When it originally released as a mod on word processing boxes everywhere back in 2008, Dear Esther was a revelation in more ways than one. Originally spun out of the older Source engine technology that powered Valve’s seminal FPS Half-Life 2 (part of The Orange Box on PS3) some four years earlier, Dear Esther eschewed guns and gore for a far more considered and introspective tale of loss and psychological trauma set against the backdrop of an island situated in the Outer Hebrides.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review: A beautiful and memorable world
Given a fresh coat of paint and a standalone release four years later, it’s this more recent edition of the game that forms the basis for Dear Esther: Landmark Edition on PS4. Boasting a 1080p resolution upgrade and a rock solid framerate that rarely dips below sixty frames per second at any point; this is arguably the best way to experience the game right now.
One of the pioneering efforts of the explorative adventure genre, Dear Esther’s melancholic yarn about loss and loneliness also seep into how the game plays, too. A decidedly isolationist first-person perspective experience, Dear Esther casts the player as an unnamed explorer on the island, roaming about the place at their leisure as they uncover clues about its previous inhabitants and their stories.
Absent combat, conversational dialogue or indeed any NPCs to do either of those things with; Dear Esther’s story is instead conveyed to the player via a narrator, who quickly becomes an integral part of the story itself. Triggered by discovering specific areas and landmarks on the island, these bits and pieces of narrative exposition veer heavily towards the allegorical and abstract and can, early on especially, seem somewhat impenetrable. It isn’t long however until these seemingly disparate story threads link together, coalescing into a whole whereupon Dear Esther’s tragic though profound narrative becomes fully revealed to the player.
In truth, Dear Esther’s raison d’être lay not with its heartstring tugging storyline, but rather the sumptuous island setting that serves as its backdrop. A celebration of Mother Nature at both her most flamboyant and unassumingly modest, Dear Esther’s island has already secured its place in my mind as one of gaming’s most memorable locations and immersive worlds.
Starting on the coast, a series of dank, abandoned outhouses act as a precursor for a stroll along the shoreline as you head up along the cliff paths that wind around the island before dipping down into a system of natural caves. Indeed, when you first enter these caves, it often seems that turning around every corner brings with it some sort of incredible sight for the retinas to engorge themselves upon; an ocular feast that in the four years since Dear Esther’s original release, very few other games have been able to match.
The third act in particular boasts some of the finest sights you’ll ever see in a game. From the stark neon bio-luminescence of outcropped mushrooms to an arrangement of stalactites that glow against the soft light of a lit candle, or the crystal caves that in their pitch blackness that make you feel like you’re walking through a celestial star-field, Dear Esther’s world frequently delights. Owing to the splendour of such sights, Dear Esther is prime screenshot taking material and will certainly give your Share button a good old workout.
Though in truth, the visuals represent just one pillar of Dear Esther’s sublime presentation however, as it’s the superlative musical score by BAFTA award winning composer Jessica Curry and the vast array of atmospheric sound effects that also contribute to reinforcing a real sense of place. In the case of the former, a full and haunting orchestral score bolsters the feelings of malcontent and discovery that Dear Esther bleeds from every digital pore, kicking in at key moments of discovery throughout its duration and never failing to stir. In regards to the sound effect work, Dear Esther excels here also; the whoosh of strong winds whipping up a storm of leaves around your face, the seemingly casual drip-drop of water in caverns or just the crunch of sand beneath your feet are all examples of how Dear Esther sounds as good as it looks.
Some three years before Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was fashioned out of sweat and pixels, it’s abundantly clear that in Dear Esther, developer The Chinese Room already had a practiced, veteran hand in creating tangibly believable worlds. Certainly, more than any other game world in recent times, Dear Esther’s island is a place that still resonates long after the credits have rolled and the controller has been set to rest, and it remains one that I’ll assuredly return to many times after this review has been published.
Something else that the Landmark Edition of Dear Esther stuffs into its offering is a brand new developer’s commentary that can be activated during the game, providing a tremendous amount of insight into the creative process behind the game and, some years on, the candid reflections of the team on what was arguably their breakthrough title. It’s a lovely extra to have, certainly.
Some technical flaws
In keeping with the previous output of the studio, Dear Esther’s laidback and tranquil take on exploration simply will not appeal to everyone. Further emphasising this point is the fact that there is no run button whatsoever, as the game instead forces players to slowly plod everywhere without any way of speeding things up. While I understand the need to soak in each and every aspect of Dear Esther’s frequently stunning setting, it would still be nice to be able to do it at your own pace; whatever that may be.
Neither as dense or as sprawlingly ambitious as their most recent effort Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther also suffers from a longevity issue. Able to be completed in a single sitting and devoid of collectibles, many might be turned off by its brief length, though reasons to return to the game do exist. If the compelling pull to return to the island itself and search out every nook and cranny isn’t enough, I would recommend completing the game twice; once without the commentary, and again with the commentary track turned on; such is the entertainment and richness of the insights provided.
Elsewhere, the leap to console has also seen the visuals take a slight hit. Chiefly this manifests itself in low-detail texture work that fails to stand up to scrutiny when objects in the environment are viewed up close, while further afield, the skybox can appear overly blocky; something that is most apparent during the afternoon and daytime scenes.
Sadly, there are also a small handful of bugs to contend with. In one instance, I peered over a cliff and spied a beach, wrought with broken wood and other curiosities below. Naturally interested, I attempted to scale the cliff downward to inspect, but instead fell to my death; a just reward perhaps for being less careful than I should have been. The kicker though, was that I was brought back to life stuck halfway up the cliff and unable to move, thus necessitating a restart that erased all my progress in the chapter up to that point. Such issues occur rarely but when they do, the frustration does set in rather easily as a result.
It’s fitting that in celebrating the anniversary of Dear Esther that the definitive version of the game arrives on PS4 in the form of the Landmark Edition. Though it can be completed in a single sitting, the sense of place is so strong in Dear Esther that returning to its island setting proves to be a perpetually inviting prospect, and one that remains indelibly etched in the memories of all those who take up the controller in the exploration of its mysterious island realm.