Wow, when Microsoft touted The Initiative's prowess and "AAAA" pedigree, I didn't think they'd aim this high.*
Jokes about underwhelming exclusives aside, One Leaves is just bizarre. It's stupid, it's painfully on the nose ("smokin' is bad kids DON'T DO IT OR YOU'LL BE STUCK FOREVER IN EDGELORD HELL",) and it's also horribly, horribly optimized.
For starters, One Leaves runs on the Unreal Engine. Which one? Good luck guessing that, it doesn't say. If it's on 4, you wouldn't know it. Even calling this an Unreal Engine 3 game is pushing it; the worst of the worst from that era, Damnation, looks like a high caliber visually polished masterpiece in comparison to this. I thought I was looking at a Unity asset flip until I saw "Unreal Engine" in the loading screen. I wouldn't be surprised if this was Unreal Engine ONE.
But, okay. Visuals aren't everything, you might say, and you're right. The music? The music is alright. I actually enjoyed it a lot, and it's the only reason I'm giving this game half a star. It's a little moody, with varying layers of orchestral-type strings, and in the final stretch of the mercifully short game you'll actually feel, for a brief second, that there are stakes and genuine danger lurking when it's howling at you in the dark, moody sewers looking for the final escape. The downside? It loops pretty often, and the short tracks only further highlight the issues with this wreck.
The only voice in the game, the "Smoker Guide" as I'll refer to him as, is... a thing. He's doing the best with what he has, which is to try and scare you with a gravely voice about how smoking is bad without saying "smoking is bad." He tries to cheer you on to get out, to urge and scare you into escaping the faux-edgy hell pit that would make Silent Hill burst into laughter, but eventually he starts to sound the same no matter what he's saying. Which he does, actually, as his voice lines will play over one another if you progress too fast through the game. It's a bit amusing to hear him taunt you to get the electric lung open while simultaneously talking about how opening it and getting the flashlight is not a "million bucks" but still good.
One Leave's setting is, on the topic, stupid. It's a school-- because this is aimed at those teens who thumb their nose at academia while smoking sixteen cigs all at once behind school and flipping off the principal when he passes by in his lame ass Ford Fiesta. One Leaves is cool. Or, it wants to be. It really, really wants to be. It claws and bites so toothlessly in an attempt to instill fear and unease in you that it becomes comical; Smoker Guide shouting "GO! RUN!!" in the final push of the game, or the body bags that cough and wheeze when you walk past them. The incredibly rare, actually interesting moments-- a giant skull biting you if you pick a wrong path-- are few and far between, likely because they still had to play it safe. It has to be just edgy enough to appeal to the rebellious youth, but it can't be too dark. It tries to tap in to a mix of Saw and Silent Hill, with weird rattling doors and empty rooms with desks aligned around fence cages with holes in them indicating something has escaped!!! All the world building and desperate fear-building flies out the door the moment you realize there is nothing chasing you.
The scary thing that you're surrounded and being hounded down by? It's supposed to be cigarettes. Cancer sticks, yes, and what they do is quite damaging, but "The Real Facts" anti-cigarette campaign has dived too far in to this 'dark edgy' territory and now seem to say "you'll totally soil your pants after playing this and learning what CIGARETTES REALLY DO". Because, apparently, they turn your world into a stupid Saw knockoff.
And some of the other kids in the hellhole, your friends who are trying to get out before you, will run by you when you're crawling towards an opening in a vent or rushing down a hall. One of them looks like he's got a massive dump in his pants as he run-waddles down the hall. That's the nicest thing I can say about the animations.
Oh, right. This is just an advertisement. Don't smoke, even if the game is bad enough to make you crave the poison.
Speaking of poison, the gameplay is absolutely horrendous. It is poison in the shape of your Xbox controller. You can walk around fine, you can quite easily run, too, but it all feels clunky. You interact with "A", opening doors, pulling levers, and crawling through ducts with the button. Each time you climb into an air duct, however, the game stutters. It freezes for a solid three seconds, and then allows you to resume control. I imagine because it has to both 'load' the different style of gameplay (which is the same but it disables jump) of crawling through a small vent, and also the rest of the ugly, ugly map. It's hideous, blurry, and the numerous piles of bricks lying about the school are 'floppy'. The flashlight can 'eat' certain textures and make them appear invisible, which is particularly notable with windows that look in to classrooms. The frame rate is never solid, either, despite looking like a half-assed Sega Dreamcast title at the best of times. The lack of technical competency on display is shocking, as long hallways and transitions to different rooms can often both cause jittery, spiked frame rates.
Interacting, too, can be spotty at times and require you to be right up on something, mashing your acne-riddled face into it, or sometimes just randomly able to interact from ten feet away; maybe using those sick cigarette powers, brah?
The cherry on top of all this? It's an Xbox One exclusive. And, in a way, One Leaves exemplifies the entire Xbox One generation. Now, sure, Microsoft didn't publish this, but it's still all too fitting just the same.
I don't blame the developers at all for the way this ended up. It was an advertisement game, not meant to light the world on fire and probably only had a shoestring budget. They did what they could with everything involved. "The Real Cost", however, should be ashamed of trying to squeeze out what is now the textbook example of digital excretion onto this, or any, marketplace.
Laugh at it from a distance. Play only if you've got intense jitters and need to hear the Achievement pings. And, if you see the developers of this game, offer them a cigarette and a hug. Lord knows they probably need it.
*Don't take the 'Xbox has no good exclusives' jab to heart, because I don't even believe it. And, of course, The Initiative had nothing to do with it. Humor attempts, people!