If only Caligari could travel back in time and tell themselves that perhaps a gimmick does not a game make. Until then, this game is far from great.
Time travel has long been a staple of science fiction. Whether a scientist is righting past wrongs or glimpsing dystopias of the future, one thing remains persistent: it serves as a (story-telling) device to reflect. When a cosmonaut awakens from cryogenic sleep and discovers Earth in ruin, he is at first naturally distraught. But his thoughts of surrender turn quickly to curiosity; he needs to know what happened to his planet, to his family. This is the premise of The Great Perhaps, one that the execution does a disservice.
The first game from Russian indie studio, Caligari, The Great Perhaps is noticeably low-budget. It's evident in the 2D art style that instead of appearing like a stylistic choice it just looks unfinished. There are too many rough edges, not enough clear inspiration for its muted colors and strange character designs. But the indie-quality continues into the game's voice acting, where the human performances come off as just as robotic as the AI's. This makes it difficult to relate to the central character, and so the story that serves as a backdrop to the game's messy mechanics is stripped away. All that's left to see are the game's problems.
The Great Perhaps is most certainly inspired by 2D indie platformers like Inside. The character navigates a 2D world, solving puzzles to progress and reveal the story in a natural way. But Caligari's effort doesn't capture the same magic as Inside, with its voiceless protagonist and captivating world. The constant chirping of an "assistant" robot and soliloquy-ing of the cosmonaut fail to be helpful; they are often infuriating. Jumping, pulling, and tossing your way through puzzles is less a means of discovery and more of a chore.
Shortly into the story, the cosmonaut discovers a lantern that through unexplained means, allows him to view the past. It's a time before some cataclysmic event destroyed the Earth. It's populated with people, some kind, others not, and is the primary way that all puzzles in the game are solved. By tapping a button, players can view a part of the alternate world; by holding it, they transport fully to this reality. It's essentially a blown-out version of the iconic levels from Titanfall 2 and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.
And therein lies the game's greatest weakness: it relies too heavily on this "gimmick" of the lantern and spends no time establishing challenging puzzles. Each plays out the same, with the player retrieving an object in one place, using it in another. Difficulty lies only in having to retrace your steps and avoid train cars or feral beasts. Only allowing the astronaut to carry one item at a time feels like a rotten way to make puzzles unnecessarily longer; there would be no challenge without it.
The basic platforming of The Great Perhaps is sloppy and unpleasant. Jumping is too guided while at the same time too realistic. Tossing items takes way too long to accurately set up and the items fall at the speed of some other planet. Everything acts against the player to make the simplest of objectives, complicated. A player will die without warning (or with a warning far too late) and have to start a puzzle back at an unmarked checkpoint. There's nothing to reward the player for doing the correct thing, no feedback for doing something incorrectly.
Even as The Great Perhaps evolves and introduces new mechanics, it struggles to capture the magic its story so desperately tries to evoke. The idea of traveling back in time to celebrate your history, to get closure for a life that passed you by; it tastes bitter without the sweet. If only Caligari could travel back in time and tell themselves that perhaps a gimmick does not a game make. Until then, this game is far from great.
The Great Perhaps releases August 14, 2019 on Steam. Screen Rant was provided with a digital PC key for the purpose of this review.