Mom’s Spaghetti Not Included
I am going to start with the ending. I am not going to spoil what happens, but I will talk how I felt going into it. There was a moment, possibly as long as ten minutes, where I was disappointed in the game, frustrated at what happens. Throughout the game, it seemed like the game was trying to say that it was a bold game, one willing to do what others were not, but though this was bold, it was bold in the wrong direction. It wasn’t good. I had mixed feelings going into the last section of the game, but I was ready for the ending it was teasing and promising, and this section made me think the developers wasted their potential. Whatever moments of ingenuity and novelty were built up during the game had completely fallen flat at this point.
I bring all of those feelings up because, in the very next minute, I went through a complete reversal on all of those feelings. This game is special. OneShot’s occasional flashes of brilliance make it a game that would be foolish to miss out on, even if some design choices hold it back.
OneShot is a pixel art game about a child named Niko who ends up carrying a lightbulb around a dark and depressing world. The goal is to bring the bulb to a tower to light up the world, and along the way, you’ll meet quirky characters and solve puzzles. It is probably most similar to Undertale in both aesthetics (both commit, with few exceptions, to the retro pixel art style) and themes (both bring in the actual player as a character in the game, though OneShot does this more directly). The key difference is that while Undertale’s skeleton is a Japanese RPG/scrolling shooter hybrid, OneShot is at its core, an adventure game, which means it lives and dies based on the strength of its puzzles and story.
Where OneShot gets its name from is in its fairly unique approach to progression. In this game, progression is saved automatically and there is no going back and redoing anything. If you miss something, that something is gone forever. This game was previously a free game, and it went even further with this concept at the time; if you closed the window at all, Niko was killed forever and you could not play anymore. Fortunately, that is no longer the case.
You cannot just start over, though. Once you finish the game, you are done with it. You can never play it again…
Well, you can play it again if you edit the game files, but for the purposes of this review, I played the game “right,” which means I did not do that or look up the best ways to get the best ending or what other cutscenes there are. And playing it this way highlighted how much this was the wrong design choice for this game.
Simply put, this is a game that is begging to be replayed with the advantage of hindsight, and it is frustrating that the game does not allow that. Every great story benefits from multiple experiences, and making the “right” way to play this one where you do not get to do that limits the conversations that we can have about it. If this was a game that was a reverse-power fantasy about choice a la One Chance, that would be one thing, but instead this gimmick feels like a cheap ploy to garner engagement in the plot. While this feature may have felt necessary when it was first released as an hour long free game, as a full game this feature is vestigial and holds it back, especially considering this is a product that costs money.
The good news is that OneShot did not need a cheap gimmick to garner engagement for the plot because the story and the gameplay already do that.
“OneShot’s occasional flashes of brilliance make it a game that would be foolish to miss out on, even if some design choices hold it back.”
The developers clearly understood that in order for the game to work, the main character needed to work, and that is the case. Niko is still a child, but Niko’s struggle for agency in the face of youth makes Niko a compelling character. Niko wants to help people, but the game frequently brings up Niko’s own wants and desires. We want the best for Niko not because of a gimmick, but simply because we know that Niko would want the best for us. This is one of the main reasons the ending works as well as it does.
As an adventure game, OneShot is fairly standard for most of its playthrough. The vast majority of the game is spent solving puzzles by finding items, combining them, and/or using them to interact with the rest of the world. Sometimes the solutions are obvious, and sometimes they seem fairly obtuse, but for the most part, none of the puzzles are all that difficult. Most roadblocks can be figured out by simply exploring the world more.
Unfortunately, exploring the world can often be tedious. While fairly standard for games of this genre, it is still annoying that even though the game is not long at all (about five hours on my playthrough), many areas still feel padded out. Several puzzles do not require a lot of thinking, but they do require the willingness to walk back and forth the same few areas over and over until you find the one thing you need. These are not a deal breaker by any means, but the charm of the game is weakened by this tedium.
While OneShot is mostly a fairly standard adventure game with fairly standard puzzles, there are times when it is… not. Without spoiling anything, there are some puzzles in this game that are simply mind-blowing. These puzzles are not altogether hard, but they will test players’ perspectives and are rewarding from both a narrative and a mechanical standpoint. Figuring out what these type of puzzles entail is half the fun, so again no spoilers, but their biggest fault is that these puzzles are too infrequent. The rest of the game feels a bit more lifeless and dull compared to these particular types of encounters. Basic logic puzzles do not seem as exciting when compared to puzzles that make you see the game from a completely different perspective.
In terms of presentation, OneShot is a mixed bag. The music fits the tone of the game but, besides the aforementioned excellent finale, there are no moments where it truly shines. There is also no voice acting, but that honestly adds to the charm. Though the environments rarely inspire awe, some of the character designs are wonderfully unique. However, the game recommends you play it in windowed as opposed to fullscreen, and while that definitely makes sense from a gameplay perspective, it makes the characters and environments harder to read. The art style does still achieve some striking images, though. The lightbulb Neko carries emits a strong glow, and in the darker areas, this glow feels enchanting. It lights up most of the screen but there are always dark edges, giving the world an oppressing feeling but also making the light from the lightbulb seem that much stronger.
Even though the central conceit of the game limits the game’s appeal and even though most of the game is a fairly standard adventure, the moments where this game does work are so amazing, memorable, and gripping, that this is definitely not a game to ignore.