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Ancients of Ooga

Score: 86%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: NinjaBee
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Platformer/ Puzzle

Graphics & Sound:

Ancients of Ooga is a puzzle/platformer from NinjaBee, the developer behind Cloning Clyde and A Kingdom for Keflings. It's a quirky game that sports accessible gameplay and a good sense of humor. That doesn't mean it's for everybody. Ancients of Ooga is probably too simplistic for the hardcore crowd that is doubtless itching to tear into this year's Summer of Arcade. However, it's a solid addition to the Xbox Live Arcade library.

Personality oozes from Ancients of Ooga. The Ooganis look like they've been ripped straight from a Will Vinton production. They are profoundly ugly creatures, but there's something oddly endearing about the bipedal reptilian moose things that I can't quite put my finger on. Additionally, the different realms (including the Realm of the Fire-lings, the Realm of the Warriors, and the unfortunately-named Realm of the Stoners) predictably but appropriately center themselves around different visual themes. Unfortunately, sheer charm can only mask a game's technical inadequacies for so long. Ancients of Ooga is by no means a bad-looking game, but the unstable framerate confuses me; no aspect of the game's visual presentation suggests that the hardware is being leveraged at all. This annoyance doesn't do much to impede your progress, but it's noticeable throughout the entire journey.

Ancients of Ooga makes use of a minimalist sound design, something I'm sure the developers hoped would lend itself well to the game's subject matter. For a while, it does. The tribal rhythms are a bit overused; music is often layered on top of the beats, but it never fully upstages them like it should. Overall, the soundtrack is appropriate but admittedly bland. The hollering, yelping and general brouhaha created by the dimwitted heroes makes up for that.


Gameplay:

The seven Oogani Tribes are in disorder. The nefarious Boolis have tricked each of them into slavery. As the Spirit of Ooga, it is your job to incite the seven tribes to full-fledged rebellion against the Boolis. How can you do that as a mere spirit, you ask? By possessing the otherwise stupid Ooganis, of course!

I like to think of Ancients of Ooga as Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee (or Exoddus) for a younger audience. This is a much more light-hearted tale; you won't find any grisly death animations or pointed satire of rampant commercialism. Most of that stuff is simply left up to your imagination in Ancients of Ooga. As the Great Spirit of Ooga, you will possess the Ooganis and carry out special tasks. These tasks can range from simply getting to a certain area to performing fetch quests to giving the Boolis a series of painful eviction notices.

The context behind each situation makes the otherwise vanilla mission structure easy to overlook. Part of the reason why is because, quite frankly, this game has a great sense of humor. It's funny that most of the Fire-ling Ooganis are cursed with explosive tempers that are just begging to be exploited. Maybe it's just culture shock on my part, but watching a group of Harvester Ooganis argue over which squawcken is the reincarnated version of their chief is side-splittingly funny.


Difficulty:

Ancients of Ooga is not a challenging game. If there's a Game Over screen, I haven't yet discovered it. First off, as a spirit, your primary in-game avatar cannot meet anything resembling a definitive end. Furthermore, the Ooganis you possess are capable of withstanding more physical punishment than Nathan Drake or (dare I say it) Dirk the Daring. If they are beaten to a pulp by a Booli or blown to smithereens by boom powder, there aren't any real consequences, save for end-level statistics. The Ooganis simply poof back into existence. The game actually calls attention to this deficit of logic, as if it's giving you a playful nudge in the ribs the whole time.

Experimentation is always the way to make sure you've left no stone unturned -- or in the case of the heroes, uneaten. None of the levels are overwhelmingly large, and the handy map always lets you know where your priorities lie. Each altar of sacrifice is adorned with an explicit diagram illustrating the exact item (or Oogani) you need to sacrifice. And, when in doubt, remembering the realm you're in will usually give you at least an inkling of a hint.


Game Mechanics:

Ancients of Ooga utilizes a very simple set of play tools that only introduce themselves when necessary. There's no risk of information overload for younger players; by the time the player is done with a specific realm, many of the ideas are forgotten and replaced with new ones. There's a good number of context-sensitive actions, and the opportunities are usually emphasized without looking too conspicuous. If you see a catapult, hamster wheel, or geyser, you'll know that it's time to experiment. These actions are mapped to a single button press, which keeps things simple.

The Spirit of Ooga's powers are limited. When you're in spirit form, you can go anywhere, but you can't interact with anything. This form is useful for exploration and planning. The rest is up to the Ooganis you choose to possess. So, what is it exactly that the Ooganis do? Well, that's specific to whichever realm they belong to. Chiefs in particular have special abilities, but mere peons tend to retain a passive ability or two. Most of these passive abilities allow them to get through particular scenarios unscathed. However, one ability is common to all Ooganis: none of them have any reservations about putting most anything in their mouths. This is partially what got them enslaved in the first place, but when you can't sink any lower, you've got nowhere to go but up. Ooganis can fit pretty much anything into their mouths, including artifacts, foods, and... other Ooganis. As the game progresses, special items start showing up; ingesting these with a number of oroogano spices allows your Oogani to reap the benefits of... whatever it eats. For example, swallowing a hover bean will give an Oogani the full effect of Willy Wonka's Fizzy Lifting Drinks (the end of the power is even marked with a belch). Regurgitation is also an option; a button press will void the contents of the Oogani's mouth. All of these mechanics are liberally applied to the puzzle design.

All told, Ancients of Ooga is an enjoyable little title that is worth the price of admission. While it's short on challenge, the entertainment factor is still very much there. That being said, gamers looking for a more cerebral puzzle platformer experience would do well to find their fix elsewhere. However, families should get a kick out of this one.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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