UPDATED: February 27 at 1:50 a.m.
“Alto’s Odyssey” is an endless runner mobile game about sandboarding, which—after a brief interlude of Googling—I can assure you is a real sport. But that’s a bit like saying “The Starry Night” is a painting of a village. It’s true, I guess, but not really what you notice.
What “Alto’s Odyssey” is really about is guiding a sandboarding avatar through a gorgeous two-dimensional desert, using a few touches of the screen to jump over obstacles and onto surfaces, and maybe doing a few midair flips and tricks along the way. It is difficult to overstate how visually striking the game is: Temples and mountains weave into canyons and dunes, which weave into jungles and waterfalls. The little sandboarder makes his or her way through villages, across vines, bridges, and balloons. Leave the music on if you can to help guide your mood from quiet appreciation to glee as you slide through one landscape and launch yourself across another.
The basic gameplay is very simple. You touch the screen to jump, holding on to perform backflips and other tricks. The game is divided into levels, with different goals suggested to progress to the next level—but you can explore the endless variety of “Odyssey” without ever accomplishing any of the goals, if you like. Collecting coins along the way allows you to purchase upgrades (some of which, like the single-use Helmet, seem to be a bit of a waste of money), while completing levels unlocks different playable characters with slightly different skillsets (for example, the second character, Maya, is slower but flips faster).
Endless runners can be stressful. Like many games, they require split-second decision-making. Something is almost always chasing the player, be it a monster, a natural disaster, or something a little more whimsical. And sooner or later, as certain as death or taxes, you will lose. Endless runners have no victory conditions, only longer runs before failure. Oftentimes, this can make a game get old pretty quickly (Sure, it was exciting the first few times, but before long the game is reduced to endless repetitions of the same level, hard to look away from but also no longer any fun).
“Alto’s Odyssey” avoids this pitfall of the genre. The terrain of the level changes slightly across each playthrough, even if one stays in the same biome. The game moves on a day/night cycle that persists across levels, so that if it was night when the last run ended, it will still be night when the next begins. Sandstorms and rainfall appear, last for a run or two, and disappear again. The gameplay and the world have a sedate, unhurried feel that makes ending a run feel less like a failure and more like a brief delay before getting to play some more.
That being said, I would strongly caution against playing for more than an hour or two at a time. If overplayed, “Odyssey” begins to lose its charm. Its level goals become frustratingly difficult objectives. Instead of a storm or nightfall being an interesting change to the world’s aesthetic, they become irritating impediments to one’s vision. The game remains as difficult to put down as ever—perhaps even more so—but one starts to wonder if this is really a valuable use of one’s time. At that point, you should put it down and come back to it later.
Another way to alleviate the frustrations of endless runners is to activate the game’s Zen Mode, which turns off the coins and trick scores the game uses to track your performance, and allows your little sandboarders to get back up each time they fall down instead of starting a new run. With a slower, more contemplative soundtrack, and more opportunities to appreciate the beautiful background and foreground art, Zen Mode is arguably the best way to enjoy “Odyssey.” It also allows you to move from biome to biome if you find yourself getting stuck in a rut.
A quick look at “Alto’s Odyssey” and the game which inspired it, “Journey,” will be enough to determine that the one owes a lot to the other. The art styles are very similar, and both games flow through a beautiful desert landscape, hauntingly empty at first look, but brimming with life on closer inspection. Both sport cloaked player avatars with trailing scarves, who hang in the air for just a little longer than we can in the everyday world. The bird of paradise companions that you can acquire on your sandboarding runs even seem to echo the cloth creatures of “Journey.”
Of course, the two games are also very different, and not just because they are in different genres. With its coins, run scores, equipment, and alternate avatars, “Alto’s Odyssey” does not have the same strict commitment to minimalism “Journey” did. “Journey” wanted to make statements about life, loneliness, and experience; “Alto’s Odyssey” wants you to have fun in five-minute bursts.
But even though “Odyssey” is fun to play, to write it off like that would be underselling it. “Alto’s Odyssey” succeeds with such beauty and grace, one forgets that what one is playing is “just” an endless runner, “just” a game for a phone or tablet. “Alto’s Odyssey” isn’t just the best of its genre—it’s better than its genre.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: February 27, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that "Journey" was the predecessor to "Alto's Odyssey." In fact, "Journey" inspired "Alto's Odyssey," but was not its predecessor.
—Staff writer J. Thomas Westbrook can be reached at email@example.com.