STAFF REVIEW of Little Orpheus (Xbox One)


Monday, September 12, 2022.
by Peggy Doyle

Little Orpheus Box art The phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ was something I grew up with. It usually means the telling of a tale that is so drawn out, fantastical and nonsensical that it can’t be believed. Often it isn’t to be believed, it’s just for fun. Think of people talking about ‘the big one that got away’ when fishing and amplify that. That’s what it’s like to spin a yarn, and I grew up listening to many of those types of stories around a campfire, or from relatives who enjoyed entertaining us. Have you ever sat and just listened to someone tell a story like that? You can now if you decide to dive into Little Orpheus.

Little Orpheus is an adventure platformer developed by The Chinese Room and published by Sumo Digital’s Secret Mode. Initially released on Apple Arcade for iOS in June of 2020, it was set to launch on March 1st 2022 for PC and console. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, however, the decision was made to postpone the release for a few months because of the themes and content revolving around the game. It is now set to release on September 13th.

You’re playing as Soviet cosmonaut Ivan Ivanovich who, despite failing his physical and getting caught lying on his entrance exam, is given a mission to take a nuclear equipped rocket drill into the centre of the earth to confirm whether the Earth is hollow and if the land literally ‘down under’ is suitable to colonization. Long thought dead, he pops up 3 years later without the nuke (the titular Little Orpheus). When forced to explain where he’s been for the past 3 years and where the nuke is, he recants an outlandish tale involving everything from being chased by dinosaurs, to traversing deserts, and even navigating subterranean cities.

You may think that Ivan is a dummy, and in some ways he actually is. The real Ivan Ivanovich was a mannequin that was sent into space by the Soviets in their unmanned Vostok missions in 1961. The mannequin was so lifelike that they had to put the word ‘dummy’ inside his helmet so that if anything went wrong and he was found, people wouldn’t think he was a real person. In short, Ivan Ivanovich is basically the equivalent of our John Doe, or every man.


The majority of the game is created from the banter between Ivan and General Yukovoi who is interrogating him. It’s quite clear that the General doesn’t believe any of the tale, but every time there is a question, Ivan somehow creates a story to answer them. The entire narrative plays out over 9 separate chapters/episodes, each opening and ending in traditional 50's TV style drama with the still picture and voice over. “What will happen next? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode” - that sort of thing. Each chapter takes you to a new and colourful world where you find out more details of his ordeal. One fascinating aspect was when the General got frustrated with Ivan and raised his voice, this translated into the story we saw on the screen in Ivans mind. Ice floes would crack under his feet, or animals would snap their jaws. When the general warns Ivan that his patience is wearing thin and he’s running out of time with his story, the entire landscape becomes clock themed.

Little Orpheus is a game that relies on having your sound on in my opinion. I know a lot of people will play story-based platformers with the sound off, or listening to their own music, but this would do a complete disservice to Little Orpheus. Yes, there are subtitles but the banter and dialogue really needs to be experienced in its full glory. The tone and delivery of some of the threats, for example, may not have their full impact of their brutality when just reading them on the screen. The cadence in which Ivan and the General speak throughout the entire game truly is a highlight. The humour was unexpected, and I found myself pausing due to my laughter at times. Hats off to the brilliant voice acting of Gunnar Cauthery (Ivan) and Paul Herzberg (General Yukovoi). Their banter felt like an actual conversation versus acting and even the few lines of dialogue delivered in Russian felt authentic.


Equally outstanding was the art style and soundtrack. A beautiful, colourful landscape made each approximately 20 minute chapters seem like its own mini-movie. Prehistoric jungles, hot deserts and ice filled landscapes all gave unique visual appeal. Each stage has incredible composition. Sand moves freely, the aurora glows over the shipwrecks in the ice, you can almost feel the wind blowing past you. There is even a chapter where you are in the belly of a whale, as big as any ‘big fish’ story can get, complete with squishy walking. The score, by Jim Fowler and Jessica Curry, also gave me something to delight in. Music is always important in a story-based game, and each world had a unique feeling. My favourite little stand out was when Ivan camouflaged himself with an eggshell to sneak past a T-Rex. Each sneaky footstep accompanied by a pluck of a violin string. Similar to the old cartoons I grew up with. Just delightful.

With all of the wonderful voice acting, graphics and music, I am sad to say the gameplay just didn’t give me the same joy. Knowing its origin as an Apple Arcade game, it’s not surprising that gameplay mechanics would be simple. It was meant to be played with touch controls on your phone or with an optional controller, but it was just too simplistic for me. I love platformers, but this just didn’t give me much to work with. Very few quicktime events, puzzles that didn’t require more than a moment to solve, and prompts on the screen that came up much too early to give you any real surprise or suspense to what would happen next really was a let down. You spend most of your time just simply running, sometimes for a full minute before performing a jump, slide or a swing.

There was surprisingly little difficulty involved in the game. You won’t die very often. When I did die, it was usually because I just wasn’t paying attention due to a bit of a slow moment in the game where I was just running, and I sort of zoned out. Each chapter had one chase/fight scene where most of the activity took place. The most difficult thing I encountered was trying to decide the best time to flip switches to complete moving puzzles. Oh, and there one chapter that required flying. I am just terrible at that, no matter what game I’m playing.

Some of the most beautiful moments in the game, and most memorable when telling people about Little Orpheus, involved nothing more than moving left to right across the screen. In these moments you can really take in the beauty of the game, the humour in the dialogue and the music playing. As I said, knowing this was originally a mobile game, it was to be expected, but it left me wanting more at the end of it all. I could look at this and say maybe this was by design, that we were being strung along with the story dragging out, just as the General was listening to Ivan tell his tale, but I really think there just wasn’t a lot to do in the game. Whether by design from a story perspective, or because it was originally a mobile game, it could have used a few more mechanics to keep it interesting.




Once you complete each chapter you unlock a bonus version of the level where you have to collect glowing orbs. If you want to get all of the achievements, you will have to play each chapter at least twice to collect everything. Each orb you collect gives you a little bit of artwork to look at and collecting the orbs also unlocks costumes. Some of the achievements require you to wear specific outfits when playing a particular level. None of this is difficult, but will double your approximately five hour runtime to about ten hours of gameplay.

I’m not really sure what audience Little Orpheus is aimed at. Younger players will likely not get the historical significance, references or nods to old TV show formats, whereas older players could get bored easily. Also, right now may now seem like the best time to be rooting for any eccentric Russian with a loose grip on reality either. Perhaps if it had fewer but longer chapters accompanied with a few more puzzles, I may have found it more fulfilling.

In short, Little Orpheus is filled with myths, legends and beautiful artwork. There are nods to history and some throwback nostalgia to old time TV when things were simpler. References and nods to other Sci-Fi classics like Journey to the Center of the Earth are obvious. If you know what a matryoshka is, you’ll understand the layering in the story telling. A matryoshka is a Russian nesting doll, every time you open one, there is another layer or surprise inside. This is the same way the story in Little Orpheus unfolds, and is indeed, its strong point. The voice actors do all the heavy lifting in my opinion, and I would happily sit and listen to those two characters banter for hours, spinning a yarn by a campfire.

*Little Orpheus was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*




Overall: 7.7 / 10
Gameplay: 6.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10

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