Little Orpheus is an action-adventure developed by The Chinese Room, the award-winning team behind the likes of Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. It’s a big change of pace from those “walking simulators” of old, not least because it’s the first time the team has built a title exclusively for iOS and Apple Arcade.
Playing as Ivan Ivanovich, you recount the story of your journey to the centre of the Earth to your Russian commander. Starting off in a rocket called the Little Orpheus, you soon find yourself crashing in a prehistoric subterranean world filled with dinosaurs, monsters and all other kinds of mysterious creatures. Think Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth meets the Universal Pictures classic A Land Before Time, all with a sprinkling of Soviet Russia.
Controlling Ivan is as simple as dragging your finger left or right to move, tapping once more for a jump and holding a finger down to use contextual switches or valves. Players can also control Ivan by connecting a Bluetooth controller, which I personally found to be a little more reliable than the touch controls. The touchscreen is certainly more convenient, but I sometimes found they could occasionally be a little sluggish or unreliable.
Your journey through the world takes Ivan across a number of spectacular vistas, with lush green meadows, dim caves and even a snowy drift inhabited with walruses. This is a journey that has to be seen to be believed, and probably one of the grandest adventures you can experience on a mobile phone. Even the way that chapters are structures and delivered feels unique, as a narrator takes centre stage at the end, summarising the current events and setting up the next chain of events. It all plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is fitting, considering how engaging the world and narrative both are.
Little Orpheus is also one of the most impressive graphical showcases I’ve seen on mobile so far. While it certainly isn’t a realistic looking game, The Chinese Room has leaned into the cartoon visuals creating a game with one of the richest colour palettes I’ve seen for some time. There’s an exquisite depth to the visuals, with detailed and rich backdrops further elevating what is a truly cinematic experience. This is an entire subterranean world that feels alive and tangible, and it’s playable in the palm of your hands. The team at The Chinese Room should be applauded for that alone.
Jessica Curry – the BAFTA winning composer – is joined by Jim Fowler to compose another stellar soundtrack in Little Orpheus, crafting gorgeous orchestral arrangements that add tension, mystique and wonder to every corner of the beautiful subterranean world. Alongside the remarkable visuals, the soundtrack just further established Little Orpheus as a new high water mark for mobile games.
Throughout the game, Ivan and his commander discuss his subterranean journey, with the commander keen to know where the Little Orpheus missile is. The Chinese Room has already shown a knack for writing charming and engaging stories, and Little Orpheus is no different. Both Gunnar Cauthery and Paul Herzberg perfectly balance humour, suspense and drama with their acting, though they have help from the fantastic writing. There are some genuinely funny moments here, with Ivan being particular endearing thanks to his slightly gauche and clumsy characterisation.
The game does start to feel a bit repetitive in the later stages of the game. It largely boils down to holding left or right and occasionally jumping, and though there are some slightly more taxing platforming sections, they can be toppled with relative ease. I would have maybe liked to have seen some puzzles introduced in the later stages of the journey, which I believe would have helped the pacing a little better.
The jumping can also be a little unruly at times, with the games numerous chase sections really highlighting this aspect. While being chased, Ivan must jump a number of gaps and obstacles, but it can sometimes be difficult to judge exactly where and when the game wants you to jump. Jump too soon and you’ll fall short of the distance needed to grab a ledge, jump too late and the animation won’t kick in, leaving you to fall. The problem is that this window is often very small, so finding the moment it wants you to jump can be frustrating.