Review: Dear Esther

It’s been close to a month since my last written article for the HUD, and almost as long since I’ve last made an appearance on the Podcast.  Let’s make one thing clear, this was not of my choosing as I love all of you dearly and enjoy being a part of this awesome experiment.  It upset me greatly being away from not just my game console’s testing out new games but also my laptop writing about it!  I have an old as dirt house, an old as dirt junky car, and an old as dirt cat.  All three of which decided to nearly kick the bucket during this last month.  Despite all issues being resolved, for the time being, it has absolutely murdered my finances and my peace of mind.  Needless to say, I very much needed a cheap momentary escape from reality.

Around the time that I started to finally crawl out of my stressed out ball, I noticed a little game called “Dear Esther:  Landmark Edition” pop up on my PSN account.  This was my first exposure to this game, and from first glance it looked hauntingly beautiful and seemed to be just what I needed to escape the constant feeling of stress that was lingering in the back of my mind.  It was for this reason, and the awesome $10.00 price tag, that convinced me to just give it a chance.  If you are a fan of this game looking for another raving review, please turn around now because I wish I had never purchased this game and instead saved my $10.00 for a game I am actually excited for (like Final Fantasy XV).

I have now played this game three times and still do not understand what the overall appeal of it is.  I’m almost ashamed to admit this statement since, at a glance, it appears that most players are critically acclaiming this game for its unique take on story progression.  Now don’t get me wrong, it is very pretty to look at.  Is it the most beautiful game I have ever seen? No, but it is by no means an eyesore.  What was most disappointing with the game’s visuals though was that the most beautiful moment I experienced in the game was spoiled for me during its game trailer on PSN.  The cave scene, with the beautiful glowing moss, was astounding.  However, I could’ve gotten the same experience I received in game by simply just watching the game’s trailer.  Usually when this happens with a movie, the movie gets generally negative remarks about it being lackluster but it seems like when it happens with a game it is praised as being experimental.

The story is also surprisingly hard to follow.  It’s played out randomly as you walk ever closer to the game’s conclusion.  This is a game that you need to play more than once, not for enjoyment sake, but because after your first play through you will be left to scratch your head and wonder, “What the heck did I just play”?  The gist of the narration centers around an old shepherd named Jakobson, an explorer named Donnelly, and a man named Paul.  Each one read aloud in no particular order which forces you to split your attention between what you are looking at and what you are listening to.  There is an overarching somber feeling that permeates throughout the game’s progression, which makes more and more sense after you’ve finally figured out what the story of the game is actually supposed to be.  It is a really sad story.  I think this is the first video game that made me really step back and be a little saddened by the ending.  But this unhappy feeling, which is the games core purpose, is too soon replaced with frustration that it took me so long to figure out the point of the game.

What irks me the most, though, is the promise of a fairly open world experience with the story narration playing in the background.  This game is as linear as linear can get.  You play a character in first-person who meanders around a tiny island while the story is discussed in the background.  You are generally faced with a “fork in the road” scenario, but it is made very apparent pretty short into your path if you’ve made the correct decision or not.  If you’ve made the correct decision, you can proceed to the next area, if you’ve made the incorrect decision you are blocked and have to turn around.  That’s it.  So there really is no such thing as a bad decision.  This is nice if you don’t want to deal with consequences, but it does create a feeling of repetition.  The game wouldn’t be half as frustrating if it actually allowed me to have a true choice and then allow for the game’s story to unfold based on which path I took.  There are other games out there that do this so much better and are actually fun to play because they have some replay value.  A great example of this would be “The Stanley Parable”.

After my third, and final, play through of “Dear Esther,” I have come to the conclusion that there is truly such a thing as something being too indie.  I’m normally a very vocal proponent of indie game developers since my experience with their games have, for the most part, been surprisingly enjoyable.  It’s always a blast to jump into a small game only to discover that there is a surprisingly deep story.  But with this title, I fear I may have gone too deep.  It was so out there that it has made me want to step away from the indie titles, at least for a little bit, and move on to something a little bit more “mainstream”.

What did you guys think of “Dear Esther”?  What did you enjoy about the game and what did you dislike?  Did I miss some major point to the game that truly won you over as a fan, or do you share my opinion?  Let me know in the comments below!

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