OMORI, a hit indie Steam release that premiered Dec. 25, 2020, had been hotly anticipated for almost six years — and more, if you consider that OMOCAT — OMORI’s creator — had started drawing and sharing OMORI art in 2012. The Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for OMORI launched April 21, 2014, with astounding success — it raised $200,000 while the stated goal for OMORI was only $22,000. The game was then intended to be released in 2015. Five years later, the game is finally here, with “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Steam and a top spot in the RPG genre. Was it worth the wait?
The game takes about 20 hours to complete, not including the side quests or alternate scenes that require double that time to explore. This review contains spoilers from the first quarter of the game.
Much like Undertale, this game balances cutesy pixel aesthetics with hidden horror elements. Nearly all the enemies, and most NPCs, are drawn as adorable creatures perfectly suited for a whimsical children’s book. Locations are sweet and simple: a playground, a forest, a house within a shoe. Shopkeepers are mailboxes, and useful items hide within watermelons. The animations are done smoothly and the art is crisp. Bright colors abound.
Unlike Undertale, OMORI contains many jumpscares and horror is an unavoidable aspect of the game. The player controls four characters — OMORI, Aubrey, Kel and Hero. OMORI’s friends are depicted through dialogue and costume design as cheerful and good-natured children, but the title character is an unsettling constant in the group dynamic. Within the game’s fully colored dream world setting, OMORI is always in black and white. In battles, OMORI’s friends will often emote openly, while OMORI either represses his emotions or displays terrifyingly exaggerated manic faces. He is the only character who fights with a lethal weapon — a knife — instead of a toy.
The overarching plot is kept cryptic and mysterious for the first segment of the game, though the side quests and the small missions that make up that plot are straightforward. The first “quest” you’ll receive, for instance, is to find Aubrey’s lost toy. For much of the rest of the game, you’ll be looking for your lost friend Basil. Exactly why Basil is lost remains a mystery until the endgame. Near the end of the first segment, the game reveals that the dream world is just that — a dream, and OMORI is but the dream-self of a real boy named Sunny. Note: Players can modify this name; “Sunny” is a placeholder. It’s the closest thing to a canon name for OMORI’s protagonist. Likewise, the reason why Sunny has apparently spent four years cooped up in his house, spending all of his time dreaming fantastic scenarios in the dream world, is the game’s big secret.
The battle system and mechanics are largely standard party-based RPG fare: There are all the usual stats that influence a character’s strengths: HEART, how much damage OMORI or his friends can take; JUICE, the equivalent of the standard Mana or Magic bar, which determines how often unique abilities can be used; ATTACK, which modifies character’s damage output; DEFENSE, which modifies incoming damage; SPEED, which affects which character attacks first, and LUCK, which influences chance of inflicting a critical hit.
Part of what makes OMORI’s battle system unique for an RPG game is the inclusion of emotions. Like a game of rock, paper, scissors, or Pokemon type interactions. Each emotion is strong against one other emotion and weak against another. OMORI, his friends and their enemies can be made to feel — through special abilities or items — happy, sad or angry. Aside from adding extra flavor to the game, the EMOTIONS system stands out from the standard “damage-types” found in other RPGs in that each status effect has upsides and downsides. This means that it will often be essential to switch emotions during fights to fit the situation or the emotion of the enemy. Mastering the emotions is helpful in the beginning of the game, and absolutely crucial for later sections and boss fights.
The teamwork system is OMORI’s other innovation. In battle, OMORI and his friends, after attacking, can call upon one other party member to perform an additional attack — or heal, and switch emotions. The more damage OMORI or his friends take, the more “teamwork moves” can be made in one round. This is measured through a points system, where the maximum is 10. Upon gaining 10 “teamwork points”, OMORI can launch a devastating, high-damage attack with all his friends.
What truly makes OMORI a game for our times, and, I suspect, a contributing factor to its current popularity, is how it connects with the sense of isolation that most of us have experienced following the start of COVID-19. Sunny, OMORI’s real-world alter-ego, has shut himself off from the world for four years, leaving him shy and effectively mute. He never says even a single line of dialogue and is incapable of properly taking care of himself. His mother leaves him a list of chores that he refuses to, or finds himself incapable of doing them. He’s left to eat a cold steak left in the fridge that ends up making him sick, most likely because he can’t cook for himself. Even if he could, he hasn’t allowed himself out of the house to go to the grocery for years. It is reminiscent of quarantine. Quiet desperation, dwindling willpower, forgetting skills you once used everyday.
For Sunny, the outside world is frightening, hostile. The first “night event” you experience while playing as Sunny manifests as a persistent knocking on the front door. Going to the door reveals that “Mari”, OMORI, Sunny’s sister, wants to come inside. Letting her in results in the most unsettling and traditional jumpscare in the game — with an additional jumpscare if you go to the bathroom mirror. In the real world, Sunny is helpless — helpless to care for himself, to engage in meaningful activities, to stop ghostly apparitions of his absent sister from knocking on the door. He’s fully dependent on his mother; it appears that his father is gone.
In contrast, in his dream world, Sunny — or rather OMORI — is powerful, popular and capable even of resisting death itself. When an enemy reduces a friend’s HEART to zero, the friend becomes TOAST — but when an enemy reduces OMORI’s HEART to zero, OMORI can “refuse to succumb” and come back with one HEART. It’s no wonder that he so frequently retreats there, where he can defeat every enemy, where he can count on the presence and loyalty of his friends despite him not saying a word to them, where he can help everyone instead of needing help from others. It’s a potent power fantasy — and the contrast between the dream world and the real world accentuates how lonely Sunny truly is.
Although OMORI is not set within a pandemic, and development started far before COVID-19 hit, these aspects — the protagonist’s isolation, the evident toll that isolation has on him, and his retreat into fantasy — feel especially resonant today. In an environment where many are still unvaccinated, leaving the safety of the house can feel deeply unsettling. Even if isolation hasn’t exactly destroyed our ability to communicate with one another — like it has for Sunny at the beginning of the game — we feel alone and deprived. So now, more than ever, people have started relying on video games and other works of media to distract themselves from current events, or just to pass the time when going outside is unfeasible.
I can’t end this review without talking about White Space. The dream world may be OMORI’s refuge from the stress and alienation of the real world, and yet White Space, an area within the dream world — represented by how you control OMORI there, not Sunny — exemplifies loneliness. Within White Space, there is nothing but a white door, a black light bulb that seems to produce some kind of anti-light, OMORI’s sketchbook, a computer, a box of tissues and a cat. This is surrounded by a kind of white void, which appears endless, but after going a set distance OMORI will finally find himself back where he started. I can’t find any other location in the game world that exemplifies the quarantine experience any better: completely bland and featureless, offering stale and solitary entertainment, seemingly interminable and inescapable. And wrong, off-putting: the lightbulb doesn’t give off light; arms float disembodied, chasing down OMORI when they detect him.
OMORI is not for the faint hearted — upon loading the game, a screen will warn you about its heavy themes of depression, anxiety and suicide in addition to self-harm. However, it treats its subject matter with subtlety and dignity, and it treats the player with respect as well, with player-friendly game design and foreshadowing before jumpscares. Although it may not be immediately apparent from the first segment of the game, OMORI ultimately is about the enduring power of friendship, the persistence of hope. Through player choices, Sunny can emerge from his years-long isolation and find himself reunited with his real-world friends. Even those of us who are currently still in isolation or living in a place with heavy restrictions can anticipate sunlight at the end of this year-long train wreck.
Claire Fang | firstname.lastname@example.org