The PlayStation 4 release of Dear Esther sits in a bit of an odd place. The game originally released in early 2012 on the PC and many players will have already experienced its spiritual successor, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. This new version, dubbed the Landmark Edition, does include a few extras such as developer commentary but the title that coined the term “walking simulator" is still the main attraction. So, does the genre's origin still hold up in 2016?
The story here is rather vague. You play as an unnamed man who has travelled to a secluded and deserted island just off the coast of Scotland, with only a lighthouse in the distance being the sole landmark. The plot is then told through an internal monologue that takes the form of letters, mostly addressed to the protagonist's partner, Esther. These explore the couple's past and a car crash that haunts the narrator as he traverses the environment.
Speaking of which, the island itself has a bit of a tale to tell, too. As you navigate its rocky cliffs you'll come across engravings, paintings, and hieroglyphics that delve into the years gone by. When put together, the character's reasoning for going to the island and the surroundings itself is fairly interesting and will leave you with many questions upon the game's conclusion. However, these queries are mostly left unanswered as a large amount of what you're told is left to interpretation. While the basic premise here is one that will intrigue you enough to play through to the end, the hard facts surrounding the plot vacated the island long ago.
Although the story is fairly deep, the gameplay here is the definition of bare bones. The game does not have a HUD and you cannot interact with anything whatsoever. The only interactions with the protagonist is the ability to walk and zoom in on things you wish to observe. To make things worse, the walk speed is a bit too slow for our liking which made certain sections incredibly tedious. On top of that, at a couple of points the game will decrease the walk speed even further, possibly just to make a scene a little more atmospheric. It didn't work for us and we were just left feeling frustrated as we knew exactly where we needed to go, but the game insisted on us walking at a snail's pace. This flaw also comes into play when you take a wrong turn and end up in a dead end. With there most likely being no more than an engraving or two to look at on the mistaken path it feels like you've wasted your time, and in turn we were tired of the lack of excitement in anything we were doing. If only The Chinese Room had implemented a hidden run button into its debut game as well as its sequel.
Furthermore, you'll encounter a couple of confusing design choices throughout your solitary hour to 90 minutes with the title. At the very beginning, it is established that even taking a few steps into the sea causes you to drown. However mid-way through the third chapter in the caves, you must fall down a large chasm into the pool of water below. We assumed this would result in instant death so we searched the surrounding backdrop for an alternate path, but this investigation was in vain. We eventually decided to drop down into the crevasse and to our surprise we found out that the main character could now submerge himself in water without a care in the world. This change isn't communicated to you in any shape or form, so we were left a little dumbfounded over how this suddenly came to be.
Despite being called the Landmark Edition, this version of Dear Esther is still very much the original release and this is most evident in the graphical department. You can tell that this is a game released in 2012 thanks to the texture work and general quality of the graphics that look severely outdated. We can forgive this to a point because the new release was never marketed as a remaster, but don't go into this expecting some impressive vistas of the Scottish highlands.
It's clear that the “walking simulator" genre has moved on since its birth child four years ago. The antiquated gameplay has been surpassed by the likes of Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Firewatch, and the visuals are just as murky as a Scottish rainfall. There are far more and much better narrative-driven experiences to be had in 2016, and so Dear Esther: Landmark Edition feels like a bit of a relic in this day and age.