Cinematic platformers, they’ve come a long way since 1989’s Prince of Persia. We’ve had some great titles in the genre too, with some very memorable characters. Little Orpheus is a (kind of) new cinematic platformer from developer The Chinese Room and publisher Secret Mode. But what is it all about and is it any good? Well, it’s a good job I have a review of the game right here.
It is a bit of unfortunate and unforeseeable timing that this Russian themed game is being released now, what with the ongoing situation. Still, don’t decide to go all ‘anti-Russian’ just yet. Keep an open mind, especially seeing as the devs are actually English.
The year is 1962 and NASA are trying to put a man on the moon. In a remote corner of Siberia, a Soviet cosmonaut is heading in the other direction. Comrade Ivan Ivanovich is dropped into an extinct volcano in his exploration capsule, Little Orpheus, to explore the center of the earth. He promptly vanishes.
Three years later he emerges claiming to have saved the world. He has also lost the atomic bomb powering the Little Orpheus. He is taken to a top-secret bunker deep below the Ural mountains to be debriefed by the fearsome General Yurkovoi, a man so frightening even Stalin won’t buy him a drink. The General rolls up his sleeves, fixes Ivan with a steely glare and say “So… where have you been comrade? And where is my bomb?” And Ivan looks him right back in the eye and says “Well General, you might not believe what happened to me, but I’ll do my best. Because it happened like this…”
Little Orpheus was actually released back in 2020 for Apple Arcade. However, the game is now seeing a new release on, well everything really. Not only is this new release now on all consoles and PC, it has been given a fresh lick of paint too. New textures and animations. New graphics, lighting effects and more. The original game was released in episodes, this new release is the whole game in one go, as well as a bonus episode.
You play as Ivan Ivanovich a Soviet cosmonaut who is sent on a top-secret mission. Not into space but into the centre of the Earth. Little Orpheus is the name of the capsule he was sent into the centre of the Earth in, which was powered by an atomic bomb. With no contact comrade Ivanovich was believed to be MIA but he emerges three years later and claims to have saved the world. Whilst being questioned by General Yurkovoi as to what happened and where the atomic bomb has gone, Ivan Ivanovich tells of his fantastical adventure.
In terms of the story and presentation, Little Orpheus is an absolute joy. There is a wonderful sense of humour running all through the game that definitely made me laugh several times. Ivan Ivanovich is such a well fleshed out character, that he becomes such a pleasure to play as. The game is told in flashback with the current time being depicted via a 1960s black & white TV with General Yurkovoi questioning and not believing Ivanovich’s story. These elements are used in between chapters to tell the story. But the main meat of the game, the platforming action, is shown in glorious, full colour. And ‘glorious’ is the correct word to use too.
The graphics of Little Orpheus are absolutely stunning. Wonderfully detailed and beautiful environments that use bright and vibrant colours. This is a very attractive juxtaposition over the black & white structure for the framing of the story. You go from the monochrome world of ‘current’ Russia with General Yurkovoi interrogating Ivan Ivanovich, to the eye-catching and flamboyant centre of the Earth where the gameplay takes place. The humorous story is told via some really great voice acting and the music really adds to the episodic nature of the game’s original release and its 60s setting. As this was originally an episodic game, you get these little ‘interruptions’ between levels that feel like they have fallen right out of a 1960s film serial. This game just oozes atmosphere and style.
The levels themselves are also delightfully varied. From dinosaur roaming environments to snowy tundras. You’ll find yourself in the belly of a giant whale, exploring an arid desert and ancient ruins. Each of the levels is distinctly unique in how they look and they really are a feast for the eyes.
However, the gameplay elements are ‘lacking’, for want of a better word. The trailer up there really does make Little Orpheus out to be much more action-packed than it really is. Given that the developers behind this are the same that brought us titles like Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, you know, walking simulators. Little Orpheus feels less action-platformer and more like a 2.5D walking simulator. The mechanics used here are nothing new or innovative. You have bare basic platforming, some vine/rope swinging. Extremely light puzzle-solving like pushing/pulling blocks to reach higher areas, flicking switches to move platforms and the like. As varied as the visuals for each level are, nothing ever really changes or challenges you from a gameplay perspective.
For instance, there is a part where you have to outwit a T-Rex by hiding behind foreground scenery and move when it looks away. You’ve seen this kind of low-level ‘stealth’ in hundreds of games before. Now, there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Then, on another level, you do the exact same thing but while trying to avoid the gaze of spotlights. See, while the levels are wonderfully varied, the gameplay never adapts to that variety. You do the exact same mild platforming, the exact same block moving, the exact same switch flicks in each and every level. No, being honest, there are a couple of levels where things do change up slightly. There is an underwater level where the ‘gravity’ is different and allows you to jump further and higher. There is some much-needed variety in the last level of the game, that I won’t spoil here. The bonus episode at the very end of the game even throws in a side-scrolling shooter element. That variety is severely lacking for 90% of the game though and you will just repeat the same old actions over and over.
Now, I don’t want this to seem like a negative review. I’m just pointing this out to make it clear that this isn’t as all-out action as the trailer makes it seem. There are parts of the game where you just walk from left ro right (occasionally right to left) and have to listen to the narrative being told. This is not a bad thing as the story here is really damn great and the voice acting really sells it too. It’s just not the action-platformer it first seems to be. It is a 2.5D walking simulator and as long as you know that going in, you won’t be disappointed.
In terms of the story, the narrative, the presentation, the humour and all, Little Orpheus is brilliant, it really is. It is just that the gameplay is very light and massively repetitive. The variety of the levels greatly outweighs the lack of depth to the gameplay itself. £10 is how much Little Orpheus is going to cost you and that is a fantastic price point. For your money, you get nine chapters… most of which are similar to the last in terms of gameplay. You get a wonderfully realised world to play in. You get a brilliant and often funny story. To get to the end credits, you are looking at about four hours or so. Once you do finish a level, you can go back and look for hidden orbs, which you can use to unlock new (often comical) outfits for Ivan Ivanovich to wear, this adds a little repeatability and could keep completionists happy for a few more hours but other than that, there is little here to keep you busy.
Little Orpheus has some amazing moments for sure. You cross paths with Laika, one of the first animals sent into space, as an example. As great as those moments are and as wonderful as the story and setting are, the gameplay is a little too shallow and things don’t really get interesting in that regard until the last couple of levels. I say that Little Orpheus is worth the £10 asking price. It may not be highly unique, it may not have the most intriguing or innovative gameplay. But I sure did enjoy my journey from the start until the end credits. It is the world the game takes place in, the humorous story, the charming main character that really sells this game. Little Orpheus is definitely worth a playthrough, just as long as you go into it with the right frame of mind.