The Almost Gone Review
A puzzle game that mishandles its narrative and price
Solving puzzles is all fun and games, as the genre typically plays it straight. You traverse between different areas, picking up things, interacting with the environment, and trying to get out or go further. But sometimes, the puzzles want to also tell a story – whether that's The Witness, Braid, or The Talos Principle. A newly released game The Almost Gone is a minimalist puzzle adventure that also tries to stand out with its unique look and a dramatic story.
For its narrative, the game features brief blurbs of text. We learn about a child who is seemingly exploring a surreal world based on the home and neighborhood where their family used to live. The kid isn't sure how they got there, and there are no other people, but that's not really the focus. Instead, we discover about the family's troubles, about the divorce of the parents, the struggles with depression and drugs, and so on. The game tries to tackle some very heavy themes, however most of it sadly falls flat. The text is not narrated, so you're just reading and trying to get immersed based on that alone. But there are some issues with the writing (and perhaps translation, given that the development team aren't English speakers) so a lot of the text comes off as odd when discussing heavy subjects – and from a child's perspective to boot. This setup obviously tries to imitate Braid, The Gardens Between and similar narrative adventures, but doesn't manage to capture their atmosphere.
Where The Almost Gone does manage to stand out is with its approach to level design. This is a puzzle room game, as you explore a number of different very small areas and interact with whatever is in the room. But the neat aspect is that each room is presented as a diorama, and you can rotate it horizontally to see it from every angle. The game helpfully shows the directions in which you can move to get to the next location. You start off exploring your home, so you move from room to room, from the kitchen to the hallway, and so on. Eventually you get outside and explore the area, which as mentioned contains some mysterious elements – branches growing through the buildings, police cars stuck in trees, some homes being mere facades and are hollow as you turn the level around. Some areas and doors feature black goo that prevents you from progressing. Each diorama does feel somewhat unique.
The dioramas are small and only contain a handful of interactive objects. The goal of each level is to find a way out or a way to progress further, and to do that you'll need to interact with items, as well as collect some and bring them to the right place. It's fairly typical puzzle design, and what starts off simply enough – find a crowbar to open a door, find a key to unlock something, scissors to cut rope – things do eventually get a bit convoluted and require trial and error. Sometimes it's just a traditional challenges that have you twisting knobs on an object until they form the desired shape. As the levels grow bigger in scope, requiring you to traverse many dioramas to get to where you're going, so does your inventory of items. At least the game avoids tricking you with useless items and dead ends, and most of the puzzles are linear, meaning you aren't working on too many progress paths at once.
The ability to rotate levels and see behind objects is not used nearly often enough as a neat discovery tool, which seems like a missed opportunity. Another issue is that the game chooses to utilize the worst aspect of all – pixel hunting. Getting stuck because you missed clicking on a random little object is rather annoying. There is no highlight of interactive objects (either on click or on hover). You do already try to click on everything, because many items also produce blurbs of additional narrative text, but still some items can be easy to miss.
Perhaps things are easier to spot when playing on a smartphone – for which the game was originally designed – but on PC, there are some tiny things that you'll need to spot and they can be a pain. The entire diorama takes up the center of the screen, while the sides are rarely used – only to sometimes highlight important objects within the scene and get to them quicker on returning visits. In addition to lots of blank screen space, the game's mobile origins are obvious due to often awkward mouse controls when rotating the scene or moving between them. To top it all off, the PC version costs over 3 times the price of the mobile edition for no reason at all.
The presentation certainly matches what you'd expect from a mobile title. The art style is clean, with a variety of colors and nicely designed dioramas. Audio is minimal and there is quiet background music that fits the somber and mysterious atmosphere. However, there are times when jarringly loud sound effects occur – because you interacted with something, or because an object is drawing attention to itself.
The Almost Gone tries to be both a good puzzle game and tell a dramatic story, but only succeeds in various degrees. Its narrative is poorly told and really not able to handle the heavy themes it tries to tackle, whether that's addiction, divorce, or neglect. By using abstract themes, the message gets muddled even further, leaving too much to player interpretation. The diorama design of the levels is by far the most memorable thing about the game, but even so it's harmed by the occasional need to pixel hunt for key items, to use in puzzles that grow more obscure the deeper you venture into the game. It's a nice looking title, but the mobile roots are unmistakable. At just about two hours long, and triple the price for the PC version, The Almost Gone is difficult to recommend on this platform in particular.