Review: One Show Only11 Aug 2016 1
Review: One Show Only
Released 03 Aug 2016
The first question you have to ask yourself about One Show Only is “do I like the art style?” If you find the indie-comics influenced art appealing (full disclosure: I do), or at least okay, keep reading. If the art puts you off, you can probably call it here, because the raw (or perhaps RAW), unvarnished DIY post-punk look pretty much describes everything in One Show Only: it’s original, experimental (maybe even avant garde), and unapologetic.
By the same token, it’s also unpolished, highly stylized, and expects you to make a little effort to appreciate it and even overlook it’s shortcomings. If you’re a fan of the Phoenix Wright series, or looking for something to tide you over until the new Professor… excuse me, Lady Layton game comes out (and who is to say she can’t be a lady and a professor? C’mon, Level-5!) well, you’ll either love or hate One Show Only, depending on how you feel about the art and the game’s rough edges.
One Show Only sets the stage with a short comic strip-style introduction the story that transitions seamlessly into gameplay, and then you’re on your own. This feels intentional: the game’s mechanics are left as much a mystery for you to puzzle out as the murder itself. I rarely feel felt like discussing a game’s mechanics was a form of spoiler, but in this case I think it might be, so I’ll tread as lightly as I can in order to preserve that experience for you. There are some things I have to reveal in order to talk about the game’s strengths and weaknesses, so you can consider this your “game rules spoiler warning.”
You can leave your magnifying glass holstered for this one, as you will be solving the case purely by interviewing the five surviving members of the troupe and comparing their accounts. They’re all hiding things, and your interrogate them by playing a game of sliding cards that can perhaps best be compared to checkers where every move gets you an answer to a question, but the most important questions can only be asked by “kinging” your question cards. This is one of the most interesting approaches to game dialogue I’ve ever seen, and the only game I’ve played that has an even remotely similar feel is the PC-only Black Closet (and even there, the mechanics are greatly different).
The rules of the game are simple, and only robust enough to keep one’s interest through a single playthrough of the game, but this is a play-once (maybe twice) experience with a fixed story. The game’s AI is surely no more than a simple decision tree, but that’s all that is needed here - a reasonable challenge. An optimized AI would probably just make the game tedious. There are, however, places where the game’s lack of polish definitely get in the way.
You’re supposed to figure out for yourself what “winning” a conversation means, but there are clear “end” conditions for a conversation, most obviously if you “king” all of your questions, or if the computer fills up all three spots on your base row. The conversation should end automatically at this point, but the game just sits there without so much as a notification, waiting for you to decide to leave. This is, I suppose another first: a game that allows you to engage in interminable awkward silence in a conversation.
Another, more frustrating problem is that, once you have enough question cards, you can scroll back and forth through them. Unfortunately, the scroll arrows are so stylized that they’re not obviously arrows, and their dark brown color blends into the scenery. I assumed I was drawing to fill my hand for much too long.
There are also some tradeoffs that emerge out of One Show Only’s dialogue card mechanic. You’ll ask the same questions and get the same answers over and over again, a necessary repetition eased by the game’s brevity and lack of voice acting. Also, the repetition combined with the way new game elements are unlocked means that you’ll often get hit with clues several times before advancing to the next thing you can do with them - for me, this meant that whodunit, whydunit, and howdunit all became quite obvious to me by mid-game. That said, I have read both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and am therefore clearly a master sleuth: your preternatural powers of detection may vary.
The game’s writing itself is solid, but not amazing. Each of the circus folk has a unique voice and personality, but not all equally so. The descriptions you get of them when starting a conversation change in interesting ways as your investigation progresses, but do too much “telling,” objectively stating things about their mood and mindset, rather than describing what your detective persona can observe, and in so doing falling short of some of the more compelling aspects of La Noire and Her Story.
In the end, I felt the same way about the story’s conclusion: it was satisfactory, but not particularly moving or surprising. In hindsight, while I care about the characters of One Show Only, but I don’t care about them as much as I’d expected to. They have secrets, but they’re the obvious secrets. There’s some pathos here, and some grit, but not the oddball twist or emotional suckerpunch I was hoping for. If you see a little of Lynda Barry and perhaps a soupcon of Mark Beyer in the art, you know what I was hoping for.
Intentionally or not, One Show Only is a zine game, idiosyncratic and odd. The audience for this one is rather specific, I think, but not easily categorized. Take a look, they’re lining up at the ticket booth: there are unfussy casual gamers who usually pick up hidden object games, but also game designers looking for inspiration, someone thumbing through an issue of The New Yorker for the cartoons next to another with their nose in an Agatha Christie novel, a couple discussing Alan Moore and the Ramones, and a slightly forlorn-looking Juggalo in the back.
This game is an odd duck, a one-tent traveling show completely unlike the "proper" circus you saw in Vegas, but I can confidently say that anyone who finds the concept interesting will find that One Show Only is worth the low price of admission and the hour or so they’ll spend in the big top. Still not sure? Take another look at the art. If intrigues you, give this one a shot.