There’s an English proverb that you’re probably familiar with, that goes ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.
Like with any art form, new games borrow old ideas to varying degrees of success. The best of them take inspiration from what’s gone before and re-work it into a new, meaningful experience. Others merely copy or clone an existing format in the hope that it, too, will be successful. Oscar Wilde expounds on that adage by saying:
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.Oscar Wilde
Quoting Oscar Wilde in a game review? Who does he think he is?! Well, The Dead Tree of Ranchiuna attempts to imitate so-called ‘walking sim’ hits such as Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but in doing so, completely apes everything about those games that make them special.
The Dead Tree of Ranchiuna Review
The Dead Tree of Ranchiuna is ostensibly an adventure ‘walking sim’ (a term often used in a derogatory manner, but we’ll save that discussion for another day) set in a fictional Romanian mountain village. After graduating from University in the City, you return to your childhood village to find it deserted. As you wander around the abandoned houses, you encounter ghostly visions of their former inhabitants. These conversations gently guide you through the countryside, piecing the puzzle together as you go.
Firstly, you can toggle between 1st and 3rd person with the tap of a button. This feels like an odd choice given this style of game relies heavily on immersion. When you switch into 3rd person, you feel detached from the environment, not least because the character animation is pretty poor. But hey, it’s there if you want it!
As you meander through the mountains, you’ll come across more abandoned buildings just begging to be explored. Unfortunately, most of these are just stock assets planted for a bit of window dressing. A select few do display a locked door symbol when you try to interact, although there are no signs of any keys at all. When you finish the main story, however, you do find a lockpick (which is basically a clone of the Skyrim mechanic) which presumably you can use to go back and unlock the doors, although I’d had enough by then.
The road less travelled
Aside from a spot of lock-picking, there are also a few light puzzle elements. As you leave the sparse village behind, you come across a large, metal security gate blocking the entrance to the lush forest beyond. To open the gate, you need to activate a series of switches in the correct order. There are several gates throughout the game, and I still have absolutely no idea how you’re supposed to glean the right combination, so I just cheesed it each time. Ultimately, the puzzle elements feel like they’re tacked on for the sake of interactivity, perhaps because the story is nowhere near strong enough on it’s own to carry you through.
As you follow the visions through the wilderness, you start to piece together the story of a group of villagers that are bullying another resident. Between each vision, an unnamed narrator espouses pretentious, empty platitudes about life and love. The writing is hackneyed and incredibly bitter at times. It feels as though the writer is using the game as a mouthpiece to vent about the world and those that have wronged him.
The game’s ending is bizarre, ludicrous even. At one point, the visions are literally shouting ‘Die!’ repeatedly as they beat someone up. It all feels like it was written by an angsty 15-year-old after a particularly acrimonious break-up. The handful of flashbacks don’t help either – most of them seem completely unrelated to the story and rip you straight out of the immersion.
Games like Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture work so well because they tell a solid story in an immersive way. Audio, in particular, is important, however, the sound effects in The Dead Tree of Ranchiuna are immersion-breaking. Walking from the windy cliffs into the village, the wind sound cuts out abruptly as you turn a corner, leaving you in deathly silence. Animal noises, such as a goat bleating are pretty poor, too. As they play, you can hear the distinct beginning and ending of the clip, as well as some kind of noise underneath – it feels as though they’ve been ripped from a free SFX website.
Perhaps the best thing about the game is it’s music. Haunting, melancholic strings underscores the bittersweet realisation of returning home to find everything has changed. Graphically, it’s not the most polished game but it looks good – from the sparse rocky outcrops of the mountain, to the lush forest lit in beams of sunlight, it’s clearly aiming for Photorealism.
Surely, then, this level of fidelity is impressive for one-person dev studio? A long list of purchased asset packs in the credits suggests otherwise. This has lead to some players on Steam accusing the game of being an asset flip, but we’ll let you make up your own mind on that one.
The Dead Tree of Ranchiuna is a hackneyed attempt at mimicking successful ‘walking sims’. Devoid of any originality, the bizarre story and poor construction break any fleeting moment of immersion. At one point, we’re treated to a flashback consisting of an image of a toilet, whereby the narrator uses the toilet as a metaphor for his life. Perhaps a more fitting metaphor is this game.