A Half Life 2 mod about a man washed up on a strange set of shores, exploring a bleak world barely inhabited by anyone else. No, it’s not Dear Esther, although by the end of the first act of Estranged you may wish it was.
During a storm you, a fisherman, receive a distress call from a man on a nearby island, though the call is interrupted before your boat crashes onto shore. After swimming to the surface, it’s not long before you run into the source of the signal, who explains his identity, tells you to keep moving, hands you a gun and sends you on your way.
This all sounds like a rather exciting set-up, especially given that games focused on isolation and exploration tend to create rather eery and intense experiences for the player. The problem is simply that Estranged fails to carry that off very well.
There’s nothing functionally wrong with gameplay, which consists of a linear succession of puzzles interspersed with bouts of fighting and fleeing against the zombies who occupy the island. Because, of course, it is always zombies. But the fact that zombies are the enemy seems a rather lazy design concept. There seems to be no reason for them to exist in gameplay terms other than to provide an arbitrary barrier for the player to surpass. The puzzles would work equally well without them and in trying to be ‘horror enemies’ they subtract from the oppressive loneliness that characterises the early stages of the game.
Another change worth considering for later acts would be for the environments to change at a less breakneck pace. The players visits a beach, a house, a nature reserve, a functional railbus line and a crossroads in the space of half an hour, and it feels as though more thought has been put into the quantity of environments than the quality of each.
That’s not to say the environments don’t have potential – railyards could be terrifying places, with dark nooks and crannies between cavernous archways and Victorian ironwork. It’s a shame then that the game only lingers on it for a couple of minutes, although one supposes that avoids the question of why a small, nearly deserted island needs a light rail network.
The game at least knows when to use colour. Unlike a lot of other survival horror games (looking at you, Resident Evil) it understands that horror is created in our own heads through isolation and the fear of what lurks around the corner, not from simply draining all life from the world.
The lack of music helps, too. Silence as an audible device is effective and oppressive, created a feeling of being desperately alone, with the exception of the rather stupid zombie attacks.
For the most part though, presentation is unimpressive. Compared to more widely heard-of (and it has to be said, better) mods in the vein of Black Mesa and The Stanley Parable, Estranged seems to have had relatively little effort put into its models, which are low-poly, and its environments, which are rather small and limited in scope. Of course some of this can be attributed to having a relatively small team, but the game would have been more successful had it come out slightly later and with more effort given.
The voice acting too massively detracts from the appeal. It’s one thing to have slightly ropey contributions to an independent project, but these people don’t seem to be acting so much as just reading out the script and finishing after a single take.
The unfortunate face of Estranged is that it got off to a flying start – the boat wreck, the abandoned pier and beach, the lonely forest – and then tripped over its own feet and fell down the stairs. It could have been so much more than it is, and given that it’s free it seems unusual that the launch was this rushed. Given six months more work and maybe a crowdfunded recording session with some decent voice actors, it could have been top-half. As it is, most players would be far better served playing Dear Esther, a game which even in its slowest moments is in every way more moving, attractive and well-designed than Estranged at its best. 45%