It’s no great secret that I love the horror genre. I watch horror movies. I read horror stories (and I write them, too). Most relevant to this blog post, though, I play horror video games. I love being scared (provided the media I’m consuming is presented masterfully enough to actually scare me) and horror video games are my favourite form of horror, due to the fact that a well done horror game usually makes me feel helpless and out of my depth. To this end, I took to Google and Youtube to find myself some obscure horror games to play. What I found was Ao Oni, and it managed to scare me very much.
Ao Oni is a freeware indie game made with RPG Maker XP (freely available here though you must have the RPG Maker XP RTP installed to run it) that plays a lot like the original Clock Tower game. It was originally released in Japan, and has since been translated into English (albeit with a very basic translation – see further in this article). In it, you take control of a high schooler named Hiroshi who, along with three other friends, decides to explore an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town that is said to be haunted. Your goal is to move Hiroshi through a series of 2D, top down rooms (rendered in typical 16 bit fashion) exploring the mansion and trying to find a way to escape after something traps you inside. In this sense, Ao Oni plays pretty much like a standard horror adventure/puzzle game involving gathering items, solving logic puzzles, finding clues, backtracking with keys, and all those traditional elements of games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. However, there’s a bit more to it than that: as you make your way through the mansion, you’re constantly being stalked by the titular Ao Oni (Japanese for “purple troll”) and it’s this simple addition that, much like in the Clock Tower games, makes Ao Oni one tense game to play.
The mechanics of Ao Oni‘s antagonist are rather simple, and this is what makes him so terrifying. He appears at both random and preset points during your exploration of the game (by preset, I mean he’ll appear after you solve a puzzle or find a clue, a la Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 and by random, I mean that he can literally ambush you as you move between rooms) and proceeds to chase you around the house. You can’t fight against him, so if he catches Hiroshi, it means instant death. Thus, when he appears, you have no choice but to run away from him and try to lose him (by evading him for a specific amount of time) or by hiding in certain places around the mansion (though, in true Clock Tower fashion, not all hiding places are good ones). The Oni can appear at any time and from any direction, and often you’re given no warning as to when he’s about to come and try to eat you. This element of the game creates a lot of tension, as you find yourself jumping at any random movement, trying to anticipate the Oni’s arrival and, when he appears, the game turns into a horrifying experience. It’s that feeling of constantly being stalked that Ao Oni does so well… and turns this 2D 16-bit freeware game into a legitimately scary survival horror game.
If you’re looking for anything other than a challenge and a good scare though, Ao Oni doesn’t have much to offer. This is a game that is designed to provide the gamer with two things: scares and solid puzzle based gameplay. The story of Ao Oni isn’t something that ever takes centre stage. The reason for your character and his friends entering the mansion is never revealed, and nor are the origins of the Oni. There isn’t any attempt at characterisation or expanding on any of the characters’ personalities or motives, which makes it impossible to feel anything for any of your companions (except suspicion, when they start to bite the dust and turn into extra Onis that stalk you around the mansion). In addition, the translation from Japanese to English isn’t perfect and the game suffers from drab, boring writing and many grammatical errors. It serves to give the player just a basic idea of what is going on around them and what they need to do next, which is typically disappointing in a translated game, though can be excused in Ao Oni due to the fact that the story exists purely as something to justify the gameplay. Ao Oni is a game, not a story.
In terms of graphics and sound, Ao Oni does a competent job. Due to the fact that this is an RPG Maker game, the environments are all rendered in top down 2D sprite based graphics. They do well enough to the degree that you know what everything is meant to be and where you are, but the art style in general appears to be very minimalistic, and the mansion is nowhere near as detailed as some other RPG Maker games can be. The sound is also handled in a minimalistic way, with the only sounds you’ll hear in the game (aside from menu sound effects and doors opening) being the pouring rain outside the house and a dramatic series of chords when the Oni attacks. There isn’t anything particularly memorable or emotional (aside from the Oni’s notable theme, of course) but this isn’t a bad thing. Instead, the use of silence actually helps to emphasise the game’s feeling of isolation and helplessness, and hearing scary music suddenly play when your stalker appears has sufficient dramatic effect.
Overall, with a gameplay time of just over an hour and an extremely fair price tag (nothing), Ao Oni‘s a good game for any horror fan looking for a quick way to pass time and actually scare themselves. If you’ve played all of the latest commercial horror games (including the excellent Walking Dead), then give it a download and see if you like it – I challenge you to not be scared of that Oni.