Adventure Gamers Awards
You asked a question and received an unsatisfying answer. So now you find yourself in the Ossuary, last resting place of the legendary Greyface. In this place beyond the physical world, perhaps you will find the true answer that you seek. But all is not well in the Ossuary. The Sacred Order of the Defamation League has split, each of its four members disagreeing on what is needed to bring order. If you assist them in their respective goals, they believe they will be able to act for the good of all. Or maybe there is another way. In Future Proof’s Ossuary, the result of this unique premise is a minimalist, text-heavy philosophical adventure which, whilst a bit cumbersome at times, provides plenty of stimulation for the mind, even beyond puzzling.
Viewed from above, Ossuary’s scenery consists essentially of simple bright lines against a black backdrop to depict walls. Shading provides a little depth, and some scenes have additional features, like the brickwork in one area. Bookcases have the mere suggestion of books on the shelves, while display cabinets have a few pixels to show reflections on their glass tops. Objects are given slightly more detail, though even these are still extremely low-resolution. Colour is sparsely used, but to good effect. A furnace has a fiery glow, and an otherwise austere fort is bedecked with bright red banners. There is also a shifting mist effect, which only lightly obscures the action, though its constant movement may affect those who suffer from motion sickness. The playable area consists of only a square section in the middle of widescreen monitors, leaving lots of unused territory around it.
Characters are represented by simple forms, with arms and legs sticking out the sides. These come in a variety of shapes, though only the player character is filled in, with all the others being simple outlines. Despite this simplicity, everything is identifiable in context, and the very lack of detail adds to the otherworldly feel of this place. When you engage in conversation, a simple illustrative headshot appears next to the dialogue of the person you are talking to, showing mildly exaggerated features and some clothing, such as a guard’s helmet. This gives each character some personality, though their blank eyes are still disturbing.
The audio is equally simple in design. The background “music” is a long-deep, resonating tone, with a varied hissing behind it. This is occasionally interrupted by a wailing like a religious chant, though with no distinguishable words. This fits well with the setting, and whilst not hugely varied, there is enough variety that I did not find it became irritating over time. There is a crunching noise as you walk around, though it’s probably best that the source of the sound is never displayed, given that an ossuary is a storage place for bones. Other sound effects are largely dictated by player actions, mostly arising only when you have achieved something. Large stone doors grate as they open, a sonorous bell chimes, and an unearthly wail sounds when achieving a particular task. Like the graphics, the simplicity of the sound design works well in conveying the unearthly tone.
Before I go any further, I should note that this game is completely unvoiced, though a waffling noise like muffled conversation plays when another character is speaking. There is a huge amount of written dialogue, even if you stick to topics that advance your quest. Whilst each individual conversation is relatively short, it does add up over time, especially if you explore any of the non-vital discussions. If you are put off by having to read a lot in a game, then Ossuary is definitely not for you.
The game is divided into four main areas, with a fifth area containing the “reliquary” of Greyface serving as a crossroads between them. You move through these areas with the arrow keys, using X to interact with the person or object you are facing. The locations include an academy, a museum, a military fort, and an area split between two opposing political factions. Each of these environments has its own treasure, place of power, secret word and an order to join. Each member of the Sacred Order asks you to gather multiples of a particular item, such as secret words, in order to give them the power they need to sort things out. This is not a simple collection of fetch quests, however, as you need to adopt a different approach in each area, even if you decide to only pursue one request.
A little investigation soon shows that something is not right with the groups inhabiting these areas. The museum seems remarkably reluctant to exhibit anything and a student has had a thesis rejected with no explanation. In acquiring the items you seek, you will learn more about the problems in each area. This may lead you to pursue the fifth quest near the reliquary, where a person opposed to the Order asks you to seek out the lies of each area instead. The views of what is good within the context of the game heavily favour Discordianism. This is no accident, as the developer has been quite clear that this game was inspired by that philosophy. The main message of questioning authority rather than obeying it blindly is not overly offensive. However, whilst the different areas approach this point in different ways, the fact that the problems all derive from taking the opposite stance effectively asserts the Discordian view as better.
Whilst the elements of some individual puzzles need to be solved in order, the game otherwise gives you total freedom. You can try to solve all parts of an individual area at once, focus solely on one main quest, or simply wander about switching between puzzles at will. There is no inventory in the conventional sense, so most of the puzzle-solving involves talking to every available person. Each person usually has up to three available topics of conversation, with some leading to further choices. Exploring these allows you to build up a picture about the area, as well as unlocking additional topics with other characters. Some results are simple and immediate, such as joining one of the political parties. Others will require you to speak to several people, such as trying to find out why the student’s thesis was rejected.
The main problem with these dialogues is that you can only pursue one path at a time. To explore other paths, you have to start the conversation again. This is not an issue with those who only offer single-level topics, but when there are further branches, having to repeat the earlier levels over and over can prove tiresome. You will also find yourself tracking back and forth often. A person in one area will ask you about something in an entirely different area, requiring you to stroll across the (admittedly fairly small) map to progress. This is only really a problem if you choose to focus on a single puzzle at a time, however.
Ordinary conversation will only get you so far. This is where a cunning innovation comes in that adds a whole new level. The inventory not only tracks the quest items you have collected, it also allows you to collect all seven deadly sins. Many of the puzzles revolve around finding the right sin to provoke the reaction you need from other characters. The sins act somewhat like inventory items, so trying everything on everything is always a workable tactic, and in this regard the developer has gone above and beyond, eschewing the traditional “that doesn’t work” response to incorrect matches. Every character in the game has a unique response to each of the sins. Even characters you have no reason to interact with have their own responses, as well as unique little tales of their own. This includes sixteen soldiers who are otherwise just standing around on a parade ground. If you get stuck in the game, you can amuse yourself for quite a while simply wandering around talking to people. This gives the world a depth that other games often lack, with their barren worlds or crowds of unresponsive characters.
Wandering around chatting isn’t the only diversion available outside the main stories. There are also a couple of optional side quests to be undertaken. One of these is an almost literal pixel hunt, where a character asks you to collect 100 small coins scattered around the map. These are single bright pixels that stand apart from other items, though they are still by no means easy to spot. Fortunately they also sparkle at irregular intervals, making them easier to locate with a bit of patience. There are also four tortured souls, each trapped in a cage in a different area. They can be freed from their torment by releasing them and tapping them three times with a magic orb. However, these spirits will try to steal some of your reality first, turning you insubstantial if you get caught. You have to find a way to lure the spirit close enough to touch, then tap them before they can attack. For an adventure game, this reflex-based gameplay can prove frustrating, though the reactions required are not actually lightning fast. Having your reality stolen simply means leaving the current area, which restores you completely, so failure has no long-term consequences. Each spirit is lured by slightly different behaviour, giving these trials a mental element as well. Completing these quests unlocks bonus content in the game menu, including a minigame where you can find out about the original question your character posed. Completing the game itself also unlocks design notes.
Ossuary is undoubtedly not the prettiest or most beautiful-sounding game out there. This might be enough to put some people off, as will the sheer volume of text. But those who persevere will find a thought-provoking little game that offers more than just a bunch of puzzles to solve. The setting has real depth to it, providing more optional puzzles and additional interactions than most games I’ve seen. The sins system is immensely satisfying to use, and the side quests give you something else to do as you work at the main problem. Completing the main quest will take 3-4 hours, but exploring the game’s full depth will take much longer. If you’re unsure whether you will like the style, the standalone introductory game The Hodge-Podge Transformer is freely available to play online, where you can also purchase the full game. Proving once again that the adventure genre will never die, this game shows just how much life there is in the genre, even amidst the crumbling bones of the dead.