Little Orpheus

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Little Orpheus review
Samuel Corey


Destination: Inner Space

Cold Warrior

I have a soft spot for mid-century adventure stories. Things like The Mole People, The Black Scorpion, or the Walt Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea never fail to fill me with a twinge of cheerful nostalgia. So, I was quite pleased to hear about Little Orpheus, a genre pastiche that fuses popular American adventure stories with ideas and themes lifted from classic Soviet science fiction like Sannikov Land and Plutonia. One might worry that merging Eastern and Western pulp fiction might create a work rife with internal tension, but that is most assuredly not the case. Adventure is one genre that has tremendous cross-cultural appeal, and as it turns out, it makes surprisingly little difference whether the dashing protagonist is an Anglo gentleman-explorer or a Slavic hero of the revolution.

The game takes place in Russia in 1962, three years after cosmonaut Ivan Ivanovich Privalov (the game showed tremendous restraint in not giving him the surname Ivanov) was dispatched in a nuclear-power rocket drill to explore the mysteries of the earth's interior. The lost cosmonaut has just returned with a wild story about how he saved the world but lost Little Orpheus, the atomic bomb powering his rocket drill, in the process. Naturally, when you misplace a nuclear bomb and can only offer a wild story about dinosaurs, lost civilizations, and mysterious sea creatures as an explanation, the KGB will take notice. In short order, Ivan is detained and brought in for questioning.

The nature of the rocket drill's power source is probably the most absurd thing in the entire game. Keep in mind this is a game that has dinosaurs, advanced civilizations, and Laika the Soviet Space dog all living below the earth's surface. Indeed, it makes me wonder if the game's writers appreciate the difference between an atomic reactor and an atomic bomb. Nuclear bombs are not typically considered good sources of power because while they may generate a lot of energy very quickly it is not exactly the type of energy that lends itself to being easily harnessed. The whole point of a bomb's chain reaction is that it is supposed to be uncontrolled. Not even the Soviet space program would be this crazy.

The game's story unfolds with Ivan explaining his strange journey below the surface of the earth to General Yurkovoi, a Soviet officer who is convinced that Ivan is just spinning a wild story to save his own hide. The two characters provide a near-constant narration throughout the levels, which at times borders on overwhelming. Indeed, there were moments when I wished the pair would stop prattling and let me focus on the game. Still, these moments were few and far between, mostly thanks to the quality of the dialogue and the rapport the two share. The general is particularly endearing, as his gruff and businesslike exterior belies a soft and almost sentimental soul at heart.

Interestingly, the game makes it obvious that Ivan's story is complete nonsense almost from the start. Those paying close attention to his tale will quickly realize that it doesn't make a lick of sense and is rife with impossibilities even if you're willing to accept such whoppers as a land of the lost existing a few dozen miles below our feet. Hell, poor Ivan cannot even keep basic facts about his own life straight and alternates regularly between describing his father as a toymaker and a watchmaker.

Fortunately, we have these two characters relaying and debating over the entire story, as without them I fear Little Orpheus would be intolerably dull. Certainly, there is very little in the gameplay worth praising, and aside from compelling characters, all that could recommend that game is a few pretty visuals and a nice variation of environments.

A Game of Sorts

Little Orpheus' developer, The Chinese Room, has made a name for themselves with pretentious walking simulators like Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Indeed, Little Orpheus is their first attempt at a video game where the word "game" didn't have to be put in quotation marks. It shows, as even though Little Orpheus is the studio's fourth major release the controls and gameplay are rudimentary.

It is obvious from the start that we're not dealing with a Super Meat Boy or even a Super Mario Brothers that will require the player to make pixel-perfect jumps while dodging numerous obstacles and hazards. Indeed, at first glance, I assumed that Little Orpheus must be a puzzle platformer, like Heart of Darkness, Limbo, or Braid. However, as I played, I quickly discovered that there were no puzzles of any significance either. The most mentally taxing thing you will be asked to do is move a stone block from one side of the screen to another so you can reach an otherwise inaccessible platform.

Bizarrely, the game does try to have a difficulty curve, with the levels gradually adding new mechanics and challenges. However, it isn't until the penultimate level, that we see things as basic as timing jumps to avoid hazards. Somehow, it takes this game four hours to build up to the level of complexity and challenge that is present in Super Mario Brothers level 1-1.

The game never quite devolves into a matter of pressing right to win, but that is mostly to its disadvantage. I would at least understand if the game was putting all its eggs into the narrative basket, as the attempts at platforming gameplay feel half-hearted. Almost every obstacle will be passed on the first try. Most annoying of all are the "challenges" which are just random quick-time events, a game design choice that I had hoped had gone out of fashion years ago. With few exceptions, Little Orpheus' platforming challenges and puzzles just feel like busy work put in just to pad out the already minuscule runtime.

New Game Minus

Little Orpheus is an extremely short game. I suspect that most gamers will complete it in four or five hours. Being primarily a story-focused game, Little Orpheus has little to offer the player in replay value. There are no challenges to master, and no skills to perfect. The game does offer a new game plus mechanic in the form of The Lost Recordings, but this expansion is so pitiful that the developers might as well have not bothered with it.

The only difference between a Lost Recording and the main game is that now there are several collectible orbs scattered throughout the level that unlock concept art and alternative costumes for Ivan. These orbs however are not hidden in any meaningful fashion, they're just scattered along the level's critical path. So, the core experience of playing through the Lost Recording is virtually indistinguishable from the first go-through. Worse still, the orbs can be damn annoying to pick up, as the button to interact with them seems to be tied to a very specific place around them. Most of the time it is no big deal, but every so often you will spend five minutes moving back and forth around the orb mashing the pickup key until finally something triggers and Ivan moonwalks over to grab the orb. Hopefully, this last complaint is just a bug that will eventually be resolved, but this will just make The Lost Recordings a waste of time instead of an obnoxious waste of time.

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fun score


The story is anchored by two strong characters, Unique blend of American adventure serials and Soviet sci-fi, Nice visuals.


Boring platforming challenges, Simplistic puzzles at best, Short with no replay value.