Based on the trailer and images, your first impression of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition may be that it’s a survival horror game. I mean, the premise of the game is to place you on a desolated island and explore. Don’t let that fool you, though; Dear Esther is not, I repeat, NOT a horror game. Rather, it is a beautiful game of solitude and reflection that explores a human’s mental state after a devastating tragedy.
Dear Esther was developed by The Chinese Room, the same minds that created the hit game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. An interesting fact I learned while playing with the new Directors’ Commentary option is that Dear Esther was originally a Half-Life 2 mod in 2008 that gained traction because of its compelling storytelling. The game won so many awards that it warranted an independent release in 2010, and now six years later, a console version with updated graphics and gameplay (like the aforementioned Directors’ Commentary).
So what is Dear Esther about? Well, that, my friend, will be left up to your imagination. The story is full of layers. Originally, you take control of a man all alone to explore an island in the Hebrides (which is in Scotland, for those who need a quick geography lesson). At various points in his exploration, the man opens up about a woman named Esther, presumably his wife. While exploring, you are able to find the hints of the past in the island, most are very cryptic and up for interpretation.
Speaking of interpretation, the reason why the story is about your interpretation, is that the man you’re controlling doesn’t just focus on Esther’s story; he talks about other people who may have previously inhabited the island as well. It is up to you to figure out how the stories intertwine and how the whole picture unfolds.
The story perfectly portrays the mental state of the man you’re controlling as you figure out the overall story. What makes Dear Esther such a great game during its day, is that every bit of the design are copacetic in developing the tone of the game. The voice acting, the small details you see on the island, and the somber music sets the grim tone of isolation and depression. The emotions build up to the conclusion that, well, may be predictable, but I will not spoil.
What I do wish though is confirmation of whether my interpretation of the story is correct; I guess that’s what online forums are for.
Another aspect that may disappoint you is the gameplay. Dear Esther is a “walking simulator.” That means you literally guide the main character in a first-person perspective to where you want to go. That gameplay aspect isn’t so bad if there were other elements of the game you can do, and similar games like Gone Home have added additional background information to the stories by adding interaction to items that you may encounter.
What Dear Esther lacks, however, are those additional gameplay elements. Besides walking, the other interaction you can do is to zoom into perspective, which assists in viewing far away objects or getting a close up on items that you want to examine further. I mean, you can’t even jump, and I think that’s at least the basic aspect that could enhance the sluggish pace of the main character’s gait.
All in all, I definitely recommend Dear Esther: Landmark Edition for those who have enjoyed the original game back in the days of yore and want to play it on a console. The game is unchanged, but the graphics have definitely been updated. Who knows? It might bring back memories of Half-Life 2 mods as well. For the rest, this is definitely a game for those who may enjoy an afternoon game with a story (and the visuals and music) of a lonely man stranded in a Hebridean island.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
A Walk on an Island To Figure Out What is Going On
Plot - 7/10
Gameplay - 6/10
Design - 8/10
+Story (or stories) is unchanged, graphics updated
+Voice acting, visuals, and music sets a beautiful grim tone of story
-Intertwining stories can be confusing and left for interpretation
-A walking simulator with no other gameplay elements