Originally released on PC in 2012, Dear Esther was the first game to earn the rather unflattering moniker of walking simulator. Love them or hate them, walking sims are now a burgeoning genre. But how does the original hold up today?
Dear Esther tells the story of a lone man wandering a remote Hebridean island while attempting to come to terms with a traumatic event. As you traverse the landscape, he imparts a fragmented monologue, detailing recent incidents in his life, as well as observations of the haunting environs around him. There's practically no interaction on the part of the player. Instead, you're simply exploring the island while gradually piecing together the story from the scraps of narrative.
It's a slow-moving style of gameplay that will put off a lot of people. And I think it's safe to say that if you didn't like The Chinese Room's other console release (Everybody's Gone to the Rapture) then you certainly won't like its more primitive predecessor.
Luckily, Dear Esther does manage to engage in other ways. Right from the beginning, it sucks you into its world with its immersive sound design and graphical attention to detail. Whether you're climbing up its precarious cliffs with the sea breeze violently swishing the long grass around you, or delving into its spectacular caves, there's always a real sense of authenticity to the surroundings. The graphics themselves are more accomplished in certain areas than others. Outside, they look a little angular and low-res, particularly the 2D foliage. However, when you venture underground, there are some truly spectacular scenes with phosphorescent hues and realistic water effects that will have you repeatedly reaching for the PS4's share button.
Despite the beauty of some of these scenes, the fact that you're only able to move though them at a snail's pace soon becomes very tedious. This is to be expected (as it is a walking simulator after all) but however you spin it, it doesn't change the fact that getting from place to place can be laborious. There's no sprint button although, curiously, your character does speed up and down on his own at random times, sometimes being reduced to a practical crawl. As there are several branching paths to explore on the island, this can turn looking for collectibles into a real test of patience.
Dear Esther is also very short, clocking in around the one hour mark for one playthrough (depending how much you look around). Walking sims aren't generally known for their longevity but even for a budget release, Dear Esther feels incredibly brief.
The Landmark Edition brings some extra value to the experience with the inclusion of a directors' commentary by the game's original developers. This can be switched on or off via the menu and adds a string of audio logs to the game that can be triggered by walking over them. On the whole, the commentary is very interesting and contains lots of nuggets of information regarding Dear Esther's development history from its humble beginnings as a Half-Life 2 mod in 2008 to its full release four years later. Unfortunately, the commentary logs are usually positioned close together. As they're generally fairly long, this means you'll frequently have to sit around waiting for the last one to end before triggering the next one if you want to hear them fully which can be pretty tiresome.
Dear Esther certainly creates some striking scenes with its graphical and aural combinations and there are some deeper elements to uncover if you're dedicated to going through it multiple times to seek them out. However, there's no getting around the fact that it's frequently a drag to play. It's worth checking out for its importance in game history but not so much for the enjoyment factor.
- + Immersive sound design and visual effects
- + Some beautiful settings in certain areas
- + Developers' commentary adds some intriguing background information
- - Slow movement makes gameplay tedious
- - Very short
- - Directors' commentary could have been better paced