The phrase “for fans of the genre” cuts both ways: perhaps a game plays best to those key elements that draw fans to a project or genre specifically. Games may include intricacies that would be less important to non-fans—or even twists that would not otherwise be noticed.
However, fans of one title or another are also the most likely to criticise pretenders for their comparative failings. A pundit could look at the latest Assassin’s Creed and decide that running around an enormous Egyptian desert just does not interest them, but a genre fan will explain the important differences in pacing or quest structure between Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal.
In under-represented genres, distinguishing relative strengths in this way can lead to, arguably, unfair criticism. Last year, OnlySP gave kudos to Black The Fall on its own terms, though numerous other outlets (and no less appropriately in a world of subjective opinions) compared it unfavourably to Inside: a paragon of cinematic side-scrollers and the most notable entry to the genre since Playdead’s previous game, Limbo. Those in-the-know remember Rocketbirds fondly, for sure, but that is neither here nor there.
Enter Orphan: an independent, Kickstarter-funded, adventure-platformer from Windy Hill Studio, coming to Steam Early Access later this year. Although publisher 2Dimensions calls the game a Metroidvania, Windy Hill is not playing coy with its real inspirations: particularly, Another World, Abe’s Oddysee and, of course, Limbo. Taking place after a global catastrophe, the game casts players as a boy (who *might* be the last human) exploring a dark and dangerous slice of rural Kentucky. The current build boasts fields, valleys, and caves, all dripping with an unspoken dread of what might lay just outside the boundaries of the screen.
“Fans of the genre” will already be guessing at what lays within, thanks to these particular touch stones. Orphan involves hiding from red-eyed monsters, solving light environmental puzzles, and running through mysterious locations—both the clanking, industrial kind and the spooky, natural kind—that less resemble mazes than they do long landscape paintings.
These environments are brought to life with gorgeous multi-plane visuals (think the scrolling backgrounds of 20th century Disney movies) and 2D shadow puppets to depict characters in the foreground. Sound is equally as purposeful at evoking the danger and mystery. Players might find themselves hearing distant bird calls in the trees, or some out-of-sight machine thumping away in the dark before snapping back to focus on the next horrid beasty that must be overcome.
Similar to its siblings of recent years, Orphan is obsessed with the haunting lights of Close Encounters and the magic of The Secret of NIMH, adding a pinch of deconstructivism to its alien machinery and a whole lot of German Expressionism to its silhouetted forests. However, unlike Inside and Black The Fall, the game is not content with a minimalistic play mechanic to accompany its haunting visuals. Both a health meter, which can be refilled with access to water, and a progress-saving tent help to distance the player from the constant trial-and-error deaths of Limbo, in addition to a sound meter necessitating stealthy movement when enemies are nearby.
Players start out defenseless, but throughout the game (at least the portion currently available) their inventory fills with helpful and deadly items from flashlights to fishing poles to laser guns in the manner of the recent decade of adventure games from Half-Life 2 or the new Tomb Raider. These distinctive touches could help assuage concerns from some of those aforementioned genre fans that Orphan is simply another also-ran of Inside.
Of course, negative comparisons with Playdead’s magnum opus are not entirely unfounded. Thanks to the more complex mechanics, parts of the game can appear crude and unwieldy. With so many tools and weapons to use, more interactions are necessary for each stage of the journey—and, rather than the abstraction of Limbo (where, for example, a grabbable object will sport an indicative handle), items that can be picked up or interacted with are highlighted by the HUD. Combined with the health system, these additional HUD details and resource-management requirements together suggest a light survival-horror bent that could turn off potential players who want nothing but a straightforward adventure.
Development on Orphan is still well underway and the game could use an Early Access period for troubleshooting, as long as the public is open to receiving it. Still, even in development, none of the game’s technical snags interfere with what is an achingly beautiful production that “fans of the genre” should love.
Then again, people might still be upset that Orphan is not Inside.