I have a general policy of not consuming media I don't think I'm gonna like, because ultimately there's too much stuff I want to read, listen to, or play to spend a lot of time on things I think I won't enjoy, but every now and then something that I think I'll dislike really piques my interest. That's the situation with this game here; when I first learned about it, it felt just so aggressively on the nose and unsubtle that it was practically a parody of indie RPGs from the past decade. Heavily Earthbound inspired, retro 90's art style, quirky humor, heavy handed metaphors about ~mental illness~, psychological horror elements, etc etc. Now I know that this game had began development in like 2012 (so even before Undertale was released), but that stuff all still rubs me the wrong way. When I tried to play it a few months ago I got to the end of the space boyfriend section, but either the game or steam was destroying my laptop battery (which I really can't afford to have fixed atm) so I stopped there and decided to watch an LP to get the story. I've seen this game's narrative praised to the absolute stars as the pinnacle of storytelling in games, and I can really enjoy good stories in games, so I figured it was worthwhile. As I haven't really played the game, I'm not giving a rating to the game, but if I did it would probably be 2.5, and the rest of the review is gonna focus on the plot. I should also mention that I was spoiled on the main plot twist before I tried to play it, but a good story should be able to be read and re-read for its themes and ideas in general.For a game that's praised so much for exploring the effects and repercussions of childhood trauma, I really just didn't see that here. The first problem with this is that in the headspace sections, the characters (save for Omori and Basil I guess) are literally not traumatized; we can't explore how Mari's death affects them when it isn't affecting them. This would be fine if it was a one-off section to show the idyllic period before she died (like in Mother 3), but it makes up such a huge portion of the game that it really overstays its welcome, and ultimately fails to add much depth to any of them.
Furthermore, both the setting and characters feel deeply, profoundly unrealistic, and that makes it super hard to relate to them and their struggles. Has anyone ever had a childhood that idyllic? I know it's a fantasy, but I can't imagine anyone over the age of like 6 dreaming of having quaint quirky picnics with your friends where you make flower crowns and scrapbooks and go exploring in the woods and all that shit. I don't know exactly how old these characters are supposed to be in the headspace sections, but they're just so unbelievable if they're anything over 6 or 7, and I think they're supposed to be like 12. Kids can be huge assholes to each other, especially if they're tweens, and that's just not reflected at all. I can't speak to the female experience, but boys between the ages of 9-16 can be absolutely brutal to each other while policing each other's masculinity. If Basil went to my elementary or middle school he'd be called a pussy and probably some other less polite slurs and picked on endlessly, and it's not like I went to particularly cruel schools or anything.
Their actual reactions to their trauma also didn't really feel properly developed or fleshed out to me. I talk way too much about myself in my reviews already and don't want to do so too much here, but I've actually been in situations like this. When I was 8 or 9 one of the boys in my cub scout den died suddenly from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, and when I was 13 one of my friends very abruptly committed suicide. I've seen how these deaths affected me, my friends, and the families of the kids who died, and that's just not what the characters in this game act like. I played/read Echo last summer and it dealt with a similar scenario (dealing with the repercussions of the sudden death of your friend as a kid) incredibly well, so in comparison the one in Omori just feels shallow and poorly-implemented. That friend's death was obviously a massive trauma that permanently changed our group dynamics, especially for those who were the closest to him, but it was just one particularly affecting element of our childhoods; it didn't completely erase all the relationships and histories and tensions we had had before. I want to state explicitly that I'm not denying it if this game does speak to your personal experiences with death as a kid, but just that it rang very hollow for me.
Maybe a better way to say that is that I didn't like how their reactions to Mari's death were framed in the narrative. We're basically given two snapshots of the group, one the idyllic world before she died and the other the present day real world period, four years afterwards. This ends up making it feel like the characters don't really have much complex history with each other and that the only thing that has ever really been a catalyst for any change in these characters' lives is Mari's death. When they're kids they're all just a big happy group where nothing is wrong and everyone is nice to each other; the closest to any ambiguity or tension (i.e. believable childhood friendships) we get is Aubrey and Kel being somewhat antagonistic with each other, but it feels more like an 'oh those little rascals' type moment instead of something with more depth. In Echo the characters are absolutely overflowing with history and tensions in a way they just aren't here; despite being 20 hours long, there's not really a whole lot of depth (another strike against so much of the game being in a fantasy setting). I actually really liked the section where Kel defends his and Sunny's reaction to Mari's death to Aubrey, especially the 'we were just kids' line (I literally had to say that to one of my friends concerning the aforementioned suicide), I just wish that those aspects were explored much more thoroughly in the text.
The narrative also falls into a trend I've noticed in media about mental illness/trauma in the past decade that generally irritates me; it focuses almost entirely on the interior, personal effects, not how it affects the world you live in and the people around you. When I was severely depressed, one of the worst things about it was how it affected my family and friends. They wanted me to be happy and healthy and I was failing to do that; my failure to control my emotions caused pain for other people, which is a really fucking terrible feeling. I know that's a very unhealthy thought process but it's something I had and that a lot of the people I know who've had struggles with mental problems have had too. It's something that could be incredibly affecting if it was portrayed well in fiction, but it isn't here. A game like LISA: The Painful pulls this off so much better because Brad's actions have huge repercussions for the people around him. By focusing so much on Sunny and spending so much time inside his head as Omori, that entire aspect of the experience of having mental illness/trauma is just sorta brushed away. It may not be a critique of the plot per se, but it definitely feels like a huge missed opportunity; it's one of the things that affected me the most regarding mental illness, so to see it not portrayed is just fundamentally different to my experiences.
This point is one I'm a bit reticent to make, but I think it's at least worth raising. I don't think the real-world setting is explicitly based on any particular country, but it certainly feels like it's based on America, and thus the depiction of youth culture in America/a fictional America is really unrealistic. Much more than Lisa or even Earthbound, this game seems heavily influenced by the depiction of America in anime, which is in turn heavily in debt to the culture of the American soldiers who occupied Japan in the 50's. My point is that the depiction of youth culture in this game feels almost quaintly out-of date. Like, Aubrey joins a gang in the real world. What? What?? Are they gonna start singing doo-wop songs next? That's not how kids act, and instead feels like a rather bizarre emulation that's decades old at this point. In the real world parts the dissonance between the clear darkness it's going for (for example, Aubrey's reaction to Mari's death) and the tweeness of other parts (like the bullies in Aubrey's gang stealing candy at 16; if they're supposed to be like actual troubled teens they should be getting wasted behind a gas station or something. There were kids at my high school who were like smoking crack and getting pregnant at 16, and again I went to a good high school) makes both of them much less powerful than they should be.
Characterization was also something I found lacking here. I don't play a whole lot of video games, and even fewer RPGs, so I can't say if these characters are good 'for an RPG,' but they ultimately felt pretty one-dimensional. Characterization is more than having a pet rock or some other personality quirk. The only character whose interiority and mindset we get any real access to is Sunny/Omori, and he's a silent protagonist whose main character trait is being sullen and mopey; from the very beginning it's clear that there's something that's causing him to act that way, but beyond that there's not really a whole lot else. The fantasy headspaces mean that a lot of the color we could get about these characters in the real world are basically wasted because it's all being filtered through a very unreliable set of eyes (not that we actually get a whole lot of info on them anyway). Sunny using a knife on Aubrey in their first fight is such a wild piece of writing. I would be fine with it if it was only a part of the battle sequence itself, but the narrative explicitly calls attention to it and that it made Aubrey start bleeding. This is a character who's supposed to be so completely consumed by guilt over accidentally killing his sister that he hasn't left his house or hung out with his friends for four years, and he's willing to immediately stab one of them? Holy shit what a psycho. I think this is supposed to be a more realistic look at RPG battle systems (like, if Earthbound happened irl it would follow a group of 13 year olds beating random adults half to death with bats and frying pans) but it really clashes with the characterization. Having simple or straightforward characters is totally fine (characterization in video games, even narrative ones, often feels nearly nonexistent), but this game is praised as having really great characters, and I don't see it. Like, what are their motivations and goals, aspirations, etc in their lives in general? Why do they do any of the things they do? How and why have they changed since they were kids? Like I said above, Mari's death ends up being more or less the sole defining feature of their lives, and that just doesn't feel realistic to me.
The pacing of the narrative is also pretty spotty. It's far from the worst, but it suffers from the common RPG problem of divided narrative and gameplay in a similar way to the Kingdom Hearts games where the plot is doled out in small portions, often in cutscenes or setpieces, in between which are long passages that focus on the gameplay but feel completely extraneous to the story. Like I said there are far worse offenders for this, but it's yet another tick against the idea that this is incredible storytelling or anything.
This is pure nitpicking, but using suicide as the explanation for Mari's death also just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I know that a lot of severely depressed and suicidal people can appear completely happy, but there is a lack of any real darkness in her character that could explain why she would commit suicide so suddenly. If the lie was literally just that she slipped and fell down the stairs that would be a whole lot more believable.
A lot of this review probably just sounds like 'it wasn't like my childhood so it's bad/wrong,' which on a certain level it is and that probably says a lot about me as a reader of fiction, but I think it's a fair point. At least for me, if I'm going to get emotionally invested in a story then I need to find things that are relatable and realistic in it, and that's the telling gap here. The setting feeling so unrealistic and the characters feeling rather paper-thin makes it a lot harder to really internalize the heavier moments. This is one of the reasons I don't generally like fantasy or sci-fi stories, but the stories in those genres that I do like (like Evangelion, of course) thoroughly ground their characters' experiences in their setting and often make them somewhat abstract, allowing them to explore emotions and ideas in a broader sense. The setting is too unreal for me to directly relate to it, but it's also not abstract enough to work as a general exploration of grief, trauma, and self-hatred. I can't relate to the characters because they don't feel like real people with interiority that I could meet in real life, but their story is too specific to take it in a broader general sense.
I should probably list some of the positives, because in spite of everything I've said this game isn't terrible or anything. Although the art style reeks quirky uwu retro 90's shit, it's undeniably executed well. The production value and presentation are generally quite good; something like having unique art for each character giving the front position in the group to someone else is great to see in an indie game. The music, while definitely not as catchy or immediate as that of Undertale or the Mother series, is generally pretty good too, and I particularly liked some of the more atmospheric tracks. I don't play enough RPGs to say if the battle system is particularly good, but the emotion system certainly adds a bit a depth to it which fits in the overall themes and messages of the game. I like the designs of some of the psych horror bits (although I'm a huge sucker for that kind of stuff), especially the various something
designs. Although the plot really just didn't work for me on basically any level, I think it does deserve some kudos for at least covering a topic that is really pretty rare, especially in media aimed at adults. I don't think the darker elements of the story were cynically added just to make it seem more profound and meaningful, just that they were mishandled by an inexperienced writer.
Ultimately this game just felt so patently unreal and artificial that any emotional weight it could've had for me was negligible. If you want a story that really does realistically investigate the repercussions of childhood trauma and has incredibly complex and fleshed-out characters, read Echo
. If you want a tragic RPG with a good sense of humor, play Mother 3
or LISA: The Painful
. If you want to wander around in an unbearably twee, quirky world with an ultimately very barebones trauma narrative sprinkled on top, then play this game.