The PS2 was a delightful period of experimentation for a lot of developers. And the fact that the only option for distribution was on physical media helped these titles get both noticed at the time, and fondly remembered long after the fact.
2000’s Sky Odyssey isn’t a game I ever played back in the day, but having familiarised myself with it for the first time recently, I have discovered it to be one of those titles for which a simple, offhand mention tends to trigger a gushing torrent of effusive praise from anyone who was there first time around. This is a game that people loved back in the day — and yet it’s mostly unheard of today. The very definition of a hidden gem; a forgotten classic.
The advantage of its underappreciated status, of course, is that it means you can pick up a copy for 50p down your local CEX, enjoy a fine, fine addition to your PS2 collection and still have change for an overpriced cup of shopping centre coffee. Let’s take a closer look. At the game, not the coffee.
Back in the early days of non-violent civilian flight simulators such as subLOGIC’s imaginatively named Flight Simulator II (that which would later become Microsoft Flight Simulator), it was quite popular for enthusiasts to compose “adventures” for their fellow virtual pilots to challenge from the comfort of their home computers. These challenges, which would consist of a combination of environmental and positional settings as well as an “objective” to complete, were fun to engage with, but the limitations of both the technology and the software at the time meant that a certain amount of imagination was required. What Sky Odyssey does is take this basic concept and really runs with it, making for a highly unusual but utterly compelling take on the flight sim — and a real highlight from the PS2’s early days.
Sky Odyssey is a game that channels the spirit of “ripping yarns”; traditional stories of derring-do and adventure of the kind that might have been told to schoolboys around the mid-20th century. You play an adventurer who has come to a small group of islands in the ominously-named Dark Sea, lured in by tales of the legendary tower of Maximus and a great treasure that lies at its summit. It’s your job to track down the pieces of a lost map, find Maximus and see what awaits at the top. And you have to do all of this from the cockpit of an aeroplane.
Sky Odyssey’s main attraction is its Adventure mode, which chronicles your efforts to locate the map fragments and ultimately reach Maximus. Proceeding through a non-linear sequence of missions, you’ll be tasked with a variety of different flight-based challenges in order to prove your skills, progress through the islands and eventually reach your goal.
Sky Odyssey is a completely non-violent game. Each mission generally involves completing some kind of specific objective, perhaps under challenging circumstances, and reaching a destination airstrip for a successful landing. Along the way, you can earn additional points for performing aerobatic manoeuvres such as rolls and loops or flying safely at very low altitude, and checkpoint rings both award you with bonus points and chart the route you should be following.
Each mission has a “par” time, but failing to complete your objective in this time doesn’t result in mission failure — it simply means you’ll get the lowest letter grade possible, regardless of the bonus points you earned. In order to earn the higher ranks, you’ll need to complete your objectives quickly, efficiently and safely; successfully pulling this off rewards you with a variety of parts for your aircraft which can be used to customise its performance.
This might all sound a bit dry so far, but the missions are consistently exciting and interesting thanks to the conditions you have to deal with along the way.
In one mission, your fuel tank has sprung a leak so you need to refuel from a moving train while proceeding towards your destination — and of course the train track leads right inside a bunch of inconveniently placed tunnels at semi-regular intervals.
In another, you’re tasked with flying over an extremely high mountain range in a heavy blizzard; success in this mission is dependent on you dumping your fuel partway up to make your craft light enough to complete the ascent, but of course, doing so only leaves you with a limited amount of engine power to finish your journey.
In the missions where you have to track down a piece of the lost map, you’ll generally have to fly through a narrow cave or canyon that is inevitably collapsing all around you. When making the trip from one island to another you’ll discover some of the most perilous weather systems in the entire world. And in one particularly memorable mission, your engine catches fire as you begin your descent down a group of huge waterfalls, forcing you to ditch your plane in the river and use it as an improvised “boat” to float down the rapids.
Despite the lack of combat and antagonist in the game, Sky Odyssey is an absolute thrill ride from start to finish. It only takes a single serious mistake to see your plane go up in smoke and have to start the mission all over again — but while this is frustrating, it always feels like this is your fault rather than the game’s fault, and it keeps you on edge right through every mission.
The game’s flight model combines immediacy and accessibility with just enough realism to keep things challenging — the snappy and responsive controls bring Namco’s Ace Combat series to mind, but the intense weather conditions you have to deal with throughout the various missions provide additional considerations that wouldn’t become a thing in that series until its PlayStation 4 installment in 2019. Your “foe” in this game is nature itself, and nature cannot be defeated; about the best you can hope for is to be able to deal with the increasingly extreme circumstances in which you find yourself without slamming into a rock wall or finding yourself stuck halfway up a mountain without enough horsepower to get yourself airborne again.
Outside of the Adventure mode campaign — which can be completed in its entirety using the basic, rather slow but charming biplane you start the game with — there’s still a lot to do. A “Target” mode tasks you with flying through a series of airborne targets, attempting to score as many points as possible by hitting them in the “correct” order, while “Sky Canvas” mode challenges you with drawing patterns using smoke trails by following markers in the sky. There’s also a free flight mode that allows you to pootle around in any of the mission areas at your leisure, with customisable weather and time of day settings.
There are additional aircraft to unlock beyond the three you start with — including some fantastical ones such as UFOs as well as real-world planes — as well as a proto-“achievement” system where you unlock artwork and screenshots for accomplishing various tasks in the game. There really is a lot to uncover in this game.
Given the highly enjoyable nature and overall high quality of this game, it’s a real shame that developer Cross appeared to disband after putting this game together, and little trace of them or their work remains online to this day. From what I can make out, many of the former Cross staffers now appear to work for Nintendo on the Mario Party series, and the lead programmer on Sky Odyssey previously worked on Tecnosoft’s excellent Thunder Force series and RTS genre progenitor Herzog Zwei on the Mega Drive. Beyond that, though, this game and the team behind it presents a bit of a quirky mystery from a historical perspective.
Well, except for one individual, that is. The soundtrack for Sky Odyssey was composed by one Kow Otani, probably best known today for his spectacular soundtrack to Shadow of the Colossus. And indeed while Sky Odyssey clearly lacked the budget for a fully orchestrated soundtrack, unlike Team Ico’s classic, Otani’s music is instantly recognisable with its sweeping, triumphant and dramatic themes that complement the on-screen action perfectly. It really adds immensely to the feel of 1940s adventure that the game as a whole has going on, and is just one of many ways that it’s a sheer delight to play, even nearly 20 years after its original release.
Oh, right, yeah, and there’s an emblem editor, so you can draw dicks on the wings of any of the aircraft available to you. Best game ever.
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