This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.
“Waiting for something to happen?”
By my count, it’s been about five years since a game last made me feel bad. Not frustrated at some mechanical thing, not disappointed with it in some way, bad. As though I’d done something wrong. Today, long-in-development indie RPG Omori made me sad because some sunflowers withered and died. Surely, that alone must count for something. Undertale had to make me kill a kindly goat-man king to do that.
Which is not to say that the two are entirely dissimilar. They will definitely be brought up in the same conversations, at least. Both have some shared DNA via EarthBound, the grandfather of almost all weird arty RPGs and consequently, the one to whom all are eventually compared. But Omori comes from a different branch of that family tree. It is significantly darker, more psychological, and is in some respects more surreal. It’s also a lot less meta, which works well for this sort of thing.
If Omori reminds me strongly of any game in this particular field, it’s actually Yume Nikki. Sixteen years after it was first released, still very little is like Yume Nikki aside from its legion of mostly-unsung* fan sequels (and the criminally underrated Anodyne series), so I must emphasize that I mean this point of reference in only the best and most flattering way possible. To wit; both games star a shut-in with a knife obsession who spends their days dreaming away. Omori‘s main modification to the formula–aside from a serious expansion of scope–is that it defogs Yume Nikki‘s ambiguous nature. The boundary between the real world and the dream world is used to build a thematically complex narrative about loss, guilt and how we deal with, or fail to deal with, these feelings. Oh yeah, and mechanically, it’s an actual RPG. With, you know, enemies, status effects, treasure, secret boss fights, and things like that. Whether this is an improvement, a downgrade, or a lateral move will depend on how much tolerance you have for more-or-less traditional turn-based JRPG-style combat. (Personally, I’m fond of it.)
Narratively; Omori is the story of the titular protagonist and three of his friends. (Headstrong and stubborn Aubrey, brash and goofy Kel, and responsible and levelheaded Hero. Plus Omori’s sister, Mari, who minds the picnic baskets that make up the game’s checkpoint system.) After a relatively short prologue, their gardening photographer friend Basil goes missing, and the remainder of the game ostensibly revolves around a quest to find him. As things progress however, it quickly becomes apparent that not all is as it seems. As the quartet travel, Omori himself is stalked by a black, one-eyed Something from the shadows. It seems to wordlessly taunt the cliff-faced boy, knowing something he doesn’t.
At times, the game will cut away from the whimsical dreamworld of Headspace. Here, Omori is not Omori. He is Sunny, a shut-in who will move from the hometown he’s lived in his entire life just three days after the game begins. The relationship between Headspace and the real world is not immediately apparent. Personally, I take it as a logical extension of Yume Nikki‘s dream worlds, with “real life” being the equivalent of Madotsuki’s apartment. Fittingly, the real world’s art style is more grounded (visually, “looks like EarthBound” will once again be the common descriptor here. Look, not many RPGs are set in contemporary middle-American towns), and the brief “combat” sequences that take place here replace JRPG convention with blunt realism. Kids wale on each other ineffectually and the one time Sunny whips a knife out, things get serious very fast.
All of the characters–including the main four–have real-world counterparts as well, drawing a fascinating contrast between their simplified Headspace selves and the more complex people they are outside of Sunny’s own imagination.
None of this is to imply that Omori on the whole is “realistic.” The emotional and thematic ideas it deals with are definitely grounded in real things, but the character writing tends toward the dramatic. Those familiar with this blog will of course know that I consider “dramatic” a neutral descriptor at worst, and I think it benefits the game much more than it could be said to hurt it. Omori is capable of hitting surprisingly hard, often in ways and at times that one might not initially expect.
Even more than the main story itself (which contains more than one dark twist but ends in such a way that it all completely works), I found myself connecting with the aforementioned Aubrey. I’ve never dyed my hair bright pink and started carrying around a nail-ridden bat, but I was drawn to her attempt to escape trauma through radical self-reinvention. Similarly engrossing character writing details exist for the whole main cast. Omori may well be one of those works in which what character you identify the most with can tell you a bit about yourself.
This does lead to a bit of an odd paradox though. This praise mostly applies to the real world areas of Omori. But by and large, we spend most of our time in the game in Headspace. The writing in the Headspace sections is also good, but decidedly more fanciful. What prevents this from being a downside is that the Headspace portion of the game is also streaked with dark, unsettling shocks of horror. Omori follows a classic RPGMaker-school design rule; follow silly and lighthearted areas with deadly serious and ominous ones. For the most part, it works very well. What Headspace lacks in the emotional immediacy of the real world segments it makes up for in pastel dreams of flexing planetoids, heartbroken space pirates, ladders that reach into the sky, deserts of brown sugar, and nightmares of ghost trains, haunted forests, fog-drenched docks, and crumbling secret libraries. There is the very occasional moment where the game will try slightly too hard to be edgy, but it is truly occasional. I counted perhaps two or three such instances across my entire 20-odd hour playthrough.
And indeed the lingering discourse about Omori will, I suspect, come down to whether or not the game “earns” the right to dive into the heavy themes it does. I’ve been cagey about directly mentioning concrete plot details over the course of this review because, well, it’s a recent release and I want to encourage people to play it. But without getting into specifics, I will say that I think Omori‘s central question is essentially “what does one do when they’ve done something horrible?” It offers no single answer–multiple endings are another RPGMaker design tradition Omori adheres to–but it does pretty clearly flag what is already being called its “good ending” as being the best, and I happen to agree. That it so deeply explores its main character’s internal psyche helps a lot. There’s even a surprisingly fleshed-out segment in the game’s final quarter that flips Omori from a surreal RPG into a straight up ambient exploration game, making its Yume Nikki heritage all the more apparent in a way that meaningfully expands upon that legacy.
To lay it plain, Omori is a resounding success at almost everything it sets out to do. Its few flaws are those of circumstance or ambition and mostly boil down to nitpicks or what-ifs. (I will confess that while I don’t think the game is worse for not being this way, something like this could always be improved by being a little queerer. Then again, I am biased.) The entire thing is an astounding artistic triumph for the OMOCAT team. It can’t rightly be called a comeback (they’ve never really gone away) but it’s certainly proof that their cross-Pacific visual style can carry some real substance. Not a bad showing for an aesthetic once meaninglessly caricatured as “Touhou but fucked up“.
So let it be known; in the final days of 2020, a long-delayed indie RPG slid under the wire to become perhaps the best game of the year. Of every video game that released in 2020 that I played, it was this one that I am almost certain will stick with me the longest. I also would not be surprised if, like Kikiyama and Toby Fox’s own masterpieces, it ends up gaining a sizable cult following. Stories about the dark depths of the human mind; what drives us there, and how we might finally get out, will never stop being resonant. Even now, a whole generation of oddball teens may be discovering Omori as their first exposure to this genre. And as someone for whom wonderfully strange indie RPGs were a formative experience, I cannot help but find that wonderful.
*If you’ve never delved into the world of Yume Nikki fan-sequels I highly recommend it. Parts of Omori remind me of YN itself, of .flow, of the more sinister parts of Yume 2kki, and even of the sadly largely-forgotten Misirere and LCD DEM.
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