Review for Onirike
What happens to dreams that don't come true? Do they repeat on an endless loop until they fizzle out and die? Or do some unresolved dreams have the ability to take on a life of their own, and, through their own grit and determination, fight their way out into the world and come to fruition after all? This is the rather abstract metaphor central to Onirike, a dark and complex but sweet 3D platforming adventure from DevilishGames that is fun and engaging, if relatively simplistic, throughout its fairly short play time.
You control Prieto, a personified dream that never came true, in a strange world called the Orb. He lives in a circus full of other dreams that are supposedly just like him, each locked eternally in a basic cyclical loop. A seal endlessly twirls a ring on its nose. A stout gumdrop-shaped creature chases a carrot dangling from the end of a stick that's tied to its head. A magician pulls a never-ending string of handkerchiefs from its mouth. Prieto, who spends most of his time picking flowers, feels like he's somehow different from the rest and is determined that he’s going to get out of here.
The young woman narrating all this background is a fantastic and soothing presence as you explore the Orb. Actress Lisa Fox is expressive and warm, performing all the roles with big, bold character voices that never stray too far from her own register, like when your parents read you storybooks as a child. The narration is not without its quirks, which I'll get to shortly, but the acting brings a real charm that lightens the otherwise dark tone of the gothic, bizarre, and occasionally gross world you inhabit.
Exploring the circus one night, Prieto meets the greedy pink blob Grand Mac, collector of oddities and squeezer of cows, and the kindly but desperate Clown, who suffers under the control of a wooden puppet. After completing a short item-swapping quest for them, the Clown becomes Prieto's mentor, setting him on his grand quest: Prieto must leave the circus and find the cowardly Gatekeeper, who will give him access to every area of the Orb so that he can find all seven fragments of a key to unlock the legendary Well of Truth, which is said to make dreams come true.
Your goals are generally pretty clear throughout, but there are a lot of surreal concepts and weird realities being juggled at any given moment in Onirike. Prieto's existence is fueled by a glowing white flower called the Gypsophila (it's Baby's Breath, for us non-botanists; I looked it up). Everywhere you travel, a timer is ticking down, as represented by an eye slowly closing in the top right of your screen and a white fog closing in from the sides. Once this eye closes fully, Prieto turns invisible. You can still walk and run and jump in this state, but you're depicted by nothing more than a light sheen on the ground. Then the small slit of the now-closed eye begins disappearing entirely. If that happens, you cease to exist and your progress is reset to the beginning of the current night. Any collectibles you've gathered or challenges you've completed are wiped away.
The only way to reset the eye timer and regain your visible form before it runs out is by running through a Gypsophila plant. The catch is that these plants do not grow wildly in the Orb, but must be planted by Prieto. You have the entire night cycle to search for key fragments, but before dawn arrives you must make your way to the nearest Memory Stone, which are basically save points scattered around the world. If you're standing on a Memory Stone when morning comes, you are transported to a giant field of Gypsophila flowers. Each day you have exactly one minute to collect as many spores as you can using long, gliding jumps before you're transported back to the Orb as night falls once again. Now, using the spores you’ve just collected, you can plant more Gypsophila plants and travel further into the Orb.
It sounds complicated, but it all feels very smooth and natural when playing. If you get killed by an enemy, you respawn at your last flower. If you cease to exist or fail to get to a Memory Stone by dawn, however, you reset all the way back to the beginning of that night. Therefore, it behooves you to always have a spore on hand or a flower nearby, and never stray too far from a save point without a plan for getting back. Thankfully, the game provides a mini-map in the bottom left corner that lights up with Memory Stone locations when dawn is approaching or when you run out of spores. You can also collect Gypsophila petals as you explore, which add up to a spore if you collect 100 of them. Alternatively, retreating to a Memory Stone early if you run out of spores will fast-forward through to morning in just a few seconds.
Other than Onirike's complex time loop, the game plays much like any 3D platformer. I used a controller to run and jump my way through the roughly five-hour play time, but you can also use a keyboard to move and a mouse for controlling the camera. The world is large but is broken into discrete smaller areas to roam around, collect petals, and find your key fragments. Each area has its own unique look and challenges to face. The Putrid Zone is filled with rotting food, and you'll need to flip switches hidden all around its mess of mazes, enemies, and floating platforms to find its key piece. In the Sea of Doubt, you'll need to complete an obstacle-course-like path connecting a series of switches, which will allow you to re-align pipes and drain the deadly water surrounding you.
All throughout are stalking beasts and giant bugs that you will need to run or sneak past to avoid their one-hit KO attacks. Helpfully, if you’re still in full physical form when confronted by an enemy, the game allows you to hold down a button to dash, which not only boosts your speed to blow past any threat, but also rapidly drains your timer and allows you to become invisible much sooner. This makes vanishing a significant power, though its use must be juggled against your ability to replenish your timer soon after.
The only challenge that is not at all fun is a five-to-ten-minute escort mission. At one point you're told that the inhabitants of a little cardboard town have wandered off, so if you spot them you should bring them back. Unfortunately, they’re on the other side of the Orb when you finally find them. This little group of cardboard stick figures will immediately agree to follow you. As long as you're walking. Slowly. And as long as you remain visible. If you turn invisible, they can't see you. If you run, they can't keep up. So you need to travel almost the entire length of the world at the slowest possible speed, while making sure you never run down your timer too far. I know complaining about escort missions is as tired as the existence of escort missions themselves, but this one is notable for how egregiously boring it is.
The light puzzling in Onirike is enough to vary the gameplay a little, but not enough to provide even a slight challenge to your average adventure gamer. It mainly consists of pressing switches in the right order or rolling boulders (meatballs, actually) onto giant buttons to open doors. The focus here is clearly on the platforming, and it's executed fairly well, if a bit outdated. You'll mostly spend your time leaping up a series of rocks to reach a switch, scale a wall to the next area, or avoid enemies below. Prieto's jumping feels airy but it’s responsive and comfortable for the most part, though longer jumps can be sort of imprecise and need a significant running start. There's no double-jump, and if you miss the edge of a landing even slightly, Prieto won't grab on and pull himself up; you just fall. This aspect of the game is really forgiving – falling generally doesn't kill you and the challenges aren't too tough – but it feels a bit like traveling back a couple decades in platforming.
The different areas of the Orb can be tackled in pretty much any order, though you're going to end up doing a lot of backtracking if you don't follow the optimal path that the Gatekeeper lays out for you. The “correct” entrance to each successive zone is guarded by this naked man who looks like half a pickle with a large bulbous butt. He’ll give you a hint on opening the door and where the next key fragment is, if you do things in the right order. Even with his help, I was often confused about where the Gatekeeper told me to meet him next, as there are so many weird names and places in this game that it's difficult to keep track.
I usually found myself zipping around the map, tackling whatever looked interesting at any given time. This caused some unintended oddities in which the Narrator would say something like, “It was exactly where the Gatekeeper said it would be!” when the Gatekeeper had never said any such thing to me yet. Also, I occasionally ended up completing an area only to find myself stuck on the other side of the door that was supposed to have been the entrance. Perhaps I had jumped over a wall or took an unexpected detour to get there but now to move forward, I had to reverse my steps through the whole area again. At least these annoyances and inconsistencies are relatively minor, as the game is short and most areas are pretty open.
A true highlight of Onirike is its beautifully stylized art, and the unique character models that look almost like they're made out of slabs of clay formed into flat shapes or little gumdrops with faces. Prieto himself could have been a background character in The Nightmare Before Christmas – a thin, corpse-colored puppet boy with a stitched mouth, large yellow eyes, and long black-and-white striped arms hanging down towards his knees. The light shimmers as it plays off the cast’s peculiarly textured skin and clothes, making them feel less like 3D models and more like actual dolls or puppets you could pick up and hold.
The environments also look as tangibly physical as they are surreal. In keeping with the Burton-esque comparison, they reminded me of the afterlife in Beetlejuice, with dark somber blues and browns and grays comprising the stone and mud of the Orb, spruced up by sudden patches of purple and green and red, or colorful plants and characters running across it. You’ll encounter traversable columns made of large stacked dice, and a gate made from colorful blocks look like they've tumbled out of a child's play chest. Elsewhere you’ll find a giant stone wolf's head surrounded by disembodied eyeballs and a lighthouse in the middle of a poison sea, decorated with a tangled mess of pipework overhead. Everything here looks like something between a dream and a nightmare – which is exactly what you'd expect from a world of dreams that never came true but haven't yet died.
Accompanying the action is a soft symphony of discordant themes that adds to the unsettling gothic mood. The style of music doesn't vary much throughout the game, but each area has a slightly different sound, whether a change of instruments from woodwinds to plinking strings, or an ongoing tone being replaced by staccato bursts of melody. Sometimes the music fills out when the gameplay gets more intense or you near an important story moment, creating a more cinematic feel. The one constant is that every time you turn invisible, the score cuts out, leaving only a low windy sound that conveys a sense of isolation.
Nearing the end, the game comes full circle as you find yourself back at the circus. Here you’ll once again have to deal with the odious hoarder Grand Mac and the Clown, while your last key fragment involves undoing some damage you caused at the very beginning. The story, which by this point has long been reduced to “find the key fragments,” kicks back into gear with Prieto's ultimate goal dangling in front of his face, blocked by one last obstacle. Unfortunately, once that challenge is overcome, the tale kind of slams into an anticlimactic brick wall. The large and interesting questions raised early on about what happens to dreams when they go unfulfilled aren't ever really resolved, nor do you find out what happens to the weird and tragic characters you met along the way. I found this incredibly disappointing, as the concepts hinted at some kind of reality-shaping finale.
Far from a traditional adventure game, Onirike is a bizarre surrealist fairy tale that takes as much inspiration from Crash Bandicoot as it does from Tim Burton. This is essentially a 3D platformer that would have been right at home on the PlayStation twenty years ago (although much better looking). It’s not particularly deep in any area: your physical abilities are fairly basic, the puzzles won’t pose any kind of challenge, and the story is rather bare-bones and is unable to stick the landing in the last few minutes. In the modern landscape of inventive puzzle-platformers, it feels less groundbreaking and more like a cute little game to waste an afternoon, but for all its limitations, it’s an enjoyable, stylish journey that’s fun while it lasts.