Indie Game of the Week 196: OneShot

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Something I've encountered a few times of late is the "non-RPG RPG Maker game": a case of a resourceful developer taking software meant to help in the creation of turn-based RPGs in the Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy mold, and instead dropping the combat element entirely to tell a conflict-free story with the occasional adventure game puzzle. This week's entry OneShot is such a game, presenting the tale of catperson Niko (their gender is deliberately ambiguous) as they carry a "sun" to its final destination in order to save a dying world with the help of the world's god.

While direct comparisons could be made with the likes of To the Moon and Rakuen, I think OneShot is atmospherically closest to Toby Fox's Undertale, largely due to how both games use their quiet moments both as a means of reflection for the characters - Niko talks to their god a lot, who happens to be you, the player - and to highlight the fleeting beauty of an otherwise dark and decrepit land. More so, though, is the way that both games appear to engage the player directly with some meta trickery, most of which I'm loath to discuss in detail to preserve the surprise. Suffice it to say, when the game recommends you play in windowed form, it's best to acquiesce because there's a lot you might miss just outside that window.

To circle back to the type of game this is, OneShot is entirely driven by its puzzles. Most of these involve the inventory in some way; you find items, helpfully given a sheen to distinguish them from the set dressing, and figure out where best to utilize them. This can often mean combining items in the inventory as well. The game is narratively broken up into regions, and these also serve to limit the amount of real estate you have to work with to solve puzzles; something I've referenced in the past as a player-friendly "compartmentalized" approach to adventure game puzzles (as opposed to many older cases, where the size of the world keeps growing and so too do the number of hotspots at your disposal until there's simply too many item/hotspot combinations to contemplate). OneShot will require the occasional "Layton puzzle" too, though these are few and far between. To invoke Undertale again, imagine the type of puzzles Papyrus would throw at you, only in this case they're halfway competent and might require some thought. Some are even baked in to the aforementioned meta trickery, though that's as much as I'll say about those.

These cutaway shots aren't too frequent, but always appreciated.
These cutaway shots aren't too frequent, but always appreciated.

As you may have surmised, it's hard to talk about OneShot without spoiling a lot as so much is in the telling of the tale, but I can at least speak to the game's tone and emotional depth. Niko is a true innocent: a child who is dragged into this savior business involuntarily, and dreams only of returning to their village surrounded by wheat fields to see their mother again and eat her amazing pancakes. A lot of the game's emotional impact rides on the player's sympathy for their ward for this reason, especially as the game picks up in its intensity, and it's hard not to feel for Niko in particular with your many conversations and from slaking their own considerable curiosity (a quality I imagine is just purr for the course when it comes to feline hominids). Likewise, the denizens of the fading world the two of you are exploring are equally sympathetic, many trying to make the best of an increasingly dire situation and still greeting Niko with friendliness and a helping hand: partly because they recognize them as the world-saving "messiah", but also out of genuine kindness. For a game about the end of the world, it is endlessly wholesome and reaffirming about the value of life; it's no real surprise in retrospect that it was included in Itch's Racial Justice and Equality bundle from a few months back.

To bring back Undertale one last time, both games found excellent use in otherwise "minimal" pixel art. That's not to decry the art itself, which has a distinctive style in both games, but rather in the way that long stretches of the game have almost nothing to see, by design. By making use of empty space not just as a time-saving design measure but as an indication of the emptiness of their worlds, playing lugubrious synth in the background to evoke feelings of desolation and loneliness, they make effective use of their basic environments to tell these slightly downbeat stories. Conversely, the places filled with life - dwellings with living owners, for instance - are packed with little details about the person or people living there, in stark contrast to the great emptiness outdoors. You can learn a lot from each of the game's major NPCs just by looking around their rooms and reading item descriptions of the bric-a-brac lying around or posted on walls. I've always found that sort of environmental character building compelling, even if I often feel slightly weird about rifling through other people's stuff (an never more so when they're around to actually yell at you about it).

OneShot doesn't have as many moments of levity as Undertale, but it will occasionally marvel at the silliness of its own premise.
OneShot doesn't have as many moments of levity as Undertale, but it will occasionally marvel at the silliness of its own premise.

Ultimately, much of what makes OneShot special can't easily be conveyed in a review, and definitely not one taking pains to avoid spoilers. If you're acquainted with the world of narrative-driven adventure games made in RPG Maker via any of the several examples mentioned above then you might have some idea of what to expect in brief, though certainly not the full breadth of what OneShot has in store. I'd highly recommend trying it out for yourselves without reading any more about it, especially if you happen to have acquired it the same way I did.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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