by Chris Priestman
reviewed on PC
Into The Uncanny
Despite the capacity to tell stories in a whole myriad of ways, the most popular games simply adopt a cutscene enamoured, Hollywood-style narrative. It's disappointing to say the least. That is why we need more games like OIO. This sidescrolling puzzle platformer weaves a promiscuous plot by dropping its players straight into the peculiar. The inevitable curiosity of the player is only resolved through the gameplay; a drip-fed reward that drives a constant need to solve the mystery of the eponymous character's situation. Its narrative hook dismisses the usual action-packed formula and instead favours a slow pan across its twisted environments. Uncanny Games certainly know how to create an atmosphere worthy of their name.
If These Walls Could Speak
The unknown is an interesting way to start a game. OIO begins by displaying its beautiful hand-drawn environments. This provides a fitting papery aesthetic, since the characters and large parts of the setting are made of wood. The twisting forms and watery bogs shaping the surroundings bear a resemblance to what one would imagine to be the bowels of Wonderland. Inhabiting these vast spaces are plenty of wooden characters, yet none of them show signs of life. A stray beam of sunlight penetrates this subterranean underbelly and causes one of these vacant characters to become animate. Thrust into this world without a clue and amongst such expressionist architecture causes the player to be wary of each step they take. Vulnerability and fear come hand-in-hand.
A sense of loneliness is created via the relatively close proximity of other characters, yet their lifelessness captures the feeling of walking through a dead civilisation. In many ways, that is exactly what the player is doing. The key to solving the narrative mystery of the game is to excavate the history of this population. To do so, the player has to collect the 100 light orbs set along the path of each level, as well as the 3 more-challenging-to-obtain Fresk's in every level. Upon achieving this, a cave painting will be revealed that begins to illustrate a section of the back story for the player to ponder over. As OIO is based around mystery and adopts a narrative of discovery, the thirst for knowledge causes the player to feel inclined to ensure the collection of all the orbs and Fresk's. This not only adds a bit more length to the levels but also a degree of replayability if some are missed out the first time around.
Along Its Many Branches
Established from the start and continued throughout the game is the marriage of the soundtrack to the visuals. Initially, the ambient beats and warped synths seem dynamic, whereas in fact they change on cue according to the section of the level. Not only does this flesh the game's unique atmosphere, it also provides an extra layer of character to the varied desolate landscapes. The resulting aura is quite mesmeric. As the player works their way through the levels, the environments and soundtrack gradually gain kinesis. Wood is traded for the hard steel of machines and their grinding parts. The soft curves present at the start of the game are swapped for hard perpendiculars, and ambient melodies evolve into fast drum beats. Not to give too much away, but the mystery of the game and its plot lies within the evolution of the environments - an all too often overlooked technique.
The vacancy and underlying hostility of the game is set at a low boil, but comes to heat in the latter half of the game and is realised as the very real threat of fire and crushing machine parts. The player is gently eased into this culmination throughout the game, but to be honest the game never feels all that challenging until its very end. The platforming is sensible most of the time, but perilous on occasion with the usual spike traps and crumbling platforms. It's well oiled but nothing out of the ordinary, contrary to the game's presentation. The main point of interest concerning the gameplay is the puzzle mechanic; throwing seeds to grow or retract wooden beams on spots of fertility. Each beam has several bumps along it that will give way to another beam if a seed comes into contact with it. Up to three beams can co-exist, with any more meaning that the first dissipates. This limitation means that a misjudged throw could potentially break the whole chain of beams; a dangerous manoeuvre when the branches are acting as a bridge over a fatal drop or a spiky demise. Throwing the seeds can also be used to push out-of-reach buttons, and the beams are used in more imaginative puzzles later on in the game. Nothing will stump (excuse the pun) you for too long though.
Beaming With Joy
OIO's relative ease leads into what is reluctantly termed the game's main downfall; lack of replayability. In most cases, players will go through the game in a few hours and collect everything, solve the mystery of the narrative and be quite content. The only extra thing to do is collect the remaining achievements, which are mostly tied to going through each level without taking damage. Take it or leave it. Some may find experiencing the game's atmosphere alluring enough to revisit, but with the air of mystery somewhat missing on a replay, this may not be such a desirous undertaking.
Regardless, OIO is a finely crafted game, particularly in regards to presentation and narrative. Those who enjoyed the atmosphere of Limbo should certainly lap up this rare treat. Do not expect such a layered ending though. The mystery of OIO and its admirable narrative efforts are definitely worth its cheap price tag. Games with a unique tone such as this are a dime a dozen, and those who appreciate that should be more than willing to sacrifice replayability.
Unique atmosphere, compelling narrative drive, addictive collectible-based gameplay