Really, ‘mixed’ is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe the way I feel about this game.
Ao Oni is a free downloadable game that has earned quite a following in both Japan and the States. There’s even an officially published novel based on it. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about its makers or development history, but I will begin by saying it is an impressive effort, considering it’s a free product. However, Ao Oni has many problematic moments that I can’t help but point out.
First, the plot is dreadfully uninspired. The basic premise begins with four teenagers exploring a reputedly haunted house, and they get more than they bargained for. It really smacks of the cliches around almost every stupid horror movie ever made. The characters also don’t have much depth to them. They pretty much consist of the horror flick stereotypes: the wimp, the leader, the nerd, and the girl. If it’s any consolation you get to play the nerd.
Another major complaint, and there’s really no other way to put this – the puzzles are terrible. Many of them are just plain counter-intuitive and don’t make sense. Take for example this strange doll puzzle: you not only have to burn a doll to get it’s eye, but put the eye into another doll head, take the head, shove that head into a different puzzle to get an item, and later shove a lightbulb into the headless doll body to proceed to the next area. Makes sense, right?… Okay, maybe not.
At another point there’s an item hidden under a carpet that you need in order to solve a different puzzle, but due to the basic graphics I missed the slightly crumpled corner of the carpet and had to have that pointed out to me. So, if you choose to play this game, you will get stuck – you will get stuck a lot. The only reason I managed to finish it quickly was because I looked at a walkthrough whenever I was stumped on what to do.
The appearance of the monsters left me laughing initially. The ‘oni’ that chase you and your friends around are tall, purple creatures with slim bodies and huge heads. I swear these damn things look like the result of SCP-173 and Barney the Dinosaur somehow producing a baby, with added inspiration from Easter Island sculptures. I won’t spoil why, but as the game goes on the monsters start wearing goofy ‘wigs’ as well. Doesn’t really sound like something that inspires fear, right?
While there’s so much that Ao Oni gets wrong, it seems that it gets two major aspects of horror games right: establishing fear and paranoia.
Core gameplay is based around evasion rather than combat. The best you can do is run, hide, and hope the oni don’t catch you. This makes the silly-looking oni much more frightening than if you had some means of defending yourself or taking a more offensive stance.
Also, while there are many scripted chases, oni can appear at almost any time. This is especially true if you’re lost and wandering from room to room. There are many times where I found myself gasping and panicking whenever an oni appeared on my screen.
Ao Oni also has a bit of a ‘signature’ moment that will last within the player’s mind long after the end credits. It’s very popular with the fans. It’s when the player enters what’s called the Oni room.
Seeing all these deformed versions of oni is definitely a shock to the system.
Despite my complaints, I still managed to enjoy myself. You might think of Ao Oni a shoddy carnival ride, but the free ticket ensures that it’s still worth hopping on an enjoying it for what it does offer.