First-person puzzlers have had a lot to live up to since The Witness wowed us with a unique and thoroughly enjoyable experience. That’s possibly why Oneiros arrives on Xbox with a lot of additional strings to its proverbial bow, instead of just being a pure puzzler. It professes to be a narrative-driven, surreal adventure as well; one that incorporates escape room style mechanics and elements of crafting. Is Oneiros a dream come true for puzzle fanatics, or will you find it nightmarishly terrible?
Developers Coal Valley Games should rest easy at least, for Oneiros is a rather good puzzler on the whole. It’s just let down by a few moments of confusion, the crux of the storytelling, and less than perfect mechanics on occasion. Sure, that seems like a lot of negative points, but bear with me as you’ll hopefully understand such things aren’t the end of the world.
Oneiros begins rather bizarrely in a cinema, or more accurately a bathroom within the cinema, as it places you in the role of Liam. Much like him, you believe nothing is unusual and head on out only to realise the halls and lobby are empty – even the staff are gone. What’s happening? Where’s his girlfriend that he apparently came with? Why the heck does the exit have a coded padlock on it that Liam has no way of knowing? I guess there’s a way to answer those pertinent questions… let the puzzling commence!
Hang on though, because the story needs a once-over first and, without spoiling anything, Oneiros drip feeds little bits of narrative through a multitude of avenues. There are a handful of high octane cutscenes that really try to convey what could have led to this dream-like situation. Meanwhile, voices are heard within Liam’s mind which stoke the fire further, and various visual cues flesh out the back-story slightly. There’s a point where the story grabs you and feels like it’s about to blurt out everything, but the reality is that it ultimately leaves too many loose ends.
Throughout the four main chapters, there’s undoubtedly a wealth of variety in place; not just in terms of locations and settings, but the different types of problems posed as well. Whether you’re wandering around the movie theatre, traversing an island in the sky, or trapped within a psychedelic labyrinth, it presents fresh environments at just the right moments. They’re all visually pleasant too, which helps make you feel comfortable to explore – with the exception of the trippy labyrinth, of course. Liam’s bedroom is the standout however, acting as a well-designed escape room and playing host to some of Oneiros’ best ideas.
The room is full of intriguing items that have no major purpose other than to satisfy curiosity about the type of person Liam is. These could range from a guitar and a selection of trophies, to parodied videogames and textbooks. There are some fun pop culture references for keen eyed detectives to spot as well, simply sprinkling a bit of fun into your activities. It’s rather relaxing to have a nosey around every area you end up in. And that’s paramount as you’ll come to realise that clues to open boxes, safes and such, are all around you. These observational puzzles lead you into every nook and cranny, preparing you with the mindset needed for future problems too. One particular solution for cracking a code later on involves a zoo flyer in conjunction with a radio broadcast and it’s very clever indeed.
Inventory based conundrums are increasingly prevalent as you progress too, and while there are minor hints to be garnered, the logic occasionally puts a damper on proceedings. Most of the time though it’s straightforward enough stuff, like capturing a rat to power a machine or collecting a ton of car parts that are scattered everywhere. It also offers refreshingly silly things like giving vodka to an angry bird. A pet peeve with the inventory however is that it can get stupidly cluttered and the bumper button navigation is a bit tetchy, which makes you want to avoid it.
Unlike conventional puzzlers, Oneiros includes a spot of platforming as well as a duo of mini-games online. The platforming itself is relatively basic apart from the use of gravity-shifting buttons to interact with. Would it win any awards for the mechanics and concept? Probably not, but in the context of the experience here, it’s a nice change of pace and focus. The mini-games are utterly irritating though; a unicorn-led platformer comes with awkward controls and the skateboarding endless runner consistently screws you over with a lack of responsiveness. You could avoid these, thankfully, and I suggest you do so in order to retain your sanity.
A final point on the puzzles of Oneiros is unfortunately in regards to the utter besmirching of the age-old sliding block problem. While they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I am aghast to see the principles of sliding wooden blocks disregarded completely in this. Being able to move them in any direction removes the challenge of such a puzzle and makes it pretty pointless.
Accompanying the goings on in Oneiros is a mixture of good and bad audio, depending on whether it’s Liam talking or a music track playing. You see, Liam gets more annoying as time passes by and you start to consider leaving him stranded. On the other hand, listening to the handful of tracks from indie group Bite the Buffalo, via the main menu and a radio, is a real pleasure as their sounds create a lovely vibe.
It’s safe to say Oneiros is an interesting first-person puzzler that creates a world you want to explore and discover every little detail about. The majority of solvable problems are cleverly thought up and the inclusion of a bit of platforming breaks up the constant searching for clues. There are moments where things are a little unclear though, and I don’t just mean the narrative. In addition to that, the inventory isn’t enjoyable to use, which is an issue when you have to access it often.
Considering Oneiros is under a tenner at launch on Xbox, it is good value for a puzzling experience with a decent amount of variety. It is certainly worth a look if storytelling isn’t a priority for you.