I’ve been a big fan of The Chinese Room ever since the release of their first game, Dear Esther – and then onwards to the fabulous award-winning Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Both were seen as narrative adventures – or walking simulators, if you will – that let you travel through some amazing worlds, pulled along by great storylines and genius music. It’s they who are also behind Little Orpheus.
Little Orpheus is – at its core – a platformer; quite a simple one at that. But what makes it work brilliantly is the sheer sense of place, narrative and episodic fun. The story centres around Ivan Ivanovich, a cosmonaut from the early sixties. And what is interesting is that in the real world, Ivan Ivanovich was the name of a mannequin which was sent into space on an unmanned space flight in 1962. In this story though the cosmonaut is not sent into space, but into the depths of the planet to see if the Earth is really hollow. Thought lost, and the mission dead, he pops up three years later to tell his fantastical tale to an Army Colonel, all while he is under investigation. Is he telling the truth? Can the fantastical story save him from the firing squad?
What I love about the writing and the story structure of Little Orpheus is that the whole setup is seen as a homage to those serial programs that appeared decades ago; the likes of Flash Gordon. Every week, we’d spend half an hour with our hero, only for them to be left frozen in some perilous danger. A voice-over would ask ‘How will our hero get out of this?’ only for the next week to show that he always does. Little Orpheus homages this trope proudly all the way through its nine episodes. And what makes it better is that it plays on its great B-movie roots with dinosaurs and other civilisations found living in the middle of the Earth. It’s a great mixture of adventure, sci-fi and fun, all told with excellent dialogue and fluid action.
The gameplay takes place over a variety of environments from ice frozen tundras to a whole sequence underwater, yet the basic gaming dynamics stay the same. You move left and right, utilise a jump button and the ability to hold onto ledges and pull yourself up. On every level something will start chasing you across the world, as things start to crumble and you find yourself running, jumping and sliding over obstacles. There are some rope swinging moments to be had, where timing is essential to get from rope to rope. There are also several devices to operate like switches, buttons, and gadgets that help you get through certain doorways or open pathways forward.
There are even some stealth sections, as you go about crouching and then running past watching eyes which will kill you instantly if they see you. It’s all very well done, yet I do think that Little Orpheus does become a bit familiar in terms of the gameplay, failing to spring any surprises after a while.
The locations themselves are a joy to behold and visually this comes with some of the best backdrops and use of 2.5D art that I’ve seen. Bursting with colour and great design choices, the worlds feel creative, inspired and varied in terms of the level design choices. You bounce around the screen, escaping danger after danger, but I could have stayed in the world for an age. The actual animation for Ivan Ivanovich is on the humorous side, appropriate to his ‘dummy’ origins. The character lolls and bounces along the screen, falling and screaming after each adventure. It’s a lovely bit of character work. The cutscenes of the interview between the Colonel and Ivan that play over a black and white TV should be seen as a nice touch as well.
Soundwise you have the music of Jessica Curry and Jim Fowler; a duo who have created a rip-roaring adventure soundtrack to go along with the game. It’s one that reminds of some John Williams scores, working perfectly with the action on the screen. Further, the voice-over work is brilliant and helps bring the characters to life.
You’ll have a good old time with Little Orpheus. It’s not at all taxing on the mind and none of the platforming should be seen as tricky – it’s just a good wholesome adventure that takes you through some amazing locations that have been B-movie inspired. It’s a game that is always found to be winking at the audience, delivering some great storytelling and imagination.
If you want to have a smile put back on your face then you’ll want to venture out on a journey to find Little Orpheus.
Little Orpheus is on the Xbox Store