Anthony is an average young man who expects nothing untoward when he turns up at the house party of Samantha Graves, but waking up the following morning he discovers himself being toyed with by Vinny, a crazed and furious man determined to inflict his mind games on Anthony and make him earn his escape from the house. Only If is a difficult game to summarise, and not because it’s complex or broad in any particularly intelligent way, but because it has trouble deciding what it wants to be beyond “first-person”. In terms of art style, genre, themes, and tone the game becomes something different from one level to the next, but in every form it takes it comes up short.
Only if’s forte is its environments, or at least some of them. The house you find yourself trapped in at the outset is a rich, well-decorated space, and I can’t help gushing a little over the autumnal “Park” level which drips with serenity and charm. The game also produces these completely surreal spaces which can be genuinely visually fascinating. Given that it often aims for such creativity in most of its settings its bizarre to see something like the bare and drab old farmhouse which it uses for a good chunk of its playtime. Equally bizarre is the harsh clash created between the game’s often elegant, classy environments and the story which is full of crass dialogue and violent behaviour. In general, Only If has a bit of a knack for using even many of the environments it gets right in a way that robs them of their splendour; the early moments in the house are a great example of this. Our antagonist Vinny communicates with you entirely through a stationary radio, and through his sociopathic outbursts and moments of self-amusement you’re expected to just sit around and wait until Only If decides it wants to be a video game again. It gives you the means to move around and shows its capability at drawing a beautiful world and then it asks you to sit quietly in this small room and wait until the grown-ups are finished talking. Sometimes the game will drop you into a featureless black void with no option to go anywhere and expect you to just listen to the dialogue ping back and forth. The character interactions just aren’t strong enough to make any of this forgiveable.
I don’t feel any hate towards the protagonist Anthony, but he’s also not a particularly likeable person. Casual young adult Anthony is well-played, but when trying to give the sense that he’s being put in a nightmarish scenario and is fearing for his life both the script and the voice acting crumble. In fact there’s something about the performance which makes him feel more like the generic male anime protagonist than a man trapped in an artsy hostage situation. Vinny is a more intriguing character and one that can be fun to listen to, bearing a mentality and speaking pattern similar to Vaas from Far Cry 3. However, he can dip a little too far into the Italian-American stereotype valley and the game is just a bit too desperate to let you know how edgy he is. It’s mere minutes in before it decides it wants to overstep the boundary of taste and has him happily blurt out a racial slur.
When it’s time for actual gameplay things are frequently made as stilted and uncomfortable for you as possible. The earliest puzzles have solutions mentioned by Vinny before the conditions open up for those solutions to work, but the game doesn’t tell you. Vinny might mention a key in the room, and you can search the office and find the exact spot where the key would normally be, but the game won’t have spawned it in yet because it doesn’t want you to have it until the dialogue has finished. Maybe you don’t check that spot again because you already looked there and didn’t see a key, and so you fail to find it within the time limit. The inverse of this is that if you stare at that exact spot you can see the key miraculously appear in front of you after a little while. There’s a scenario not too long after this that has you moving at an excruciatingly slow speed across the ground trying not to be insta-killed, but the game fails to properly telegraph what insta-kills you or even that there’s a danger of death. Then there’s a section where you’re a bit faster but enemies can spawn virtually on top of you and the route you need to take is unclear, sometimes appearing behind you when your back is turned. Through both of these sections you need to repeatedly press “E” at intervals which is neither challenging nor enjoyable, it’s just a chore. It’s also weird to see a game created in 2014 that makes such liberal use of the universally loathed first-person platforming format, and the gameplay climaxes in an activity more bland and repetitive than washing dishes.
There are moments of promise. Again, the events in the Park are mostly decent, and the game has some fairly competent conventional puzzles, e.g. Bring this switch to here, climb on those crates, etc. But you’re not getting anything more than that out of Only If, and repeating sections is often an arduous task, especially when the game will insist on making you sit through character dialogue after respawning wherever possible. There’s also not a save system in here. If you want to quit the game and pick up where you left off later on you have to remember the name of the level and type it in next time you start the game. Even then you’re probably going to be reset some way back. The game is now more technically sound than it was upon release, but there was an occasion during which a glitch teleported me back to before a challenge I just completed, and if you are one of those odd people who likes to invert their Y-axis in a first-person game you may be displeased to know there’s no such option.
Occasionally Only If wants to be a little more nuanced and meaningful, but it’s something it struggles to wrap its hands around and its high-brow aspirations don’t gel with Vinny’s low-brow aggression and humour. At one point you must collect a gem called “Ignorance” and another called “Wisdom” to obtain one called “Balance”, and there’s something there, but it feels flimsy when there’s nothing about ignorance or wisdom baked into the gameplay or even much of the narrative, and I just don’t think the game makes an adequate case for ignorance as a good thing. At another point Vinny makes a speech mocking the concept of “manning up” and talking about how young men take responsibility in the modern world with firearms. He puts a gun in your hand but instead of inserting you into a regular shooter drops you into a kind of platforming game with an almost heavenly appearance. You might assume that the game has to be making a point, especially with this tonal dissonance, right? But it’s not, or if it’s trying to it’s failing. The gun is used in the level to break vases and gain power-ups which doesn’t seem to signify anything at all. Every time it looks like Only If might be attempting some sort of subversion or deconstruction of the conventions of the medium, it’s actually just trying to be weird for the sake of it and usually ruining its own internal consistency in the process.
The experience’s biggest problem is a lack of cohesion. It’s oblivious to the idea that there might be something wrong with your game containing both a man animatedly talking about giving a kid “The D” as he tries to enact violence on him and a relaxing wander among the flowers punctuated by philosophical reflections. There’s no recognition that you cannot have the narrative elements of your game disappear for an enormous gulf of time and then pop back up when the ending rolls around like nothing happened. When the game moves you from a level based around light puzzling to a kind of shooter-platformer there’s no gentle guiding hand, it’s just the developer saying “I’m bored of that, let’s do this now instead!”. The ending is the final kick in the teeth. It opens up more questions and contains the kind of cheap, juvenile twist which could have been pulled out of the lowest of the summer bro comedies.
The mindset behind Only If seems to be that it must do whatever it can to try and mess with your head, even if the cost is creating an experience which doesn’t remotely fit together or is uncomfortable to be a part of. Some of its settings create a real impression, and now and then it will throw you some morsel of satisfaction, but the game feels bossy, demanding you surrender player agency during dialogue, deal with the whiplash-inducing changes of genre, style, and tone, and endure whatever silly story element or clunky gameplay quirk it wants to drag out next. The decisions it makes aren’t for your entertainment, they’re for its own.