Video games have a unique relationship with time loops. In a sense, every replay is just that: repeating the same thing. But with each new cycle, a player is armed with more knowledge of a game’s mechanics, its quirks, and its story. Some games take this idea to the limit, where the only thing stopping someone from finishing the game in one sitting is a lack of knowledge about its world’s rules.
This is the case for Orten Was The Case. From the moment you launch the game, the disastrous explosion that the main character Ziggy is trying to prevent can theoretically be rendered futile in fifteen minutes tops. Knowledge-based progression is something I have grown exceptionally fond of in the past two years. I have been exploring everything from the hidden dungeons in the first Legend of Zelda to the mysteries of the universe in Outer Wilds.
Woodhill Interactive delivers a sense of progression that can hold its own with the best of them, as long as you keep your expectations in check that is. In order not to set yourself up for disappointment, know that there is little satisfaction to be had if you want to pursue only your own ideas. Orten Was The Case is best experienced sequentially, following threads as the game lays them out before its main character.
This is not because of a lack of satisfaction when discovering things out of order—that is the beauty of these types of games after all. The issues poke their head when a player returns to the carefully laid out path only to find out the reward is something they have already found, only now saved in their journal. This may give off the idea that exploration is discouraged, but that is far from the truth. It is simply worth getting things you know about out of the way so that other, unrelated secrets can take center stage.
It is as big of an issue as a player’s sense of freedom makes it out to be. To me, it led to a few less-than-satisfactory hours of running around in circles, completing what I had already completed. Though clues, discussion topics, objectives, and items are tidily put together in the journal, and the accessibility options are great, one cannot help but experiment when something intriguing pops up. Rewarding the player only when the game sets up a specific trigger for it is disappointing and discouraging.
Furthermore, even on the main path the game occasionally fails to register a trigger properly. I would occasionally run into some pretty severe bugs, such as key items disappearing when I would interact with them (most notably the mining helmet which would light up the dark areas) or objectives not being marked as complete. Both were fixed by restarting the game, but doing so starts the loop anew, losing all progress unless one was to run by a checkpoint.
Checkpoints are a rather unique mechanic for this type of game and seemed a bit out of place at first until I realized how the game functions. Certain objectives and paths reward the player not just with knowledge, but also items helpful with completing other tasks. Not having to repeat these actions each time is useful, though it also requires some speed from the player. Nobody wants a checkpoint too late into a loop. It is a very appealing risk vs reward system. Thanks to some clever spacing, I also found myself being pleasantly surprised whenever I would reuse a checkpoint while pursuing a different goal.
There is also the fact that the Orten Was The Case mentions movement in its Steam description. What this really means is lots of platforming, and an occasional mechanic or two that could be compared to a minigame. These always have a checkpoint before them as well. Ziggy has health, which allows him to jump off tall ledges and take some damage, but he is not immortal. Without items, anyway. Sneakers that prevent all fall damage, by all accounts, make him superhero-tier. Which rules.
Jumping is very integral to the whole experience. The player character is a scrappy kid who breaks into homes through open windows, deals in illegal substances, and gets in trouble with the police. Getting into locations that seem out of his reach is a key part of his character visually, and is represented well through that mechanic, but the movement has this ever-present issue of just feeling wonky.
Orten Was The Case combines 2D and 3D art and uses this distorted sense of depth as a tool for hiding progression. In this grimy, European urban town, things hide in the shadows and corners. Slopes, however, are merely a suggestion, as the character seemingly falls at increased speed while walking down the hill overlooking the large town in the distance. Things need to be approached from specific angles or they will not work, and shoes dangling from a post above the street will somehow stop Ziggy in his tracks as he jogs below.
Couple that with the fact that jumping on the controller is delegated to the left face button, and you have an often unnecessarily incomprehensible mess. This comes from someone very supportive of games changing up conventional control layouts. I love that feeling of traction at the beginning of a new game, and nothing heightens it as much as unfamiliar controls. Here, it is a bit too much, especially since it never stops unconditionally committing to its wonkiness, even if it costs player time at the very end of their journey.
There are some issues with both structure and movement, but the biggest thing holding it back is its lack of memorability. Orten Was The Case has some lengthy objectives, taking about 8-10 hours to reach an ending, and while I enjoy its crummy yet endearing aesthetic and can get through its control mishaps, I suspect others may not follow through due to a lack of stronger character or visual moments. I enjoy watching the silly cop flail around like an action star or the shop owner fart as he slides down a ramp, but it might be a strong sell for others. I would love to see these characters exhibit more emotions.
Surprisingly, the moment that would hook more people comes from simply kicking a mouse trap at the beginning of the game and completing a loop to see what happens. Seeing something so innocuous lead to something so unique, and undertaking a road to discovering how the two correlate is the best part of the experience. It is perhaps the game’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness—hiding truly special moments behind minuscule actions while not rewarding the player with anything equally momentous through a significant chunk of its story progression.
While many games with time loops are not afraid to overwhelm, Orten Was The Case is shy and quaint. It is a portrait of a culture and its bizarre folklore, of a forgotten youth and forgotten history, of greed and abuse, of addiction and wealth disparity. You just have to peel through its seemingly rough exterior to realize that it is much more welcoming than meets the eye.
Mateusz played Orten Was The Case on PC with a review code.