Reviewed on Xbox One.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is the third iteration of developer The Chinese Room’s walking simulator, considered to be the first of the genre, and is the first time it has been released on consoles. Games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and Firewatch all have their roots in Dear Esther, but most importantly of all, these games expanded upon what Dear Esther accomplished, and expanded the genre in their own unique ways. This is something that the Landmark Edition fails to achieve.
For the first half of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition it’s easy to see that it’s an older game. There are no graphical or gameplay improvements, and if you haven’t played it in a few years, you’ll instantly notice the low-res textures and jagged geometry. However, the second half, in the caves and near the radio tower, still managed to astound me. There’s high detail to the sound of the water in the caverns and the use of lighting masks the aged graphics, making me forget that I was playing a game from 2012. Looking across the moonlit sea from the top of the cliff was as awe-inspiring and vivid now as the first time I experienced it.
The major thing I was hoping The Chinese Room would address in the Landmark Edition is the movement system. Dear Esther has a lot of slow walking, and as someone who’s played through it a few times over the years, it would have been useful to be able to speed up through the slower moments. As it is, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition remains a restricted experience as while you have the option to explore the island in the way that you want, you have to experience it at the speed the developers set. Even a jump button would help, as then players wouldn’t walking directly into a rock to slowly get over it.
The developer’s commentary notes there are plenty of ‘in-between’ moments where players are supposed to think and absorb the story and environment, but I’ve already thought about those things for four years now. Because Dear Esther is so slow, multiple playthroughs become frustrating and boring, particularly as you explore side areas and are then forced to slowly backtrack.
The commentary mode features the developers Jessica Curry, Rob Briscoe and Dan Pinchbeck, and is the only major new feature in the Landmark Edition. Unfortunately the commentary echoes, like it had been recorded without proper equipment or soundproofing. Aside from that, I did find it interesting and insightful. It was actually refreshing as the developers talk for long enough that, unlike the narrative dialogue, there’s never silent gaps if you walk directly from one commentary trigger to another. I enjoyed learning about the systems and ideas behind Dear Esther, such as how the name was used because it’s simply a beautiful sounding phrase, and how they tried to carry this idea throughout all the dialogue in Dear Esther.
The dialogue is certainly beautiful sounding, but most players will still find it hard to draw any discernible meaning from it. It’s dense and leans more towards literary fiction than video game exposition, which isn’t a bad thing, but the focus on style can come across as pretentious. It did take me multiple playthroughs of the original to create an understanding of the story and characters, and I’m still learning more with each new hike through the island. But due to the walking speed, nobody but the die-hard fans will want to trundle through again.
The soundtrack is the single thing that has remained perfect from the original release to the current. Jessica Curry’s score hasn’t been modified, but still manages to overshadow the narrative and visual elements of Dear Esther, and consistently drive the mood and atmosphere. She mixes the deeply depressive as well as a sense of wonder at every moment that requires it. Even people who hate Dear Esther tend to agree that the music remains a highlight, and perhaps the one thing that other games in the genre have been unable to surpass.
If you already own Dear Esther on Steam, you can skip this console port, as the Landmark Edition will be available as a free update in the coming months. I was hoping that it would offer something to expand the core experience or make the game more accessible, but like last year’s Everybody’s Gone to Rapture, The Chinese Room is very controlling of their vision. The studio will always be the original creators of the walking sim, but they’re no longer the pinnacle. Still, whenever someone asks if video games should be considered as art, I’ll point to Dear Esther, the pure walking experience.
And then I’ll point them to Gone Home instead.