Release Date: 2/14/2012
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Dear Esther is a game from indie developer thechineseroom that is a visually stunning adventure game, but it is lacking everything else. If you like slow-paced games, or just want to relax and not worry about anything but moving your character then this is probably exactly what you’re looking for. Everyone else, stay away.
You start out on the beachside with no objectives so you just start wondering. This is all you do in the game while a narrator spews poems at you. There isn’t really a story here except a man is searching for a man named Donelly, and you are writing letters to a man named Esther. As you wander around the level you will see various things like abandoned huts, shacks, and strange writings on walls. I felt the game had an atmosphere that was a mix of Penumbra with a bit of Half-Life 2 thrown in. If you walk into a dark area your flashlight will turn on, but there’s really no need to wander off the main path. If you do you may get a little extra narrative, but it isn’t worth it because you have to walk all the back to where you were.
You literally do nothing but walk. There aren’t any other buttons except zoom and take screenshots. This wouldn’t be so bad if the pace wasn’t so slow and grueling. You literally walk at a crawl and I get that it’s so you can take in the scenery, but it doesn’t really change much until you get into the caves. There’s only so much ocean and swaying grass one can see before you get bored. The only thing you look forward to is the next piece of narration.
The game is stunning to look at, but you won’t see the true beauty of the engine until you get into the caves where you get to witness gorgeous water and lighting effects. This is short-lived because this area is only about 10-15 minutes long and so are the other four areas. This leads us right into the game’s worst problem: It is less than an hour long. Even when you get to the end you still don’t know why you played this game and what the purpose is. The story is very vague and you never quite know what’s going on. This is hardly a game and is more of a technical showcase. If you can stomach this sort of thing then go ahead, but you aren’t missing anything if you skip out.
Dear Esther does try something that most games don’t, but with zero gameplay and only being barely an hour-long it’s hard to justify that $10 price tag. There aren’t even any downloadable chapters which is a real shame. Will I be keeping an eye on thechineseroom’s next game? You bet because there is a lot of potential here, but I just felt it was clearly wasted.