Onde is a difficult game to describe. It’s a puzzle platformer of sorts, I guess, but far from a typical one. There’s a musical element to it, but it’s not really a rhythm game. It has flashes of puzzle and action games, even a little bit of arcade influence, but you couldn’t really call it any of the above. But when you ignore the urge to try force it into a box, describing Onde actually becomes rather easy: it’s an ethereal journey through a world of sound and colour, the kind best enjoyed by just blocking out the rest of the world and getting lost in the sensory experience of it all.
In a beautiful subaquatic world of geometric shapes, psychedelic colours, and mesmerising patterns, a creature sparks to life with the unique ability to ride waves of sound. Forging a path along the ambient noises from the surrounding environment and the sounds that ripple out when helpful little companions touch certain objects, this creature embarks on a journey of wonder and discovery, drifting from soundwave to soundwave.
Those waves form the basis of some clever navigational puzzles. At the most basic, Onde sees you moving around the circumference of an ever-expanding ripple to avoid obstacles and connect with different waves, but a steady flow of new layers gradually builds on that. Objects you can rest on, before triggering waves at will with the press of a button open to the door to timing-based puzzles. Differently-coloured waves behave differently: some keep expanding as normal, others expand until they touch you, then freeze in place, and others still suddenly start contracting again once you latch onto them, flinging you in the opposite direction once you reach the centre.
It’s a nifty assortment of ideas that mostly come together well, though they sometimes feel a little under-explored. Onde is a relatively short game—a couple of hours, give or take—and that brevity is a strength in terms of the emotional journey that the game takes you on, but it also means there isn’t really enough time to explore the full potential of some of its mechanical ideas. This becomes particularly apparent towards the end: just as the game starts to play around with mixing those different pieces together, and teasing the delightful possibilities that might emerge, it comes to a close. The variety is nice, but I have to wonder if fewer, more fully-canvassed mechanics would go down better.
Onde isn’t particularly challenging for the most part, but it’s not trying to be, either. Rather, it’s a game that’s all about flow, momentum, and the meditative mood that comes with it. The puzzles are there as a way of connecting with this world in a tangible, meaningful way, not impeding progress and creating obstacles to overcome. For the most part, that works well—you can fail, if you collide with a hazard or find yourself stranded between waves, but frequent checkpoints and quick respawns mean that usually isn’t enough to disrupt the game’s rhythm.
There is one major exception, though: the final “boss”. Aside from the thematic inconsistency of having this sort of dramatic final encounter in the first place—even if it’s not strictly a fight against a villain—the design of the level is just annoying enough to break the mood that the rest of the game does such a good job of establishing. It’s not even overly difficult, per se, but a fiddly obstacle course that demands a degree of precision that’s never needed anywhere else in the game quickly gets tiresome, especially when infrequent checkpoints mean you have to repeat the same bits over and over again.
That section aside, what you’ll find here is an intriguing, abstract journey through the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It’s poignant and thought-provoking in its wordless, minimalist narrative: the tale of new life setting out into the world, discovering all its joy and hardship, before finally coming home to roost and sowing the seeds for a new generation to do the same. The evocative nature of the art style, the connection formed through the puzzles, and the way the music washes over you (playing with headphones is highly recommended) all help to drive that point home, and it comes to a rather sweet ending.
If you come to Onde looking for a typical puzzle platformer or a rhythm game, you might find yourself disappointed. But take it for what it is—a game that takes pieces of the above, and uses them to drive an atmospheric, sensory experience of colour and sound—and you’ll find something worthwhile. Some rough edges and odd design decisions hold it back a little, but it’s a game that certainly leaves a lasting impression.
Developer: Lance, 3-50
Genre: Atmospheric, puzzle platformer
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release date: 18 March 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.