As always, TL;DR at the bottom. This game deserves more though.
In recent years it has become more common to hear gamers, and even some non-gamers giving credit to games as pieces of art. Truly all games are art in some form as they provide a visual and narrative experience no matter what type of game they are. Some games are simply greater classified as art than others, but even inside of that it seems something such as 'Dear Esther' should be given credit on the art scale much higher than any old "video games are art" scale.
'Dear Esther' is claimed by many as "not a game". This is a debate I am no longer interested in, as I simply don't take a hard stance on what a game is anymore now that I have played so many adventure games, and what are more aptly described as "walking simulators". If you want to call it art instead, which it is, I can accept that, but debating on what a game is has become something I do not find interesting anymore. It's a game to me and great art at the same time.
Now that I have grown up a little and become able to appreciate games as great pieces of art, I look for games with beauty in narrative, visuals, music, and even atmosphere much more often than I once did. Giving games described as "walking simulators" a much greater chance than I once would have as a younger gamer. 'Dear Esther' is a game I never would have played maybe as recent as a year ago. I would ignore games such as this and mockingly call them "walking simulators", or games with a lot of FMVs like MGS4, "movies". It's actually quite embarrassing thinking about discussions I've had in the past about such games. >_>
I'm glad I came to my senses because games like this not only give you a sense of extreme beauty, but challenge you to think about things in abstract and interesting ways. Digging into you deeper than a more traditional game focused solely on the gameplay, which I considered the ONLY thing that mattered for the longest time. Games with these weird worlds, stories, and characters just stick with you longer and allow for us to spend more time with them after finishing by discussing them with other gamers. Isn't that something we all enjoy as a major part of gaming? Discussing games and trying to understand them when they give us something to talk about? (feel free to discuss in the comments of this review! Please be mindful of spoilers, however.) It definitely does for me, and 'Dear Esther' made me think, wonder, and read more about it the second I was done playing.
'Dear Esther' on a technical side is a magnificently wonderful game. While you can see in the store screenshots that the game has haunting and lovely visuals, you can't really know how wonderful the atmosphere is without playing it. The music in this game is so well done (I highly recommend buying this soundtrack and I rarely do that) that I found myself saving when I heard a piece start so that I could reload and listen to it again before moving on. The music is atmospheric, haunting, beautiful, and I can't think of a game where I was so enthralled by the music before.
With the musical score lending to the feel of the game, the island you find yourself on gives a tremendous feeling of isolation, dread, insanity, and fear. You will go into "every nook and cranny, John" to see the strange items and locations from all angles before moving down the correct path to move the narration along. Taking these extra paths may lead you to seeing extra narration, or even ghosts out of the corner of your eye. Making you feel like you might not be alone, and then dissipating into mist to leave you wondering if you had just seen something moving, or it was just your imagination.
The narration voice-over is spectacular. A voice that helps the atmosphere as much as anything else, but what is said is just as unnerving in many instances. Narration comes at you as you walk around and move through the island on your ascent up to the top. It will be strange and probably not make a ton of sense every time you hear it. You will feel the mind of the narrator, which is you, seem to disjoint, and speak about things that don't seem relevant at times, but interesting none the less. Strangely, although I have played through the first couple chapters more than once, the narration seems to change in different playthroughs, making it almost impossible to know what exact pieces you will hear in a certain area. The theme and dialog seems to be standard enough through the entire game that the story you hear is about the same as it would be any other time, but it is quite interesting to hear other blurbs as you reach a section from game to game. I have no idea how many of these different blurbs you can encounter, but I am planning to play through the game again, maybe several times not just because I love the feel and isolation I feel while playing the game, but to tread deeper into the depths of the story and hear various new commentaries.
If you read this far, this game is for you. If you are willing to take this much time to read a review, I think you can appreciate this wonderful game as the artistic piece of work that it deserves. I highly recommend this game to anyone that has accepted games as more than just gameplay, but as a form of true beauty, a place to lose yourself in a world without having to shoot at things and jump around, and challenge yourself to see what the creator is trying to say by making it less than easy for you to interpret their strange thoughts to us gamers.
A like-minded gaming friend gifted me this game, and I am truly grateful that someone cared enough to share this experience with me. It was a wonderful journey. Thank you. :)
TL;DR Glorious mix of graphics, music, narration, and atmosphere. Walking simulator that is a true masterwork of art in the gaming universe. Even if you don't respect games such as this, give it a try (Not sure there has been a game in more bundles than this one so there is no way you can't get this for cheap at some point. The forum has 75% off coupons being given away constantly right now as well so there is that too). and see if you can appreciate it for what it is rather than just disregarding this genre entirely without actually making an effort to understand why people DO like them. A challenging, insightful, chilling, isolationist walk through a place that could make you think, feel terror, and maybe, just maybe turn you into a fan of more than just games focused entirely on gameplay.