Dashed to the rocks below…
Dear Esther was always one of those games I meant to purchase and play. I heard good things about it when it originally released in 2012 on Steam. Many dismissed it as one of those darn "walking simulators," but I enjoy exploration games. I loved The Vanishing of Ethan Carter when it released just a couple of years later, and I greatly enjoyed Valley last month. When I was offered the opportunity to review the console version of the game, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, I jumped at the chance. Bring on the walking simulator, I say!
So now I need to retract what I've previously said. I do enjoy walking simulators, but I need some actual adventure in the game. I need to do more than walk around. Give me puzzles. Give me collectibles. Give me true exploration. Give me a mystery to solve. Give me interaction. Don't dump me on a island where I walk around for an hour and half and pick up snippets of letters. Unfortunately, that's all Dear Esther is. The Landmark Edition simply brings that experience to the consoles.
Dear Esther does live up to a bit of the hype surrounding it, I will say that. It is absolutely gorgeous and the island setting is rich of photorealism. The environment is haunting as well, and the feeling of having no idea where you are and why you are there only compounds it. As I walked through the worn paths, I marveled at the wildflowers, the rocks, and even the water lapping the shore. I did feel a pull to walk off the beaten path and explore a bit more, which unraveled some more snippets from letters to Esther.
I would have been even more wowed by the environment and exploration if my character could have done simple feats such as jump or step over barbed wire. It also would have been nice to be able to walk quickly or jog. After exploring one area, it was a bit of a beating to slowly amble back to the fork in the road. No, it didn't take too much longer, but when you're already bored, a slow saunter doesn't make you love it any more.
The soundtrack by Jessica Curry is also as amazing as the visual presentation. However, I already knew it would be since I bought the soundtrack three years ago and it frequents my monthly rotations of writing music. It fits in with the various environments of exploration perfectly, but I do wish that the tracks looped a bit. The silence filling the void after a track completed in the area did bring about the sense of loneliness the game obviously wants the player to feel, but it also made me want to stop exploring and get to the next area more quickly. The boredom only intensified with the lack of music.
I wish I could say that the story was interesting and moving, because then I might actually recommend this title. As the player strolls across and through the island, they find pieces of letters meant for an Esther. The player isn't familiar with this writer, and the player doesn't entirely know why these letters are there. As you pick up more pieces, you get a bit more of the story as to why the letter writer was on the island, who Esther is, what happened to Esther, and what happened to the letter writer.
The pieces are set in each regions or chapter of the story, but how you find them will obviously vary. As such, they come together as a bit of pulp fiction, and it's not until close to the end that they somewhat come together and form a cohesive story. Sadly, the story is predictable and is as fascinating as the slow walk across an empty island. At one point I actually said out loud, "Cool story, bro…" after a snippet was presented.
Thankfully, Dear Esther is extremely short. I finished my playthrough in a little over an hour. If you don't accidentally trigger the next chapter and spend more time exploring your current chapter, perhaps it will take 2-3 hours total. From the Trophy list, I have a bit more to explore. I'm typically a Trophy Hunter, especially when I see that Trophies are this easy to obtain, but in this case I do not care enough to go back in and get them. It wouldn't even take very long to get them all, and I still do not care.
As a fairly big defender of the "walking simulator" genre, I feel really let down by Dear Esther. It needed more of something, whether it be a better story, more gameplay than wandering, or more interaction with the island. Definitely needed more than a feeling of "huh" when it ended.