OSMOS: Ambient Bliss

In the fast-paced landscape of the App Store, it’s very rare that a game can make us slow down and pause in genuine admiration. Some manage it with good humour or a clever new mechanic, others with the sheer beauty of their presentation. Sometimes the two come together. Among those few titles is Osmos: a game designed for contemplation.

Eschewing hyperactivity in favour of a more patient pace, Osmos offers gamers a gorgeous and fluid environment in which the simple task of growing your single-celled organism is explored through 2 different game modes and 8 distinct level formats for a total of 72 diverse levels. It is one of the most highly acclaimed games on the App Store and, as we’re about to discover, the praise is well earned.

What is Osmos?

If you’ve played Spore or Fl0w, then Osmos will feel familiar to you, aesthetically speaking. Similar to those two titles is Osmos’ primary goal of growing your creature by absorbing others. This struggle takes place among exquisitely detailed circular single-celled organisms that inhabit various neutral environments.

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This Is You

Along the way, you will encounter several “species” of organism, some of which are intelligent and very evasive, and others that are harmless but huge. You will also have to contend with various environmental hazards including vortexes and pressure jets that add an extra layer of complication. Of course, despite the variety of gameplay situations, the underlying mechanic remains the same and is pleasantly accessible to players of all skill levels. Osmos is very much an example of a game that has something for everyone: enjoyment for those who just want to pick it up and play occasionally, as well as deeper satisfaction for others who delve into the various gameplay modes.

Gameplay

Despite its similar premise to the titles mentioned before, Osmos differs in the exact game mechanic. Instead of being able to move freely across the landscape to reach and chase other organisms, movement in Osmos requires a sacrifice of your organism’s size — each time you want to move, your little cell ejects some fluid from its body to propel it in the direction of your choice.

The difference is subtle, but the implications are not. This consequence of movement forces you to consider each motion carefully, since losing too much of your size will make you too small to absorb some of the other organisms and can actually force you to restart a level if you’re too careless. It is worth mentioning though that the designers have been judicious about just how much mass you lose for each motion; it truly is only a small amount, which ensures that navigating doesn’t end up being frustrating.

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Jet Propulsion

Controls

Osmos makes liberal use of the multi-touch capabilities of your iOS device by utilizing multiple-finger taps and swiping for its controls. To move your cell, you tap behind it. Each tap releases a brief spurt of fluid that propels your in the opposite direction. The physics are realistic and momentum plays a huge role in the way you move about. Just like in the real world, the most energy needs to be exerted to begin moving, after that you can make do with fewer spurts just to adjust your course or change direction and let momentum do the rest. Another interesting aspect of this movement system is that you can actually re-absorb the liquid you expend to move — it jets out in small bubbles that continue to inhabit the environment, so if you come up against them later on you will be able to take back that lost mass.

Since some levels will require you to be extremely conservative about how much fluid you expend to move, you may have to move very slowly to absorb your first targets. Thankfully, Osmos includes a time controlling mechanic that allows you to speed up (and slow down) time by swiping left or right across the screen. Swiping faster or slower will affect the degree to which game time is affected, giving you precise control over how much of a time warp you’d like to apply. This is especially useful when you start off very small and have to navigate between many larger cells to find edible targets, allowing you to move patiently but not have to wait forever for momentum to carry you to your destination.

The menu is accessible at any time via a three or four-finger tap, and acknowledging on-screen prompts in-game is accomplished with a quick two-finger tap.

Interface

One of Osmos’ best features is its minimalistic UI design. Besides looking clean and uncluttered, the lack of obtrusive interface elements helps the game itself disappear, leaving only the experience, which can get quite immersive. This is especially true of the title when you’re playing on the large screen of an iPad, or the high-resolution Retina Display on the iPhone 4 (for which the game has recently been optimized).

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Osmos

The game’s main menu appears quickly after launch (no endless ads and logos) and offers you quick access to the game’s two main modes as well as areas for adjusting settings, checking your achievements, viewing the credits and controls, handling OpenFeint connection, and — most interestingly — an entirely separate page dedicated to showcasing the artists responsible for the game’s spectacular ambient music, which you are directed to check out on iTunes right from the game.

Modes and Level Types

There are two primary game modes in Osmos: Odyssey and Arcade. As the name suggests, the Odyssey mode is something like an extended tutorial or “story” mode. There is no actual plot, of course, but it gradually introduces you to the game’s core mechanic and then begins introducing each of the 8 level types as you progress. These types are unlocked by playing the Odyssey mode and are called Ambient, Antimatter, Impasse, Repulsor, Sentient, Warped Chaos, Epicycles, and Solar. Each one features some twist on the core gameplay that adds an extra layer of challenge.

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Main Menu

For instance, the Repulsor levels pit you against another cell that is magnetically repulsed by you, so you’ll have to find ways to grow big enough to corner it before you can absorb it. The Sentient levels are among the trickiest since you must struggle to absorb an AI-controlled organism that can grow and avoid you with surprising intelligence.

The second primary game mode is Arcade, which allows you to play the game in any of the level types you’ve unlocked. Each level type serves as a category with several procedurally-generated individual levels in each, progressing in difficulty from the basic one that introduces the new mechanic up to the later ones where your skill will be sorely tested.

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Arcade Mode Menu

Perhaps the greatest advantage that this setup offers is that while there are certainly fast-paced and very difficult levels available for those interested in a challenge, the more peaceful ambient levels are always available for those just wishing to drop in for a quick relaxing game session.

Presentation

Where Osmos truly distinguishes itself is in the strength of its presentation. Hemisphere Games have outdone themselves here, producing a vividly realized world that feels authentic in its depiction of the strange little alien cells. Colours are attractive without being garishly saturated, and the fluid animations are perfectly in tune with the physics of the game.

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Osmos

Sound design also deserves special mention because the ambient sound effects are treated very tastefully; there are no annoying sounds here, and the collection of ambient tunes is very fitting. Some tracks are more interesting than others, but all of them undoubtedly contribute to the game’s amazing atmosphere which, as they suggest, is best experienced on headphones. Fans of silence can turn the music and sound effects down or right off independently, and if you do like the music then Osmos makes it easy to find more of it on iTunes via the dedicated menu page.

Parting Thoughts

Recommending Osmos is the easy part. Describing why is trickier. On the face of it, the game mechanic isn’t hugely innovative, and even the polished presentation (fantastic as it is) is not entirely unique on the App Store. What makes Osmos different is something less tangible: the atmosphere. The way that everything comes together makes for an experience that’s legitimately immersive and the fact that it’s paced a bit more slowly than your average iOS game is a breath of fresh air.

The ideal scenario would be for Hemisphere Games to put out a free version so that people could get a feel for the game before shelling out the $2.99 for the full version, but they seem to be content to maintain the one version and simply do occasional discounts when they make it back into the charts. It’s a fair approach, but allowing people to try a few levels and get a sense for it seems like it might be a good idea. Alas, in the meantime those who have yet to check out Osmos can stick to reading about it and watching the trailer, or bugging their friends who’ve got it for a turn.

Conclusion

In the end, Osmos’ appeal to you will depend on how much patience you have for a game that challenges you without rushing you; one that compels you to appreciate its aesthetics as it draws you into its blissful atmosphere. For those people, you’d be hard pressed to find a finer title on the entirety of the App Store. For the rest, Osmos may just be a curiosity. But it is still a beautiful and deep curiosity that is worth exploring.

Which category do you find yourself in? Leave us your thoughts about Osmos in the comments!


Summary

Your goal is to grow by absorbing smaller motes, but to propel yourself you must eject matter behind you, causing you to shrink. From this fundamental balance, Osmos leads the player through ambient playgrounds, deep solar systems, competitive petri dishes, dense mote-fields, and more.

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