Oniria Crimes is a heartbreaking game to play. It’s bursting with ideas and has clearly been slaved over, but no matter how hard it tries, it can’t come together into something working and enjoyable. It was so innovative that we were almost determined to enjoy it, but the wheels fell off before the end.
Let’s accentuate the positive. Oniria Crimes is a crime scene investigation game, but set entirely in a collective dream state. In the year 2060, humans and other species have decided to treat their dreams like an MMO, creating a shared universe in which everyone can kick back and enjoy. But, people being people, it’s not a utopia, and crimes occur. You are Torres, a member of the Rounders and an oneironaut, and you’re called upon to investigate a spate of murders that seem to have a malevolent thread running between them.
The opening moments tick all the right boxes. Oniria, the Land of Dreams, is beautifully rendered in voxels and then slathered with Fifth Element-like neon and colour. It’s extremely effective, and perfect for hovering voxel-by-voxel over crime scenes to find things you might have missed. It’s a simple joy to scour the environment for clues, and there’s a nifty system that changes the colour of an object depending on whether you’ve investigated it before or not.
It’s how you investigate that gets the biggest thumbs up. Being a dream space, the designers can break the rules of reality, and they’ve chosen to give everything in Oniria a consciousness. It’s such a bizarre but brilliant creative decision: it becomes less an investigation and more an interrogation, as you wander over to a mirror and question it about who looked into it recently. You can ask a glass whether it contained poison, or talk to a safe about what it might contain. It’s a bloody brilliant concept, to be honest, and it does a fantastic job of making Oniria feel otherworldly and unique, when it would have fallen short otherwise.
Each crime scene has a crime (duh) and three potential suspects. By investigating the room, you’ll uncover evidence, which you will jot down in your notebook against the three suspects’ names. Once you’ve filled out enough of your notebook, you will be able to make an accusation. Mechanically it works pretty well: you choose whether a suspect is innocent or guilty, and then highlight the two data points that made you reach that conclusion. Like Cluedo, the investigation ends and the cards are presented, revealing whether your conclusions were correct. Generously but perhaps unusually, you can then move onto the next case (there are six in total) regardless of whether you got things right or not.
Throughout, you will be absorbing an incredible amount of information. Oniria Crimes loves to talk, whether that’s discussions with your partner, or confessions from the items in a crime scene, and the amount of reading may well be enough to be off-putting. It likes to talk because it has so much it wants to say. Oniria is astonishingly detailed, and we suspect that there’s a folder on the designer’s desktop absolutely rammed with world-building and ideas, as if they were writing the Silmarillion. Oniria Crimes is not content with just showing you its world; it hungrily refers to tangential factions, events and characters as if they were fundamental elements in games that just haven’t been made yet.
We suspect that the barrage of information will be marmite. If you’re in the mood for putting together an evidence-wall where you can create a coherent picture of what Oniria is like to live in, then Oniria Crimes delivers and then some. It rewards you for paying attention, and its world is so deep and rich that it can comfortably support lore enthusiasts who want to find out more. We expect swathes of fan fiction.
Equally, if you’re not in the mood, and you just want an entertaining and disposable piece of detective fiction, then Oniria Crimes will be a ballache. Nobody says anything clearly or directly: it’s all drenched in what will feel like unnecessary detail, and the pertinent piece of information will be drowned out by all the other chaff. We will admit that we fell into this latter camp, and just wanted the writers to put down their lore bible and get to the point. Often, our character was jotting things into the notebook, and we had no idea how they came to that conclusion, simply because everything else is so noisy.
Regardless, there’s plenty to marvel at with Oniria’s worldbuilding. There’s politics, ethics, racial tension, species tension and more. It’s occasionally juvenile but commonly very adult in its themes, and you have to hand it to cKolmos Games for their ambition.
Unfortunately, all of the promise disappears between the fingers like sand. Foremost, Oniria Crimes is buggy – unforgivably so – and it won’t let you ignore the issues. We’ve watched a few videos of the PC version, and read a couple of the reviews, and there are very few indications of the issues we faced, so it looks like the problem lies with the console port.
It’s a long list. Audio will drop out or switch off for no reason. It periodically shifts into different languages, particularly on core menus. It will decide not to load certain sections, hanging on black screens until you reset, while characters will occasionally be covered with black billboards. We managed to get the same piece of evidence repeating infinitely in the game’s journal, corrupting the save so that we had to effectively start again, while our deductions will occasionally deselect themselves so that we had to input them again. We’d recommend that you never skip onto the next case without solving the previous one, as the game simply cannot cope with it. It just falls over and neglects to create a suitable save file.
For a six-hour long, solo, narrative-based game, it’s a bit bemusing. These kinds of games don’t tend to come with avalanches of bugs, but Oniria Crimes is riddled with them. It’s compounded, as Oniria Crimes also has some pretty terrible interactions that make it nobbly to play. A lot of the issues are down to the straight PC port that doesn’t fully accommodate a controller. Other times, it’s just poor design. When in combination with the bugs, you’re not quite sure which of the two is letting you down. Is the game not letting you press a button because it’s bugged, or because the usability design is so whack?
Again, there are too many examples to mention here, but a later puzzle is a good one. You’re given a starlit sky, and are asked to join together stars to form constellations. These stars are tiny, and your cursor’s bigger than most of those stars. If you click a star, you can join it to another star; click away from the star, however, and it will remove the connection. There you go, you have a recipe for frustration, as you make and unmake connections whether you wanted to or not.
Each crime scene has a central puzzle which is – to be fair – skippable, but you’re guaranteed a poor score if you do, and the conclusion won’t make much sense if you skip it. Half of these puzzles are great and real standouts, including a fantastic one that asks you to build a model of the city. The other half, though, are mystifying. There are few clues about what the puzzle wants you to do, very little information or feedback on whether you’re doing it right, and – in the case of a guild-related puzzle – you’re simply not given enough information to complete it. If you’re lucky, you might brute-force it; if you’re unlucky, you’ll be tapping away at a puzzle box for hours, wondering whether the game’s actually bugged. Who knows, perhaps it is. We still don’t know how we completed the final puzzle in the game, and we’re not entirely sure what it wanted us to do. Of course, the ending cutscenes didn’t play, because bugs.
The puzzles are a microcosm of Oniria Crimes. They can be fantastic, flavourful and unique. But they can also be opaque, bugged and barely functional on console. It makes the experience of playing Oniria Crimes so bittersweet, as it’s capable of real brilliance, but so often let down by frustration.
On Xbox, Oniria Crimes’ greatest successes are in the rich world it’s created, and the uniqueness of interrogating the crime scene to come to a conclusion. But neither are enough: the experience tumbles into a nightmare, as poor controls, bemusing design decisions and bugs overwhelm everything. We’re glad that we experienced its peaks, but we’d suggest that the troughs are so deep that you might not get past them, or want to.