Atmosphere is everything to a horror game. Jumpscares and spooky monsters will get you a scream or two, but it’s the atmosphere of dread and anticipation that truly captivates people. There are a lot of ways to go about this, of course, and the gaming world has access to some unique approaches like haunted video games and plays on classic, creepy aesthetics. That’s where you’ll find OK/NORMAL, dredging up blurred memories of indistinct polygonal horrors. It doesn’t do a lot with them, but there’s enough put into the experience to make it worth your while.
If there’s a story to OK/NORMAL I’ll be damned if I can make it out. You play as a hovering marble statue, consigned to traverse floating checkerboard walkways in search of food and pills. Your helpful raincloud companion informs you that everything will be fine as long as you eat well and take your medicine, but that notion falls apart in a real hurry. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out that your ominous game world is going to become significantly more ominous, between the dramatic color shifts, glitched-out indicators, and unwelcome guests. The weirdness reaches a fever pitch as you augur towards your fate, though what that fate is may not be clear even after witnessing it.
So yeah, it’s one of those games where a lot of stuff happens but it never really comes together to mean anything. You could consider that a bit of a spoiler, but it’s important to calibrate your expectations here. The scant bits of broken dialog from your raincloud bud and… other things won’t illuminate the circumstances surrounding your odd little sojourn, leaving you to speculate wildly on the point of it all. The atmosphere might suggest a broken or even haunted video game but the plot, if there even is one, gives no indication of that at all. Things start out weird and end up creepy, and you’re not going to ever know why.
That’s fine, really, because atmosphere can honestly carry an entire game. I would be perfectly happy wandering around in one of the ruined seabases of SOMA without any explanation, and so I don’t mind playing through thumping, blood-red levels of this odd little game. But you can’t let the gameplay get in the way of that either, and OK/NORMAL stumbles there as well. Most levels are simple enough, following the trails of items to the exit, and then when things get stranger you spend a little time figuring out the gimmicks. But near the end of the game that shuts down hard with a banal key hunt across a sprawling level. Turns out there are no threats to harangue you here either, which goes a long way towards killing that priceless atmosphere that does so much work.
There are other annoyances to mention, ones that risk turning off certain players hard right from the start. This being a retro-inspired game, you’ll be grappling with very literal tank controls for your statue-man where one stick moves forward and back and the other rotates his base. I didn’t have much trouble staying on paths and doing some basic platforming but I know that’s a hard sell for some. Death also restarts the entire level, so while it’s not too much trouble to avoid falling off the path you’re going to want to be extremely careful on longer levels. And honestly, as much as I love the old CRT PS1-style graphics, they make finding your way in the more garish levels far too difficult, and might even start hurting your eyes before you reach the conclusion.
Despite these bumps in the road, I still enjoyed my journey in OK/NORMAL. It has a terribly unique look and feel, and makes good use of it to unnerve and confuse. The graphics are great for their purpose and the minimalist sound design is a great fit. Most of the levels were interesting, with some twisted around in unexpected ways. If not for the horrid key hunt and aggressive lack of plot this one would rate a lot higher, but it remains a valuable experience to behold. OK/NORMAL isn’t going to become your favorite horror game but it offers something creative and different, just in a smaller, more flawed package than you might expect.