Review: Little Orpheus (Nintendo Switch)

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Little Orpheus—an Apple Arcade game now remastered for Nintendo Switch—is the latest sci-fi/fantasy adventure to take us deep into the center of the Earth. This time around, a fairly inept Russian cosmonaut—Ivan Ivanovich Privalov—is recounting his three-year disappearance to General Yurkovoi…at gunpoint. The engine of Ivan’s massive drilling machine was basically a giant nuclear bomb, and the General would like to know what happened to it.

This leads to a fairly wild tale from Ivan, which the player gets to live out. Is his tale of giant dinosaurs, fantastic creatures, and gastro-intestinal whale worms true? No matter. It makes for a fun adventure, regardless.

The Nintendo eShop write-up for Little Orpheus claims it’s inspired by “classic movies like Flash Gordon…”, but I think they mean the black-and-white serials starring Buster Crabbe, not the 1980s Sam Jones masterpiece. Each “episode” ends on a cliffhanger with Ivan staring down certain death, only to have the beginning of the next episode set him up safely for the next chapter.

The biggest threat doesn’t come from the futuristic creatures and prehistoric beasts Ivan encounters in his tale, but from the general who’s having an understandably difficult time believing a word of it. He wants the bomb back, and Ivan is always moments away from execution if he can’t reveal its location.

Yeah, the timing with the murderous military Russian is not the best. In fact, the console release was delayed from March 2022 because of the real-life murderous military Russians. It’s played for laughs here, and the acting is very good, but film reel-style footage of gunpoint interrogations is perhaps not the comedic source it was meant to be.

Regardless, real-world connections are immediately forgotten the moment we get into any of the nine platforming gameplay levels. Ivan spends most of the game running (sometimes hobbling), jumping and sliding through beautifully detailed environments. The opener is the banger. Although the settings are apparently inspired by Russian folklore, this one is seemingly a direct nod to the original King Kong, right down to the dinosaurs in the background.

The cinematography is stunning, and it’s easy to get swept up in the action, light as it is. No platform is difficult to reach, no timed button press is difficult to execute. I did die a few times trying to figure out where to move or when to  jump, but the deaths were more comical than frustrating. Most of the levels end with a series of timed moves while you’re being chased down by…something, but the game does a good job of placing you at a nearby checkpoint if you fail. It was only in the final bonus level that I got annoyed by how far back I had to start.

Although it’s somewhat disappointing that none of the nine levels lived up to the grandeur of the first, all of them were entertaining enough to push me through to completion. There’s some variety in the gameplay, too; some levels focused more on stealth, some on speed, and some on timing. Of course, the visuals change up dramatically on each, and even gravity changes sometimes pop up to keep things fresh.

And if Ivan’s having a hard time with his journey, the player is not. Controls are simple and crisp, with only the occasional character placement for device manipulation (pulling levers, pushing buttons, etc.) becoming quirky.

Through it all there’s the comedic interaction between Ivan and the general. I felt for both of them equally—Ivan’s desperate fear of execution and the general’s growing frustration with this ridiculous yarn. It seems the writers felt the same, judging from the somewhat unsatisfying ending.

Although Little Orpheus loses steam towards the end (the tacked-on bonus level is arguably the worst of the lot), the game doesn’t outlast its welcome. Dedicate an afternoon to it and you can complete it in one sitting. I found that taking a couple episodes at a time over a few days was a good pace.

When you’re done, you can replay levels in an attempt to find spheres that unlock additional dialogue and development notes. The spheres are easily found and obtained, however, so it adds no challenge to an already simple game. I therefore let my son take care of that, and I was almost as entertained just observing.

Perhaps General Yurkovoi and I have that in common.

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