At the start we meet Comrade Ivan Ivanovich, a trim man with a pompadour haircut, seated at a small table in an interrogation room before the much larger, intimidating General Yurkovoi. The General is there to debrief Ivan about his mission to the center of the Earth for the purposes of assessing its suitability for colonization. After descending into the Earth via a defunct volcano, Ivan becomes separated from Little Orpheus, the atomic powered rocket drill entrusted to him by the “Great” Soviet state, in a crash. (Throughout the story, Ivan comically tries to impress the General with his patriotism.) Under threat of execution, Ivan must give an account of his whereabouts for the past three years and explain to the skeptical general how he managed to return to the Earth’s surface without the atomic bomb that powered his ship. (Ergo, the parallel with the Orpheus myth.)
The story Ivan tells is utterly fantastical. After parachuting from the vehicle, he finds himself in a lush, sun-dappled jungle patrolled by dinosaurs. From there he discovers a city filled with giant blue creatures, many of whom are either caged or enslaved by mind-controlling helmets that mysteriously resemble the Soviet-issued helmets with which Ivan is acquainted. In his efforts to puzzle out how the creatures came to be subjugated and to track down the stolen power source of his ship, Ivan sets off on a wide-ranging adventure that sees him get swallowed by a whale, travel through a musical city full of large bells and crumbling masonry, visit a moon, meet a famous dog and square off against a czarist general who has gone mad.
Anchoring these wild adventures is the sharp banter between the incredulous general and the questionably credible Ivan, who has a habit of tripping over his words. In gameplay terms, “Little Orpheus” hews to the familiar tropes of platforming games. Running is accomplished by sliding your finger across the screen of your iPhone or iPad. To climb, you slide your finger up or down. Jumping is accomplished by double tapping on the screen while the manipulation of objects is done by pressing down onto the screen. The developers clearly wanted their game to offer a brisk experience, as none of the puzzles or platforming sequences are that taxing.
Although I did not find the platforming sequences especially tricky, I did mutter in frustration over the controls from time to time when it seemed to me that the game failed to register a jump or a quick change of direction. It is certainly possible, though, that the controls may not be as finicky for others as they were for someone like me, who is partial to playing games on console or computer.
Besides the sprightly dialogue between the General and Ivan, what I enjoyed most about “Little Orpheus,” were the game’s crisp visuals which made me feel like I was watching an animated serial on my phone. (The art style pays homage to the covers of Amazing Stories and other art from the Golden Age of science fiction.)
The Chinese Room’s latest caters to a longing for childlike, wide-eyed wonder. Its humor, coupled with moderately challenging platforming sequences, should appeal to players of all ages who are fond of light escapism.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.