Ivan Ivanovich, the protagonist of Little Orpheus, sometimes comes off a bit like a dummy. In real life, he definitely was. “Ivan Ivanovich” was the name the Soviets gave the mannequin they tossed in 1961’s unmanned Vostok missions, and he looked so lifelike that they felt they had to slap the word “dummy” inside his helmet so anyone who found him (should the missions fail) would know he wasn’t a real boy. In a fun twist, Little Orpheus’ Ivan took a trip in a Soviet rocket in 1962, but this voyage took him not to the skies but into the bowels of our own planet, where he was sent to confirm theories of a hollow Earth and see if the literal land down under was suitable for colonization. Long thought dead, he pops up three years later with a crazy tale in the form of a side-scrolling platformer that’s one of the best things to come out of Apple Arcade so far.
Created by the folks at The Chinese Room (behind Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther), Little Orpheus is a visual and auditory feast of the like that Apple Arcade – and even the App Store at large – has rarely seen. Its artistry is apparent from the first moments when we see poor Ivan, thin as a sickle, face off against a hammer of a man – a general who’s ready to kick Ivan in front of the firing squad. Little Orpheus, you see, is the codename for an atomic bomb, and Ivan was supposed to use it to power his communications back through the many rocky miles to the surface. But, as Ivan relates in grainy monochrome footage, there’s a colorful tale that explains its whereabouts.
Or…is there? Much of the fun of Little Orpheus springs from the banter between Ivan and the general, and that conversation continues in the background even as Ivan swings over chasms, dodges enslaved troll-like beings, and rows across subterranean seas (that are strangely sunny for being so far beneath the surface of the Earth). Also, this isn’t a game that works just as well with the sound off: The general’s threats are sometimes startlingly brutal for a game with such a colorful and happy aesthetic, but the rest of that chat is filled with a brand of humor that works so well I had to stop and laugh several times. It’s a fascinating choice that eased me into the mindset of the skeptical general even as you guide Ivan himself, whose frequent bungles and inconsistencies suggest he may not be the most reliable of narrators.
This mystery, this story layered on top of another story like a matryoshka, is the main reason to play Little Orpheus. Voice actors Gunnar Cauthery and Paul Herzberg bring their characters to life with a delivery that never sounds like acting, and even their few lines of Russian sound authentic. Equally essential is Jim Fowler and Jessica Curry’s score, which complements the gameplay with well-timed cues, such as plucks of a violin as Ivan dons an egg shell to sneak past a tyrannosaurus rex(dinosaurs are alive and well deep underground, as it turns out).
The smartphone-focused gameplay is simple enough that it never distracts you too much from these performances, and so it never gets much more complicated than jumping, grabbing vines, moving platforms, and judging the best time to flip a switch. Some of the most beautiful and memorable sequences require no more interactivity than moving Ivan from the left to the right of the screen. Ivan solves a few puzzles, but even the hardest of them should put your brain to work for less than half a minute. It’s not without its challenges, but they usually manifest themselves as chase sequences or exercises in careful timing, such as escaping the jaws of a prehistoric predator to rolling a snowball down a mountainside.
Here, too, Little Orpheus fills the void left by the absence of more challenging gameplay with an ocean of style, so much so that I usually found myself gawking at the wonders in the background rather than concentrating too hard on solutions. It’s an approach I’ve come to expect from mobile games that aren’t ashamed to be mobile games, as other excellent and artistic games like Alto’s Odyssey tend to follow a similar approach.
Even so, I recommend playing with a controller like the DualShock 4 I paired to my iPhone 11 Pro. The native touch controls work well enough, but some of Little Orpheus’ most intense chase sequences require a degree of responsiveness and precision I wasn’t quite getting on a touchscreen. It’s also a bit of a battery hog, which is probably why The Chinese Room broke up the story into eight separate episodes, as if to suggest that you recharge between them over the course of Little Orpheus’ roughly six hours of play. Alternatively, you can play it on either the Mac or the Apple TV, but the graphics don’t feel as optimized for those systems. I even saw minor framerate stumbles on my iPhone 11 Pro, but they were never so bad that they caused me to miss one of the many perilous leaps.
Little Orpheus Screenshots
The gameplay, too, sputters out somewhat in the final episode, but I suspect that’s by design. I can’t discuss why without spoiling the whole story, but suffice it to say that after so many lush and vibrant landscapes, the final level feels mechanical and tired aside from a surprise boss “fight” where Ivan has to jump a little more intensely than he has before.
That said, the gameplay is just getting out of the way, leaving us with the humanity that threads through every episode we’ve experienced so far. Like the mythical Orpheus, Ivan emerges from the underground, but in his case, he struggles to look back at what he found there and we’re left with a thought-provoking conclusion. But is it satisfying? Does it answer the right questions? For me, I like its suggestion that we may have been focusing on the wrong story all along.