Mean, clean isometric diorama puzzles
As I’ve said in previous reviews, puzzle games often don’t need a whole lot driving them forward since the people who enjoy the genre simply love solving puzzles. But what happens when it’s incredibly clear that the developer is pushing the storyline through the puzzles — does that sentiment change? If so, just how important is that balance between storyline and puzzle, and is a lacking storyline acceptable if the puzzles are decent enough? To be honest, that’s what I found myself questioning while playing The Almost Gone, a minimalist isometric puzzle game with a mysterious story unfolding through tiny dioramas.
Developed by Belgian dev team Happy Volcano and published by Playdigious, The Almost Gone asks players to “unravel the poignant truths that led to your fate” according to its Steam page. Fairly priced at $9.99, this tiny title can be completed in about two to three hours, although depending on your puzzle-solving prowess it can take longer. Can you uncover the mystery that surrounds this seemingly perfect suburban life destroyed by sudden events years in the making?
The Almost Gone touches upon dark topics such as trauma, grief, abuse, self-harm, and depression, so if any of these topics are triggering to the player, consider your mental health before playing. I’m using more caution than perhaps normal simply because of how the game is structured — players take on the role of an unknown being who can’t remember much about their past, and the puzzles not only serve as the path forward, but to enlighten the player about their past life, their parents’ lives, and even their grandparents’ lives and all the terrible cycles of debilitating mental health and abusive relationships with vices and each other spanning decades. However, the way the puzzles uncover information is a little vague to the point that it’s easy to fill in the gaps with personal information, the ability to put oneself back into traumatic episodes almost effortless. Player discretion advised.
With that being said, The Almost Gone does use the puzzle-filled dioramas quite cleverly to push story forward, the puzzles forcing players to uncover items that hold personal significance to the main character. Then there are items the players discover that help paint a picture of the kind of environment they lived in. Their father’s workshop, clearly the place where he spent the most time; their mother’s purse, hiding addictive vices. Suddenly, the puzzles stop feeling like a real place and more like a mental recreation mixed with emotions — the fridge locked, banging against its chains. Something in there is clearly troubling the main character; by solving the puzzles we can work through the traumas they’ve been hiding.
The Almost Gone’s minimalist aesthetics are well-executed here, as even though the environments are clean, there’s a lot to explore within them. The developer was able to get around cluttering up the space by involving several different dioramas per level, enabling them to spread out the amount of objects and clues within each section. In later levels, this means a lot of tedious backtracking, which tends to replace that feeling of anxious discovery with bored frustration. Still, that’s not due to the environments, which are a real pleasure to look at, perfectly crafted in every way.
After finishing The Almost Gone, I expected more answers than I received, especially since they made it a point to continuously dig deep down the rabbit hole of the character’s family history. I feel like the developer was trying to show that a lot of personal problems can stem from our upbringing, which can in turn stem from our parents’ upbringing, but it ultimately tiptoed into convoluted territory when it failed to answer some of the questions it posed right upfront. I really appreciated what the team was going for visually and mechanically, but the story felt almost pipped at the post — almost perfect, but not quite. It’s still a worthwhile experience and I was definitely moved by The Almost Gone, but I do feel like too much was missing and that adding another hour or diorama to answer said questions would have helped immensely.
The Almost Gone tries something advanced — digging deep into memories while keeping a clean aesthetic — and it does a fine job of it. If you’re just looking for a different kind of puzzle game, you’ll find plenty of enjoyment here; however, if you prioritize story over mechanics, you might feel a little discouraged. Regardless of why you’re interested in playing The Almost Gone, I’d still recommend picking it up for an interesting indie that is worth the price of admission. Will you uncover the secrets that led to your fate?
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: iOS, Switch, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Playdigious, X.D. Network Inc.; Developer: Happy Volcano; Players: 1; Released: June 25, 2020; MSRP: $9.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of The Almost Gone purchased by the reviewer.