Oneiros has just about everything you could want in an adventure ... and at least one thing you might not, at least in such abundance. The game takes players through a series of both real and surreal landscapes littered with points of interactivity and crafty riddles, with the puzzles and narrative cleverly intertwining to slowly reveal the mystery of the strange world you find yourself trapped in. It isn’t perfect, however, though its imperfections aren’t necessarily a result of design or functionality. Oneiros’s main issue is that it doesn’t know when to let up on humour in favour of storytelling or immersion. It’s able to reach great heights, but too often stumbles when it gets there over its near constant barrage of (often flat and often lowbrow) jokes. Nevertheless, it’s an astoundingly well-made production for a solo developer, and even its cruder aspects are somewhat endearing, making Oneiros like the Duke Nukem of adventure games.
The game revolves around Liam, a young man still trying to hold onto the remnants of his youth. He likes skateboarding and punk rock, though he doesn’t get around to hitting the pavement or strumming chords like he used to. The most important things in his life nowadays are Sarah and Betty, his girlfriend and ’57-Chevy-esque convertible, respectively. Sarah is trying to decide what to do with her life, with painting being her only real interest. She and Liam spent a summer touring Europe and, from the looks of things, plan on spending a whole lot more time together in the foreseeable future. Their relationship isn't perfect, though. Sarah’s friend Lucy isn’t exactly fond of Liam, nor is Liam fond of her. Another of Sarah’s friends, Jason, also rubs Liam the wrong way, taking advantage of Sarah’s kindness under the guise of a man trying to get back on his feet.
The story is revealed through Liam’s internal monologue and echoes of past conversations, triggered at different points by interacting with objects strewn about the environments. In fact, the entire game is a dream taking place in Liam’s head, and the settings Liam explores range from realistic to ethereal, either being literal renditions of memories, or more fantastical subconscious constructions, such as a floating island complete with a garage for working on Betty.
Players never actually see Liam, nor do we get much of a look at the other characters, aside from some photographs of Sarah. Oneiros’s narrative is conveyed entirely from Liam’s viewpoint, both physically in the first person and cognitively via his commentary on the situation. Given his obvious bias, Liam frames himself as a hero, with Sarah the oblivious girlfriend and her friends the source of all evil. There are threads teasing a deeper perspective of whether Liam is really the angel he sees himself as, but the narrative never really develops that far. Despite the protagonist’s near-constant commentary, the story is pretty thin, and more time is dedicated to telling jokes than it is exploring his relationship with Sarah. That is too bad, as the setup is intriguing. It ends up being just a brief tale with an ambiguous moral lesson relating to suspicion and jealously, which wraps up just as it starts to come together.
That’s the sanitized version of the experience, anyway. In order to uncover Liam’s memory in its totality, you’ll need to wade through the sludge, in a manner of speaking. Like, not even a minute in, you are reaching into a toilet bowl to retrieve a key (much to Liam’s protest). Later you’ll collect rat droppings, find Liam’s Seamen 6000 water gun, find a way to make a parrot poop (much to the parrot’s protest), and struggle to scrounge together enough dropped change from the floor to buy something you need. Almost every puzzle seemingly links up with a dirty joke of some variety, and if it doesn’t you can bet one isn’t far away.
Liam’s snappy remarks trigger just about every time you pick up or examine one of dozens if not hundreds of things, often accompanied by a joke (or a rickroll, in one instance). Humor is a subjective thing, and while I like forcing my avatar to handle excrement as much as the next player, I’ve never played a game that relied so heavily on the concept as Oneiros. This “gross” factor will surely be off-putting to some players. That said, I did laugh a couple times, and there are some Easter eggs hidden throughout that may hit the mark with those who keep a close watch of gaming industry news. The writing is akin to shooting a dartboard with a shotgun; some of the pellets will hit, some will miss, but the pure nonsense of doing such a thing does make it entertaining, if not overly cerebral.
In between all the gags, Oneiros is a free-roaming 3D adventure, operating with the standard WASD keys and mouse-look (or dual analog scheme on a gamepad). You can crouch, jump, or run, though you’ll seldom need to outside of a few specific challenges. You will spend most of your time interacting with (left-click) or gathering (right-click, if prompted to do so) items and objects of interest. Some things can be collected, while others can simply be picked up, rotated and examined in close-up view, and then dropped (after another short commentary by Liam). At certain points of the game, you’ll be carrying a dozen or more individual items, making scrolling through the slow-moving inventory wheel a bit tedious. Fortunately you’ll never need to combine objects within the wheel; instead you’ll be prompted to utilize or combine items via set mechanisms in the environment, with a silhouette of each object’s placement giving you an idea of what is needed to progress.
The first chapter is more or less a tutorial, dropping you into an empty movie theater and forcing you to find your way out through the locked front door from a handful of clues. The second chapter in Liam's bedroom is far smaller in scale, but is absolutely packed with items and points of interactivity. You’ll rummage through drawers, look through his laptop, and scour the shelves for clues related to safe and lock combinations. As you find bits of scrap paper pertaining to the solutions, Liam can post them on his corkboard, rotating and matching the papers until they connect. It’s a clever means of working your way through the puzzles, and I really enjoyed being able to post all the clues in front of me. The laptop has its own trove of clues hidden in pictures and documents. There are also two games installed on it, a cute-ish one-level platformer where you play as a bleeding, rainbow-puking unicorn, and a 2.5D side-scrolling skateboarding game, both of which prove fun distractions from the ongoing treasure hunt.
The third chapter takes place on a Myst-style floating island. Here the objective is once again technically to escape, though instead of looking for a key, Liam must reassemble his car, with Betty’s parts having been scattered across the airborne paradise. Some parts have simply been dropped on the ground, while others require solving two- or three-step puzzles in order to find them. A notebook with a checklist and diagram of the parts needed is displayed on one of the workbenches, giving you easy-to-follow instructions. This list updates automatically as you progress, and feels like a helpful but subtle way to set out what needs to be accomplished without giving the answers away.
If you do find yourself unsure what to do next, candies collected throughout the environment can be used to prompt a hint. These don’t carry over between chapters, but there’s usually a generous amount to be found. I ended up using a candy just once, and though the hint I got wasn’t overly specific, the option is a nice addition nonetheless. The only puzzle I got stuck on came down to my misreading of the formula needed to create fuel for the car, and not some sort of cryptic or poorly conveyed instruction. (I was attempting to use the wrong type of poop in the fuel, believe it or not. Yes, there are so many different varieties of poop that I became confused.)
While goals like searching for a key to the front door are more or less logical, even the more obscure objectives in the surreal segments are never difficult to decode. One sequence, for example, has Liam navigating a psychedelic maze, while echoes of past conversations with Sarah drift about in the background. Eventually, the maze leads to a mechanical box with several cogs missing from the internal gear mechanism. These cogs are all scattered nearby, and need to be correctly returned and affixed in the box. While it’s not exactly clear why Liam is fixing a gearbox within the blurry, neon-drenched maze, the objective certainly isn’t hard to figure out.
The degree of interactivity and sheer volume of items felt overwhelming to me at first, but quickly became manageable. This is leisurely, no-pressure puzzle solving – Oneiros isn’t easy, but it is relaxing. Some clues and items are particularly well-hidden, but I never found the gameplay to drag. Every step forward rewards you with a new story segment or clue, and it's not hard to get on a roll, piecing together more and more solutions in spite of the increasing inventory volume.
When not in the main memory worlds, you are sometimes transferred to dream planes (or dreams within a dream plane, to be more accurate), consisting of warped or malformed environments, often obscured by a heavy layer of fog or darkness. These sections are linear, with only one or two tasks to complete in a small area. One such segment has Liam jumping between moving platforms and pulling switches, which in turn alters the gravity, reorienting the layout of the level. Failure is near-inconsequential, simply placing Liam back at a nearby checkpoint if a jump is missed, and the task itself provides yet another welcome change of pace between scavenging for items. Other playable story bits, including a frequent flashback involving Liam speeding down a rural road at night (while you look about freely but are helpless to steer) also mix up the gameplay semi-regularly.
Developer Coal Valley Games has done an incredible job of bending the Unity engine into a series of gorgeous environments. The art style can switch on a whim, portraying anything from photorealism to blurred surrealism. Surface textures are expertly crafted, and the plethora of objects made to fill out the space is commendable. The island is particularly breathtaking to behold, a kind of pseudo-fantasy landscape contrasting Liam’s house and garage against giant floating artefacts (including a bunch of bananas and Liam’s skateboard) to create a sort of silly yet picturesque scene. The final chapter drops Liam into a low-poly rendition of the first chapter’s theater, except this time it’s populated with people that look more like mannequins, following Liam with blank expressions as he walks by. It’s spooky, though it never develops into anything frightening. Oneiros constantly surprises with its aesthetic, and to see such a breadth of graphical styles over the course of my two-and-a-half-hour playtime was impressive.
The sound design, sadly, doesn’t consistently reach the same heights as the visuals. The music is a highlight; it only plays at certain times, or when prompted by turning on a radio, but the punk and alternative rock tunes suit Liam to a T and fit the game perfectly. Even with no soundtrack playing, Oneiros never feels silent thanks to Liam’s almost non-stop chatter, but the voice acting is where the audio falls short. Aside from the fourth chapter’s theater-goers, who speak a kind of strange nonsense dialect, the actors all sound a bit flat. We don’t hear much from Sarah, Jason, or Lucy, but none are exactly performed with confidence. Liam fares a bit better, though even he is fairly one-note, with some lines sounding stiff.
Overall, Oneiros is a relaxing and engaging adventure that's hard to put down. Its puzzles are sensible but still challenging, while its diverse environments are immersive and well-designed, encouraging exploration without becoming overwhelming. The backstory you reveal piece by piece is interesting, if a tad too shallow to delve into as deeply as it deserved. The script can be funny, though the voice acting could be better and there’s no question it relies a bit too heavily on gross-out humour. So it’s crude, and the comedy has at least as many misses as hits, but Oneiros is undeniably charming. It may not rewrite the book on adventure game design, but its fun and varied take on the “escape room” sub-genre makes it impossible not to recommend. So long as you have some tolerance for juvenile humor, and the stomach to withstand picking up a whole lot of digital poop, Oneiros is a trip down memory lane you won’t regret taking.