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Oquonie Review – A Paradox Both Illustrious and Obscure

It’s not often you can say a game is truly unique, but Oquonie is just that; a mindful blend of rich art, atmosphere, and puzzle gameplay that’s almost too clever. Developed by experimental designer and musician Aliceffekt, with art from illustrator Rekka Bellum, Oquonie is a game that asks a lot of its players, but gives a lot back in return.

 To your right, a small opening between two desks.

nongifOquonie starts in an office building. Players control a long-necked, suited, “Necomedre” (which I have affectionately dubbed as “Tall Guy”) and are initially tasked with collecting three binders for a bipedal triceratops that wears glasses and an argyle sweater. As if that didn’t sufficiently set the oddity of the game’s tone, none of the dozen creatures of Oquonie speak English. Instead, the creatures produce speech bubbles bearing a selection of symbolic glyphs which players must interpret entirely on their own. A complete understanding of the game’s language is not needed to “beat” nor enjoy the game, but instead to enhance the experience and atmosphere, as was done in Fez. It’s this mysterious and bizarre world that makes Oquonie so charming.

As all of Oquonie’s levels are, the office is split into a number of 3×3 gridded rooms connected by a one grid passage. Swiping the screen will move the player one space in the respective direction. These controls evoke a hesitance that allows players to second guess their move. This becomes important as players will soon realize that navigating back through a passage they’ve just come through will not always lead back to the previous room. Instead, some passages will lead to a different room depending on the order of the rooms which were passed through prior. Therefore, going forward may not always mean progression. This complexity is known as “non-Euclidian;” traversing levels is still linear, but physically illogical. As there’s no visual nor textual tutorial, all of this is inferred through actual gameplay. Albeit minimal, the office level is seamless in its presentation, and aptly prepares players for what comes next.

Shoving yourself through the small opening, you find yourself standing and facing your own cubicle again

Once the three binders are collected and delivered, players are dropped into a hub world with five adjoined levels, each starring their own new creatures. The hub itself is actually a large house in space, and the levels are areas vaguely resembling those that might be attached to a space-house, such as a garden or a desert. Instead of binders, players will now collect three cards in a level, each of which depict a certain, single creature. Once gathered, Tall Guy will then transform into said creature and players will be able to access a new level and repeat the process with three cards of a different creature. It’s sort of like an adventure game mixed with a match-three on LSD.

Because of its non-Euclidian level design and lack of discernible hints, Oquonie becomes a game of trial and error. transformGoing through a passage in the wrong order, or before having the right cards, can force you to start the level over again— patience is a virtue indeed. After a while of repeating the same level however, Oquonie’s allure faded into repetitiveness and I was tempted to just “get through it” as fast as possible. The first complete playthrough took quite a few hours, but after spending some extra time to learn the games tricks and patterns in its level design, I was able to get through the whole game in about half an hour.

After beating the main game, you can return to the world and seek out its many secrets, including a reference to Aliceffekt’s previous game, Hiversaires, to which Oquonie shares many aspects with. This New Game+ requires even more patience, and a mistake here will force you to start again from the new beginning, and not just the level. Beyond gameplay, Aliceffekt describes the game as “short stories in impossible spaces,” but the sense of narrative is up to interpretation, and isn’t a driving reason to finish the game. Instead, Oquonie’s appeal is in every aspect of the game’s wholly polished world.

Traversing Oquonie made me wish I had played it on iPad; the graphics are crystal clear on iPhone, but the intricacies in Rekka Bellum’s illustration-based design felt wasted in the cramped screen. At the same time, there’s a charm in having Oquonie’s tiny, fantasy world in the palm of your hand. Whether it be the world’s assorted wall and tile patterns, or the miscellaneous objects scattered around, every corner of the game is beautifully drawn. The imaginative, “bizaroid” creatures easily evoke Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, to create a nonsensical yet loveable atmosphere.

 

lolcatThe music of Oquonie is stark in contrast. Produced by Aliceffekt, the soundtrack is calm at times, and ominous at others—a tense and release feeling that makes the player question the subtext of the world. Why do the other creatures always stand fixed? Why do some speak in scribbles? What do these symbols mean? There’s always a sense of welcoming in a creature’s smile or cuteness that’s juxtaposed by the music to create a nuanced feeling that something just isn’t quite right. My favorite example of this is in the bird (“Neomine”) level, where an echoing treble beat disquiets the player as they become lost in the maze of illogical rooms. The heart of Oquonie lies in this void of uneasiness, and perhaps explains my inherent desire to “just get through it” as opposed to “just get out.”

Aliceffekt and Rekka Bellum have created a world that is both nostalgic and fresh— evoking the fantasy of Lewis Carroll and combining it with inventive match-three gameplay to the point of being indiscernible. In execution, Oquonie is a compelling game that murmurs to its players in hopes that they’re listening. It’s perfectly novel, yet inspired, and it may frustrate at times and intrigue at others, but to those who listen and take time in its ambiguities, Oquonie is incomparable.

You must have gone in a circle..