Disoriented and confused after a night of partying, Anthony wakes up in an unfamiliar bed. Those opening minutes are easy enough to understand, but Only If quickly takes a turn for the strange. As a hostile voice barks instructions at Anthony through a radio, the line between reality and hallucination blurs. The result is a surreal journey that succeeds in playing with your perception, but fails on every other level.
Controlling Anthony in first-person, you explore a variety of environments and solve a few simple puzzles. I want to say it’s more like Gone Home than Myst, but Only If isn’t even remotely in the same tier as either of those titles. The story is fragmented, the characters are throwaway stereotypes, and the gameplay is dull.
The only redeeming part of the experience is the way it plays with your expectations. Inky clouds of darkness engulf you as you open the very first door, mirrors appear on blank walls, keys materialize out of nowhere – and that’s just the first five minutes. I won’t spoil the rest, but these mind games throw you off balance enough that you’re never sure how to interpret your surroundings or the plot. This unsteady feeling is novel and exhilarating at first, but it’s the only highlight in Only If’s repertoire.
The surreal atmosphere never materializes into anything significant or compelling, and it is only present for half of the game because the narrative forks early on, forcing you to decide between sacrificing yourself or another person. The outcome determines which half of the game you play; one option leads to the cool series of unpredictable environments, but the other leads to a generic, dimly lit house. You’re mainly picking up switches and opening doors there. In contrast to the other section, everything in the house is just as boring as it seems to be.
Just about every other aspect of Only If has serious problems. Regardless of where you go, you aren’t assembling the pieces of a cohesive narrative or learning anything about the places you explore. The puzzles are practically non-existent, since you can usually find a note or something that gives you an explicit solution. The dialogue and voice acting fall flat, so your hero is totally unlikable. The twist at the end is beyond stupid. The whole game is just a cocktail of disastrous or dull moments, with the environment occasionally playing an amusing trick on you.
Only If is free-to-play, but currently features no form of monetization. It’s just free to download and play. However, money isn’t the only the currency with which we pay for things; it will cost a couple hours of your life to finish Only If, and that price is too high for the few fleeting, interesting concepts buried in the wreckage.
To see the opening sequence of Only If, check out our episode of Test Chamber.
Only If is a surreal journey that succeeds in playing with your perception, but fails on every other level.