Developed by The Chinese Room of Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture fame, Little Orpheus sheds some – but not all – of the studio’s reputation for making games with a focus on engaging stories rather than gameplay. Fear not, the studio's flair for an intriguing setup remains with its latest release inspired heavily by Russian folklore, leaving the question of whether or not Little Orpheus is any fun to play.
Little Orpheus begins with protagonist Ivan Ivanovich Privalov being interrogated by a man known as the General. You see, Ivan is a bumbling Soviet Cosmonaut who – having failed his exams and his physical – is sent on a massive drill to the centre of the Earth rather than the stars. Ivan went missing for three years, and now the General wants to know the whereabouts of the titular atomic bomb that helped power the drill. Ivan weaves an incredible story to stave off his execution at the hands of his increasingly irate interrogator.
Ivan’s narration manifests itself in the form of a simple 2.5D platformer. He leaps over gaps, pushes blocks, pulls levers, and swings from vine to vine. That’s about it. Simple puzzles and platforming sections make use of these actions but they do not provide any significant challenge; there is no mid-game mechanic introduced to mix things up, nor does the difficulty increase from episode to episode. The shallow difficulty curve serves as a light accompaniment to the story and the wondrous locales. A step above a mere diversion, although we’d also refrain from labelling Little Orpheus a ‘walking simulator’ – a common epithet for The Chinese Room’s back catalogue.
Broken up into nine episodes that take between 20 to 30 minutes each, Ivan takes us from the prehistoric jungles of Plutonia, populated with gargantuan dinosaurs and trees taller than buildings, to inside the belly of a worm-infested whale, then onward to a ruined city in the desert punctuated with time-warping bells, and more. Seeing these worlds alone is worth the price of admission; we were eager to see what strange locale Ivan would dream up in the next episode. The General’s interrogation continues over Ivan's story, the former expressing his disbelief and frustration and the latter slipping into tangential anecdotes to explain away his extraordinary survival skills, with a superb musical score reminiscent of Soviet orchestras from the early 20th century adding the right amount of whimsy.
As much as we adored the charming back-and-forth between Ivan and the General, we also began to lose interest in Ivan’s predicament near the end. There’s no narrative payoff here, no greater meaning or memorable conclusion that sticks with you. In Little Orpheus, The Chinese Room flirts with providing a more engaging experience that never quite materialises, made all the more apparent by the lack of puzzles intuitive enough to give us the barest hint of a dopamine-laced ‘aha!’ moment or a chase sequence or two with enough challenge to make us sit up on our sofa. That aside, the richly detailed worlds and superb presentation provide just enough reason to see Ivan's tall tale through to the end, but we ended up wishing there was more on both the puzzling and narrative fronts.