Nothing good happens in bunkers and vaults. We know this because we’ve played Fallout, watched 10 Cloverfield Lane and now we’ve played One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party, which once again shows that while the world is ending outside, you’re going to be exposed to the worst of humanity in a little concrete box.
This charming story starts outside of the concrete box rather than in it. Your character, Beracus, is searching for the source of a plague that’s sweeping the world. You know what it does to people, as you’re accompanied by one of the afflicted, One-Eyed Lee, who actually has two eyes, but the one on his face has been scarred and a new one has grown on his hand. The eye-hand-thing can see through objects and doors, which is helpful if you’re about to embark on a graphic adventure where everyone keeps shutting doors.
Beracus and Lee are searching for strange occurrences involving spirits and the dead, as that’s the purported cause of the disease. A tip has led you to an abandoned bunker. Or not so abandoned. You enter the door, it slams behind you, and you’re left to face what’s inside. We won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say it’s less abandoned and more civilised than Beracus and One-Eyed Lee expected.
What plays out next is a midway point between visual novel and graphic adventure. There’s a lot of talking in One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party, as you chat to the people who live in the bunker. Their dialogue trees develop and new options get added, and you’re able to make reasonably significant choices. Rather than let you choose from a full emotion-wheel of responses like a pocket Mass Effect, you’re often choosing between letting the sensitive Beracus respond, or the headstrong One-Eyed Lee. It’s a binary approach to ‘Paragon’ and ‘Renegade’ that feels natural and works well.
The chatting is coupled with some extremely stripped-back graphic adventure stuff. Imagine a game design experiment, where a point-and-click game is stripped of mechanic after mechanic to see if it still feels like one once they’re gone. There’s no item management: sure, you pick up items and have an inventory, but you don’t get to truly choose between them – you use items automatically when there’s something that would suit them. You’re not visible in the world, either: it’s just the rooms and their inhabitants on the screen. Even the problem-solving is largely stripped out: Beracus and Lee will helpfully offer ideas for interactions – bathe in a bath, check its plughole – rather than leaving you to work them out.
That might seem like too much is ripped out, but what’s left is something in the vicinity of a Telltale game. The perspective is different, with each scene largely 2D, and rather than moving a character around an environment, you’re scanning it with your cursor, with items flashing if you can use it in some way. But, overall, the most relevant comparison is the tail-end Telltale releases.
The comparison with Telltale games (R.I.P.) is particularly helpful, as it also offers a yardstick for value. One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party is not a long game. In length, it feels more like a single episode. If you’re expecting anything more substantial (and for the price of £4.99, we shouldn’t expect more), then you should check your expectations at the vault door. This is a single idea, explored in no more than a dozen rooms, over the course of an hour or two.
In terms of quality, One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party’s not far off a Telltale game either. It may not be as raucously funny as a Tales of the Borderlands or as dramatic as The Walking Dead, but it attempts a few things and does them well. We felt some similarities to Maniac Mansion (retro!) in the levels of ghoulishness, the humour, and the fact that you’re stuck in a single location with a cast of creepy beings. The difference is that in One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party, you are the threat, and that role reversal makes for some fascinating dynamics. You’re the enemy, playing the different inhabitants of the vault against each other, coercing them to get what you want, and generally being gits. You can tone the gittishness up or down with your choices, but you and Lee are very much the aggressors.
It also does a fine line in family relationships and politics, as the vault-dwellers have their own little soap opera going on down here. It’s handled humorously but also feels very real, as you can sense the fraying bonds of people who have been down here for a very long time. It’s Emmerdale gone very, very wrong. Which, of course, is as brilliant as it sounds.
There are some curiosities that mean One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party isn’t an insta-recommend. There’s clearly a wider story, with you and Lee acting as some kind of plague-investigators, but that gets roundly ditched. It was a fantastic set up with a lot of promise, so to see it get shafted is a bit of a shame. An added Prologue, available separately on the main menu, tries to plug that gap, but it’s uninteractive and focuses on Lee’s family tribulations rather than the state of the world. We didn’t dig it particularly.
The first half is also far more engaging than the second. It’s when you’re first exploring the rooms, scanning everything for small details, like scraps of paper poking out of boxes and sofas. This is when One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party is at its absolute best. You’re finding incriminating evidence and then bringing it to a family member to find out more. But there are very, very few new rooms to unlock, as everything is pretty much available from the start. What that means is the second-half of the game is spent in conversation. One family member said something about another family member, so you take it to them to get a response. Living in developing dialogue trees is nowhere near as fun as exploring the confined spaces, finding evidence.
There’s the length thing too. Perhaps this would have been better named as ‘One-Eyed Lee: Episode 1 – The Dinner Party’, as it would have set expectations about the two-hour playtime and the truncated story. It would give a little hope that the ending, which resolves very little, will have future chapters to tie everything in a bow.
If you’re smarting from the demise of Telltale Games, then One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party feels like a reunion party. While it might not quite match the humour or dark underbelly of Tales of the Borderlands, say, it scratches a similar itch. A wacky premise, some lovely dialogue, and some colourful comic book stylings means that this is a pilot episode for something that could develop into something special indeed. We’ll take a few more episodes, thank you very much.
You can buy One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party for £4.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S