Digital Gems: Osmos is Surreal, Soothing, Magnificent

Digital Gems: Osmos is Surreal, Soothing, Magnificent

Osmos might be one of the earliest iOS games, but it's still one of the best.

Last weekend, I was at a bit of a loose end, so I thought I'd spend some time rooting through my old iPad game purchases to see if I could find something worth replaying. To be honest, there wasn't much that I fancied re-downloading. For me, most iPad games tend to offer limited engagement: Pastimes that are fun to play for a while, but whose novelty wears off sooner than most PC and console games.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of superb iPad games that offer long-term appeal. There are, and I'll be talking about them in future Digital Gems articles. It's just that most of the games that I've bought over the years I played a lot when I first downloaded them, but just didn't feel the need to go back to them again. Since most of them cost next to nothing, I preferred to delete them to make way for something new.

However, one of the titles that did catch my eye was Osmos. It was one of the very first games I bought for my iPad back in 2010, and I'd forgotten just how much I loved playing it. So I re-downloaded it and immediately got sucked right back into its weird and wonderful action.

Designed by Canadian developer Hemisphere Games and originally released on PC and Mac back in 2009, it's difficult to categorize exactly what kind of game Osmos really is. It could be called an arcade game, but it also has an odd sort of dynamic puzzle overtone. The player basically takes control of a single-celled organism called a mote that can float around the scrolling 2D playfield in any direction. The way it propels itself is by excreting a small portion of its cellular mass as a series of bubbles. In other words, as you fly around the screen, your mote essentially shrinks.

Other motes gently float around the playfield, and if you collide with a smaller one, your mote absorbs its mass, and correspondingly grows in size. Likewise, hitting a bigger mote results in the larger mass absorbing your mote, causing it to shrink the longer it's in contact with the bigger body. This mechanic isn't just true for you, but for every mote that exists on the screen.

On most levels, the objective is to become the biggest mote, which means absorbing all the other cellular organisms that are floating around the playfield. So off you go, tap-tapping your mote to start it moving towards a smaller mote. It's here where the game's challenge can be found. Tap too many times, and your mote might lose too much of its mass, and by the time it reaches its target, it'll have shrunk to a size too small to absorb it. Not only that, but it'll have left behind a trail of bubbles that other motes might absorb to make them expand.

Instead, you need to finesse your moves, gently setting off in the right direction without excreting too much of your mote's mass. It's all about conserving your momentum and efficiently intercepting other floating motes so you can gracefully grow, which in turn enables you to set your sights on bigger cells. However, don't take too long. While you're busy floating around, other motes are constantly banging into one another, and since only one survives the collision, it means that other motes are continually growing in size. Successfully growing your mote is a fine balance between efficiency, accuracy, and haste, and it's strangely fascinating.

As the game progresses, the proceedings become increasingly complex. Some levels feature incredibly densely-packed static motes of different size – some of them absolutely huge – and you have to very carefully pick your way around them, absorbing the many smaller motes so that you can gradually expand and eventually take out the bigger targets.

Other levels introduce gravity fields that make every mote on the screen, including yours, rotate around a central mass. Here, you're constantly fighting against the effects of the gravitational field, making it difficult to maintain your cellular mass while changing your orbital trajectory. Later still are motes that have specific behavior patterns, such as moving away from you as you approach. How do you absorb these? It's all about building up momentum and finding a way of crashing into them as they ricochet off the boundaries of the screen.

As well as featuring gameplay that's compelling and very addictive, Osmos is beautiful to look at. Screenshots really don't do the game justice: What you can't see is the way the gorgeously-detailed motes shimmer and sparkle as they glide across the screen. And not only is the game wonderful to behold, it also features an absolutely terrific ambient electronic soundtrack that suits the action perfectly.

What I particularly like about Osmos is that it's a really chill, relaxing game to play, but it has an odd intensity about it. Sometimes you have to be patient, and wait for motes to slowly collide, while at other times you're reacting very quickly to a situation, perhaps attempting to accelerate your mote out of the path of a huge incoming organism to avoid getting absorbed. It's gameplay that's unlike anything else I've played.

Replaying Osmos has been a really enjoyable experience, and despite its age, I think it continues to stand tall as one of the best iOS/Android games you can buy. It works especially well on larger-format screens, which enable you to really hone in on the action and properly finesse your moves. I haven’t yet played it on PC or Mac, but I imagine it would work fine with a mouse – it's just that you lose a little of the truly tactile feel that makes the touch-screen version such a joy to play.

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