Onde is a musically intertwined puzzle game developed by Lance and 3-50 games. To describe Onde is like if you were to smash a bunch of singing bowls filled with paint together over a large fish using a protractor and some dandelions. Yeah, that imagery is difficult to imagine, but so is everything that happens within the game. Onde is the perfect game for those looking for something relaxing, meditative, and filled with circles.
Onde is mainly an abstract game, as you play as four interwoven circles, with the story is more a series of scenes. The light narrative of the game is that there is a lurking evil and you need to awaken magical fish-like creatures to help you stop it. You move around the perimeter of circles, moving from one to the next once you get close enough to touch it. Each circle has a different ability: the standard white ones move outwards, the pink move inwards when touched, the blue stop when touched, and the black kill the player. Navigating can be tricky sometimes, which is why I'd categorize it a puzzle game. Knowing where you are on the circle and where you want to reach next is important, as it’s faster to move around a circle if it’s small, but trying to move while it’s expanding is a challenge. There are times where pressing certain buttons (the four character buttons on a controller) initiates a circle, adding another complexity to the puzzle. There aren’t many obstacles to worry about, mostly the arrangement of deadly circles and the edges of walls. There are also tiny minnows that activate circles at certain times, so your timing is important.
The whole game feels continuous and expansive, but there are noticeable start and end points to segments. This is shown through dramatic scene changes. A level will slowly build in colors and scenery as the music gets more complex until it zooms out and reveals a huge forest or underwater cavern, then dies back down again, leaving the player in a tunnel following a single circle. The way the game introduces mechanics to the player allows the player to understand the game at their own pace. Because the music and environment is adaptive to the gameplay, it’s up to the player how fast they want to take the game. The levels and puzzles aren’t very difficult, as it’s more to give the player a slight challenge to build the tension of the light narrative. The level design is good in the sense that it demonstrates how the player should play the game without directly telling them. Players are guided through puzzles by a series of lights and sounds. The game doesn’t tell the player how mechanics function, it shows how it functions. This is the kind of game design I wish more games had.
This game isn’t perfect, however (spoiler: no game is). The abstract of the player character and the level design make some puzzles needlessly confusing. Activating circles with button presses has some problems. There are dandelion-like petals that branch off of the player character that lock themselves in different circle nodes, telling the player if they press the character button related to the position of the missing petal they will activate the node and release a circle. The only problem is that seeing which petal is missing is difficult. This is further complicated by the positioning of the node if it’s in a different side of the screen than the direction of the button that needs to be pressed. As a player, it is easier to identify what is there than what is missing. So if a dandelion is missing from the bottom but the node is positioned on the right side of the player character, I think I have to press the right character button, only to realize that I was wrong or think something isn’t working. This situation only becomes a problem when you have to make quick button presses. Another problem is knowing which walls actually hurt the player. Sometimes a wall lights up and it kills the player, restarting them to the previous checkpoint, other walls are normal, however, even to the point where you have to pass under them. I think this problem mainly stems from trying to force a 3-D space onto a 2-D screen. We are staring at the player character from above the entire time, so depth perception is tricky to observe. One final problem has to do more with the programming where I encountered a glitch that sent my camera off into space without the control of the player character. Because the abstract game has little to no narrative, I first thought it was an awkward ending to the game, so I sat in silence for a few minutes, only to realize after restarting the level that it was definitely a glitch. (For the developers, this happened right after the sun exploded).
The art in Onde is something I’ve never seen before in another game. It has this blend of both hyper-realism and abstract. Imagine if everything was bioluminescent, almost as if you’re swimming in a Petri dish of glow stick juice. By mixing familiar objects with its unique circle mechanics, Onde paints a scene that’s easy to understand and makes its light narrative shine through merely by graphical context. There are crystal caverns, large wilderness, coral reefs, and many more locations to explore. Mixed into this realism are creatures and objects made entirely of circles. Single circles appear as bubbles, sound waves, or even planets. String a bunch together and you have pokey urchins, twisting vines, and evil tentacles. The colors are reflective of the mood that the developers want the player to feel, and compliments the audio very well.
The audio is highly reactive to the player’s actions, and slowly evolves throughout the game. The player can also play along with the music playing in the background when they press one of the unused character buttons. It feels like I turned on a meditative playlist and the tracks are cycling based on what location I’m in. The activity swells with the intensity of the gameplay, and more things happen and the levels get harder, and if a major scene is revealed, large chanting synths can also be heard. The game seems like it is rhythm-based given that the music fits directly in line with the gameplay. The music is reactionary, however, and only triggers when the player performs an action. It was so rhythmic at times when I played that I thought it was telling me to make an action, but that kept leading to me failing the level, which was kind of frustrating (especially during the final boss). Onde wouldn’t be the game it is without the music, as it’s what drives the emotions of the entire game.
To summarize: gameplay was breezy and intuitive, with great level design and interesting puzzle mechanics. The art is beautiful, with worlds of swirling colors and a juxtaposition of the loose natural world and the rigidity of geometry. The music and sounds are a part of the world itself, changing with the scenery and blending into a resolution of tranquility.
Jordan played Onde on Steam with a review copy provided by the developer.