After its first release in 2012, which was met with mixed reviews and controversy due to the origins of the game itself, Dear Esther is back on our screens. Going in with little to no knowledge of what the game was, I’ve come out the other side with a feeling of being pleasantly surprised and sadly underwhelmed. Developed by The Chinese Room and published by Curve Digital, ‘Dear Esther: Landmark Edition’ is a first person exploration game where the player makes their way across an island listening to a man read letters he wrote to his deceased wife. There’s no puzzles, no tasks, no combat and little of anything else – and while this may not seem like a conventional idea, and frankly when it’s written down it sounds like a boring one, Dear Esther has a charm about it that cannot be disregarded.
Every single button on your PS4 controller, except for the D-pad and analogue sticks, is used to zoom in on minute details that you see in the game; including cave paintings, various unusual things in the distance and some notes and maps at the beginning of the game. This pretty much sums up the gameplay of Dear Esther. The entire time I was playing, just out of instinct, I would walk up to something – say an abandoned boat – and attempt to jump to it even though I knew full well that this wasn’t possible and pressing every button on my controller would not change the fact that they all just zoomed in. As a gamer, you want more to a game than just walking slowly – there wasn’t even a run button. In a game like this which is so heavily about exploring, not being able to jump and explore more than the set path is aggravating.
Somewhat boring gameplay aside though, I cannot fault the beauty of Dear Esther. The writing is phenomenal. I have a soft spot for a tragic story. Also, maybe the fact that the man is British; and the South West of England, where I personally live, is mentioned in his story, I feel a stronger connection than someone in America would feel. I recognise places he talked about, having visited them myself, and his story is a lot more vivid in my mind than it would be for someone else. Pushing the personal connection I feel aside though, the story is still magnificent. From the very beginning, you’re dumped on a deserted island with no one and nothing to guide you – no instructions or tutorial, just this man reading these heartfelt letters. From the moment he stops talking you just want to hear more: the voice acting is spectacular. The emotion and the softness with which we’re told the narrative through the letters makes the player feel like they’ve known this man for their whole life. We’re hearing his deep, personal letters to his wife and you really end up feeling strongly for this man who you’ve never met. You’re eager to know more – which is good because that’s all this game is about doing. You make your way across the island and you’re rewarded with more of his story. A simple concept but executed beautifully.
The graphics are lovely to look at. Are they outstanding? No, but they’re pretty and sometimes that’s all you need. This game is all about the charm, and that’s the best word to describe the artwork through the game – it’s charming. It’s rather realistic, but one thing I will note is that for a game that basically forces you to zoom in and look at things, the graphics do what you’d expect – if you’re looking at something close up already then zoom in, it gets grainy and pixelated. Most of the game is better to look at in the distance. I’m happy to say that the graphics and the game as a whole was wonderfully designed, it’s just that one hiccup with the pixelated close ups that lets it all down.
The music and the sound effects were very pleasing to listen to – so much so, that I’ve kept the game on in the background while writing this so I can listen to it. I’m looking out over the sea and listening to the wind gust past and it’s wonderful. The music only plays when you’re approaching a new part of the island where you’ll then be listening to another letter, and its reasonable music. It’s soothing, it’s calming, even slightly sad and it fits with the game like a puzzle piece. However, while I was traversing through a rather large cave, there was an occasional backing sound that I couldn’t figure out. It sounded like an electric razor, which felt incredibly out of place with the echoing water drops and eerie singing. There’s not much more to say about it – the sound effects, voice acting and music in Dear Esther have next to no faults.
So, should you pick up a copy of ‘Dear Esther: Landmark Edition’? Well, if you like games for the action, combat and puzzles then no, this game isn’t for you. But if you want something a little bit different, something that could potentially pull on your heart strings, that tells a wonderfully written story then sure. It’s a quick game, easy to finish the story and a reasonable price of £7.99 so it’s worth picking up if you’re in the mood for a change.
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