in and out of the levels like a boat on calm water.

The series' surrealist charm goes a long way here as well. Levels are made up of what feel like found objects from a stray katamari that recently terrorized a rural Japanese riverbank, with larger-than-life school supplies, picture frames, vegetables, clothespins, sake bottles and pay phones scattered on and among the floating platforms. It's also never quite clear if these objects are giant or if Yumi's just very, very small, creating an Alice in Wonderland effect that fits the game's dreamlike aesthetic perfectly.

The music, meanwhile, is an audio embodiment of countryside childhood — breezy, sweet, and sometimes a little wistful. For the most part the instrumental tracks tend towards sunny, straightforward orchestral pop, but there are a few jazzier selections with melodies and chorused synth-guitar that would feel at home on a vintage Metheny record. Some songs are more memorable than others, but to the composers' credit, not one of them got on our nerves after (innumerable) repeated listenings. As an excellent added bonus, playing as a certain unlockable character will switch out the soundtrack for the music from the original Umihara Kawase.

Conclusion

Aptly named and well worth the wait, Yumi's Odd Odyssey is an absolute joy. This isn't just a great game — it stands alongside creative classics like Mischief Makers, Klonoa, and Kirby: Canvas Curse as a totally original take on the platforming genre. A surprisingly demanding difficulty level and an initially underwhelming presentation might keep some players from biting, but the unique, polished, and endlessly appealing gameplay will be more than enough to reel in everybody else. There's really nothing else like Umihara Kawase, and its Western release is something to celebrate — puzzle-platforming fans, don't let this one get away.

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