That up there is Ivan Ivanovitch. He's somewhere between Walter Mitty and Scheherazade. A man who invents successive tales of fantasy in an effort to stay his likely execution by an impatient general interrogating him in a dark room. Ivan is the little guy in every sense, small in stature, a hunching underdog to forces beyond his control. As the likeable hero of Little Orpheus, a vibrant modernising of the cinematic platformer, he builds a rapport with the general that carries the game as best it can through eight beautiful but ultimately formulaic levels. This is a light game, unchallenging by design, and for me, sleepily so.
The premise is sweet. Ivan is a Soviet cosmonaut who was given a mission to take a nuclear-equipped rocket drill underground. He went AWOL for three years and has returned to the surface, minus one important thing: the nuke. Oops. Forced to explain where he's been this whole time, you play through his retelling of events. They are immediately outlandish tales in which he is chased by dinosaurs and discovers lost subterranean cities. You hear the ongoing dialogue between sceptical general and colourful fibber as you navigate the side-scrolling levels. Sometimes, when the general shouts at you, that instability leaks into the fantasy. Ice floes crack under your feet, for example. When the general's patience wears thin he warns you that time is running out, and an entire level takes on the shape of a clockwork tower.
That's some direct, storytime symbolism but it works well enough. And it gives the environment artists a chance to prove themselves. This is a beautiful underground dreamworld, almost every few steps results in a screen with perfect composition. Distant doorways gleam in a glum temple, aurorae glow over frozen shipwrecks, crimson sands blow into forgotten palaces. The third level sees you in the belly of a whale (as classic as Big Fish stories get) and the innards of the animal are so fleshy that your footsteps depress into the organ-floor like a slimy cushion, while horrible parasitic worms spit as you pass them by. Another level starts in the desert, and as Ivan monologues about the seven long weeks spent crossing the sands the whole scene is engulfed in timelapse, golden sand turning purple in the twilight. It's a dazzling wee thing.
And you'll be looking at it a lot, because there is sadly not much else to the navigation of the levels. Okay, that's not fair. There are classic platforming obstacles and a few stealth moments. But it's all very basic and untaxing. Getting from one place to another is never more difficult than a timed dart between patrolling monsters, or a simple "move box here" micro-puzzle. The platforming is a mix of rope swinging, crumbling surfaces, quicktime dodges, and liberal chase sequences that see you vaulting over stone or sliding under pipes as you are pursued by the beasts of Ivan's imagination. A couple of levels spruce things up with a low gravity effect but aside from this, the same handful of tasks are repeated in each level with very little variation.
It's thematically appropriate, at least. Ivan is taking part in the kind of narrative swindle you see in books like Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about all the places he has been. But just as the Khan comes to realise every city Polo mentions is actually Venice, the player of Little Orpheus realises that, beyond changes in the astonishing architecture and stunning skylines, each new level is remarkably similar to the last. The landscape you see in Little Orpheus may change wonderfully with every episode, but what you do is always the same.
I could put on my monocle and say that, actually, that's quite clever. We are being strung along by the game in the same way that the general is being strung along by Ivan. But as soon as I take my monocle off, I have to admit it makes for shallow traversal, with most of your input relegated to holding a single thumbstick to travel right. Like the Soviet general listening to Ivan's colourful Munchausing, you're very much along for the ride. There are no side avenues with extra snippets of dialogue, no secret treasures, no bonus vistas. A collectibles mode unlocks every few levels, which sprinkles trinkets throughout previously visited episodes. But these shiny thingamajigs are simply added along the usual path, since there are no secret places to hide them. It's not enough to warrant a revisit, unless you are determined to unlock all the game's (admittedly cool) concept art.
In other words, the ratio of cinematic:platformer leans far towards popcorn. It has taken the seeds of classic cine-plats like Prince of Persia and blossomed them into a gorgeous bouquet of jaunts, minus the frustrating and unreadable obstacles that turn completing an otherwise short adventure into a lengthy gauntlet of trial and error (hello, Another World). I feel it's perfectly justified in stripping out those harsh, opaque moments of such elder games. But it also doesn't compensate with any other challenge or task. Other modern cinematic platformers like Inside or Little Nightmares use tricks and traps to slap players with unforeseeable deaths, followed by a forgiving, smirking restart. This is the designer saying: "Haha got you, but I'm just kidding, please continue". In Little Orpheus you will rarely die at all. It's a commitment to the cakewalk that keeps the tone consistent and light but also robs Ivan's story of tension and keeps things as low-stakes as possible.
There is still plenty to like about it. The sound design in particular is ship-shape. Music swells and quietens to match the tone of the story being told off-screen through Ivan and the general's back-and-forth. Trumpets toot at slip-ups and tense strings warble at stressful chase sequences (or chases that would be stressful if they weren't such a breeze). One early sequence sees you donning an egg shell to sneak past a T-Rex and every footstep you take is punctuated with cartoony tip-toe plucks. There's a lot of good-natured comedy too. It feels designed as a game you could play with your 6-year-old kid as the evening winds down, episode by episode. You'll laugh at the Soviet Union gags. Your kid will laugh at the walrus being launched sky-high by a see-saw ice floe.
It's a very short adventure, clocking in at three or four hours. Precisely the right call for a story like this. It's smartly written as well (or maybe I just assume it is from the dozen references to Russian history and culture that went over my head…) I just wish the game's slumberous design was as enthusiastic with its verbs as Ivan is with his adjectives. For parents, or maybe anyone burnt out at the end of the day, or anyone seeking the cinematic beauty of Another World without the accompanying teeth-gnashing, this tall tale of a tiny terranaut could work as a pre-sleep chill-out game (psst, it's also out on Nintendo Switch, but you didn't hear it from me). But for someone who likes their platformers with more oomph, with trials of dexterity or twisty puzzle-thinking, then its straightforward tale might make you a little snoozy for entirely different reasons.