It certainly is a peculiarity of videogaming that we’ve yet to escape, “it was a dream all along”. It feels like movies and TV finally recognise it as something best avoided, while gaming expects us to be surprised. Sorry to drop this clanger of a spoiler in the opening line of this review, but Oneiros is like a flag bearer for the concept. And yet, despite employing this hoary old theme, it’s a really rather splendid game in its own right.
The concept is always the same: you’re in a strange, slightly surreal version of reality, where the rules don’t seem to quite apply. There are voices echoing in your head, weird depictions of car parts floating in the air, and wait a moment, could that be… the bleep bleep of a hospital machine?! Oh lordy, someone with more time on their hands than I should compile a comprehensive list of every game that’s done it. Oneiros, just for echoing this, by rights should be dragged naked through the streets, pelted by mouldy goods. But wait! Stow your rotting veg, because I’ve really rather enjoyed playing this one. Mostly because for the most part, its metaphorical settings and abstract art, packed with a variety of different puzzle types and exploration, are worth visiting in their own right, the cliche be damned.
Things begin in a toilet. Which is a pleasingly on-the-nose approach to gaming tropes. It’s a public restroom in a cinema, and you’re locked in. Which is odd, to be sure. It’s immediately apparent that this isn’t real life, and this is a very self-aware game. The key is in one of the toilets. Your character acknowledges how revolting this is.
Once in the cinema corridors you are free to explore this strangely empty location, to puzzle how you’re supposed to get through the next set of locked doors and hopefully learn what’s going on. At this point I thought what we had here was a very nicely realised escape-the-room sort of thing, full of padlock codes and hidden clues.
But outside of that door things became far more hypnagogic, until you find yourself trapped inside what might be your own apartment. Here it’s still quite room-escapey, but getting a bit more adventure-gamey too, although with quite a significant diversion into an esoteric near-platforming world of floating islands and changing gravities. Then you’re in the lovely outdoors, repairing a car! It really doesn’t sit still for long, mixing in new concepts and ideas constantly, jumping between genres, before its circle-closing finale.
And throughout all this, it’s just packed with so many meticulous little details. At various points there are fully functioning arcade games to play (albeit one an absolutely (possibly deliberately) dreadful side-scrolling platformer), one of them a very satisfying dig at a certain famous developer. There are piles of unique book covers and videogame boxes, front and back, to look at, often rather funny. There are squillions of lovingly rendered real-world objects that don’t play any part in the puzzles, just set decoration, that can be picked up and inspected (then dropped on the floor, sadly, rather than put back). Incredibly smart use of Creative Commons music, and what I can only assume to be the work of a friend’s band, mean it feels superbly scored. There’s full voice acting, none of it uncomfortable…
It feels as though everywhere extra detail could be tucked, tucked it is. I adored the distant floating islands in one section that sported brilliantly odd features, like a vast pair of bananas, or enormous trainers. I loved the care that has gone into every object, every background building. It just feels so crafted.
It’s worth noting it’s not as family-friendly as the screenshots may look. There’s a good amount of swearing in here, as well as the most splendidly gratuitous inclusion of a winky-shaped water pistol. And gosh, WHAT a rude parrot.
I can’t help feeling a bit miffed all this effort went into a game that flogs a comatose horse, but the moment-to-moment experience of enjoying playing it really overruled that for me. There are some nifty puzzles in here, wrapped in its completely excellent presentation, across its two-to-three hours. That this is all the work of one person is completely crazy-bonkers. And for less than a fiver. Goodness gracious, it’s worth waking up for.