Thursday, September 22, 2016

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review (XONE)

The term “walking simulator” is derisively thrown at a lot of games these days, but the truth is you usually do have more to do than just walk around and look at stuff.  That wasn’t the case in the original walking sim, Dear Esther, however, which comes to Xbox One in the form of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition.  In Dear Esther, literally all you do is walk around a Scottish island and listen to a narrator for an hour, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some might call it boring or say it isn’t a “real” game, but the quality of the overall storytelling experience is undeniable and more than makes up for the lack of interaction.  See our full review of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Curve Digital
  • Developer: The Chinese Room
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: Walking Simulator
  • Pros: Looks great; amazing soundtrack; fascinating multi-layered story
  • Cons: All you do is walk
  • MSRP: $10

Dear Esther takes place on a dreary Scottish island where you walk around and a narrator tells you snippets of a story as you reach predetermined points.  There are actually multiple story threads going on all at once – the history of the island and a handful of characters all connected to the island in various ways– but it is up to the player to sort them all out and interpret them.  Describing the story too much more than that sort of defeats the purpose of playing the game, so I won’t do it, but I will say that it is much more interesting than you’d initially think and it does take some fascinating twists and turns as you piece everything together.  It is possible to finish the game without activating all of the narration, but you can still piece the overall story together well enough without venturing too far off of the main path. 

The phrase “walking simulator” has become a bit of a derisive term for narrative-driven games that are deemed boring by the mouth breathing masses because they don’t have a lot of gameplay interactivity, but the truth is that most of them, like The Witness or Firewatch, do in fact give you things to do besides just walking around and looking at stuff.  Of course, there are also games on the other side of the coin, like Dear Esther – widely considered to be the originator of the genre – where the term applies fairly literally.  All you do is walk around, look at stuff, and listen to a story for an hour and then the game is over. 

For the most part Dear Esther is pretty linear.  There is a clear path to follow that takes you along a Cliffside trail, through a valley, into a cave system, and out onto a beach before leading you up to a radio tower.  From the moment you start the game the blinking red light on top of the tower is the first thing you see and you know it will be your destination, but the journey to get there takes you through some unexpected places.  There are occasions where you can go off the trail to investigate an abandoned house or cave – and you’ll need to if you want to activate all of the narration as well as come across the bare handful of collectibles the game has to get an achievement – but even if you do choose to wander around the game’s run time doesn’t stretch much beyond an hour or so.

The gameplay itself is as simple as you can get.  You just use the left analog stick or d-pad to move, the right stick to look around, and that’s it.  All of the other buttons only serve to zoom in the camera view.  You can’t jump or run or even interact with anything.  Just slowly walk around the island and look at stuff while the narrator tells you pieces of the story. 

That means Dear Esther’s entire appeal pretty much comes down to the presentation, so it had better be really darn good, right?  Thankfully, it is, and Dear Esther showcases stunningly beautiful scenery more often than not as your trek around the island starts at late afternoon and extends into the evening.  That isn’t to say it is a great highly detailed current-gen looking game, because it isn’t, but it makes fantastic use of lighting and texture details in key areas to draw your attention to important things.  These highly polished moments of natural beauty are a big part of what keeps you compelled to move forward. 

The sound is also very, very well done in Dear Esther.  The narration is clear and easy to understand but the music almost steals the show.  The music is just incredibly good as it builds from simple notes at the beginning of your journey to more complicated compositions by the end.  It does a fantastic job of setting and maintaining the mood as you explore the island and complements the natural beauty you’re seeing.

All in all, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition won’t be a game for everyone, but if you are interested in seeing some beautiful natural scenery, listening to an amazing soundtrack, and soaking in a fascinating multi-threaded story, you should give it a look.  No, it isn’t much of a “game” and you don’t actually “do” anything, but everything comes together to make it an enjoyable overall experience anyway.  If it was priced any higher I might not feel quite so positive about it, but it was wisely priced at just $10, which is pretty hard to argue with.  You’ll get an hour or two of gameplay out of it, some easy gamerscore, and get to experience something new and unique that isn’t a typical Xbox One game.  Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is definitely worth a look as long as you approach it with an open mind.  Buy it.  
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.