For nearly a century, thanks primarily to Walt Disney and his monolithic movie empire, fairy tales have been signified by talking animals, dance numbers, and finding true, everlasting love. These charming, simple stories are so lovable and so memorable that we have, as a society, nearly forgotten the source material for those films. But the fairy tales and folklore that Hollywood has mined are more often terrifying than heartwarming. Decapitation, mutilation, cannibalism are all par for the course. Go read the original "Little Mermaid" story and then cry yourself to sleep.
Oknytt, the first point-and-click adventure from indie developer Nemoria Entertainment, never reaches those levels of childhood trauma-inducing darkness, but it does traffic in the bleaker, spookier side of fairy tales. Set in a world informed by traditional Swedish folklore, Oknytt is a quaint, unassuming game about a “small, insignificant creature” trying to find his place in a world where every creature serves a specific role. The unnamed protagonist, a stumpy, shaggy muppet of a thing, wakes up in a grave marked by a cross made of sticks. With no knowledge of how he came to be, the creature sets off to discover who, what, and why he is.
There are five chapters in the game and each one follows a similar structure: the creature finds himself in a new area consisting of five to ten screens, with three or four other characters who need help. These characters are taken from old wives’ tales and folklore – everything from familiar trolls and fairies to creepy siren-esque wraiths that haunt the mines. Some are jovial and welcoming, but most are sad and wistful, bemoaning their endless, unchanging duties or unfulfilled desires. There is a thin, overarching plot, but the majority of your objectives will involve helping the other creatures you come across achieve some modicum of peace.
Doing so involves the standard library of point-and-click mechanics: you’ll search for items to combine and use with the environment, gather clues by examining your surroundings, and speak with the characters you come across. Items are stored in your inventory and can be used on each other as well as hotspots around the world. The name of a hotspot hovers near the cursor when you pass over it, and holding down the mouse button brings up a verb coin. You can examine, pick up, or see what the narrator has to say.
The entire game is chronicled by an unknown storyteller, his descriptions and dialogue all written in the third-person past tense. While the protagonist is naive and ignorant of the ways of the world, the narrator is full of knowledge. Examining an object often prompts a confused response from the playable character – “I wonder what is making her so sad” and so on – while consulting the narrator will prompt: “The such-and-such is a forest spirit who does this-and-that.” It’s a helpful addition but a somewhat tedious one. Doing the standard sweep of a new area takes twice as long, since there are two examine functions to try on every hotspot. The narrator is the sole voice actor in the game, and as such carries the weight of performing different voices for every character you encounter. Brian Hall, the actor, nails the performance, switching from vulnerable to intimidating to mysterious at the drop of a hat. It’s easy to forget that you’re hearing one person all the time, and that’s a credit to the quality of Hall’s work.
The other unique mechanic is the inclusion of four elemental runes that line the bottom of the screen. It seems that the unnamed creature has the ability to alter the environment in small ways that you can trigger by clicking the fire, water, air, or earth runes. Sometimes these cause small, useless animations to play, like water dropping off of a tree branch or eyes appearing in the distant forest. Sometimes, though, these are part of the puzzles, such as relighting an old campfire. It can be fun to see what the effects of each rune will be on each screen, but just as often it’s slightly frustrating because there is no real way to tell ahead of time what that effect will be.
Other than the runes, the puzzles are about as traditional as they come. That’s not inherently bad, of course. They’re traditional because they work. There’s a lot of lighting things on fire, using glass shards as mirrors, using smelling salts to wake up sleeping creatures, and so on. Few move beyond standard tropes, which can lead to stretches of uninspired, occasionally boring gameplay. There are also more than a few instances of illogical puzzles relying on arbitrary combinations of items: in some cases you’re combining objects to make something you didn’t know you needed; in others you’re combining things that hardly seem to go together. These are far outweighed by the puzzles that are reasonable, so I wouldn’t call it a major problem, but they occur often enough to take note.
Fortunately, the game's aesthetic and setting are charming enough to make up for a lot of its shortcomings. There are a number of adventure games set in fairy tale worlds, but Oknytt restricts itself to an earthier, more traditional version of folklore. This is reflected in the art style, which is heavy on gray and brown. You might not expect that to be a positive, but here the subdued color palette is used to generate an off-kilter, mysterious feeling in otherwise familiar, realistic environments: farms, forests, caves. Despite being mostly static, the artwork feels rich and detailed, as if it contains centuries of folkloric tradition, although the downside is that a few interactive objects don’t stand out from the background. More than once I passed over an item or hotspot multiple times. Character designs are also excellent, with every creature from massive trolls to forest nymphs and lost spirits looking appropriately disgusting, scary, adorable, or pathetic.
All of this is underscored by a haunting and moody score featuring a healthy dose of wistful strings and ambient wind noises. It’s more about mood-setting than toe-tapping, and it does the job well, though it won’t send you scrambling to seek out a standalone soundtrack.
Oknytt is a nice looking game, and it plays well enough despite some rough edges. The setting is unique, and the story is... well, all right. None of it is terribly memorable, however. Other than some of the bizarre creatures you encounter, it’s not a game that’s going to stick with you for weeks afterward, but it’s hardly a waste of time. If its distinctive design looks interesting to you, I say it’s worth checking out. I enjoyed my five or six hours with it, even if you won’t find me singing its praises from the mountaintop. One could do a whole lot worse than this quiet, simple tale of a lost and naive creature who's not out to save the world, merely to find his way in one.
A charming yet unassuming adventure through the pantheon of Swedish folklore, Oknytt is good enough to warrant your attention, though it won’t blow you away.
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