Review – I Am Dead
I’ll be honest and admit that I Am Dead from Hollow Ponds didn’t really grab my attention when I first saw it advertised. The art design left a lot to be desired and it wasn’t clear what the game even was from the trailer. I was ready to brush it off until I saw it was being published by Annapurna Interactive, one of my favorite publishers. You can always count on a game from them bringing something different to the table, from the fluid movement in The Pathless to the time-looping mysteries in Outer Wilds. Each one of their games has its own distinct style and I Am Dead is no different, even if I found it to be almost aggressively mediocre.
In I Am Dead you play as Morris Lupton, a spirit of the deceased museum curator for the small island town of Shelmerston. Before long, Morris is reunited with the ghost of his dog, Sparky, and discovers that a volcano is about to erupt on the island and wipe out everything he once held so dear. The only way to keep this event from happening is to find another ghost to become the island’s spiritual custodian – an entity that will become one with the island and watch over its inhabitants.
I’m actually making I Am Dead sound much more thrilling than it really is. The high stakes of the volcano’s imminent eruption aren’t really felt at all until the very end of the game. I Am Dead is really a casual, laid-back experience through and through. The whole nature of the game is to uncover character’s memories about other people who have passed on and search for missing items of importance.
That’s really what I Am Dead is: a hidden object game with short stories mixed in. There’s a bit more to it, but that’s essentially what it boils down to. Memories are presented in brief scenes with scrambled images that you’ll have to align properly to see clearly. Doing so will allow you to move on to the next scene until the memory is complete. There’s no way to fail, and as long as you get the image close enough to where it’s suppose to be, it will automatically snap into place. Completing a memory will reveal an item of importance to that character, which you will then have to find.
The reason for finding these items is so that your ghost dog, Sparky, can smell the essence of the spirit they are associated with. After finding them all, Sparky will be able to run around the area and collect the wisp-like essences, then bind them to the specter that resides there. Once you’ve restored the apparition, you’ll be able to talk to them in the hopes of enlisting them as the island’s new spiritual custodian. Considering there are several chapters in the game, each taking place in a different location on the island with their own ghostly figureheads, it’s safe to assume that you won’t get a “yes” from the first phantom you ask.
Still, hearing the memories about the deceased and the island itself do make the fictional town of Shelmerston feel more genuine. I Am Dead captures the feel of a small seaside town very well, with many of the denizens connecting to one another in some way. The memories also touch on a surprising amount of deeper themes, such as regret, misunderstanding, animal rights, and loss. They’re not all fascinating glimpses into real-world issues, but enough of them were to give I Am Dead a measure of insightful depth. Most of them are surface-level fluff though.
Although, I Am Dead isn’t only about listening to people’s memories. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll have to find mementos that have have special meaning to those whose memories you’ve seen. This is where the bulk of the gameplay comes in. Morris has a special ability in death that allows him to “slice” through objects to see through their layers. You’ll have to click on various objects to inspect them, then zoom in and out to use Morris’s X-ray ability to see through them and hopefully find the missing item. Each person’s special memento is hidden somewhere in the small section they occupy, so there isn’t much of a challenge there.
However, there are a few extra things you can find that do add a bit more bulk and difficulty. The first are Grenkins, tiny island spirits that are released once you find them. Unlike the mementos, these aren’t discovered simply by finding the correct object to inspect, although that is part of it. When there’s a Grenkin in the area, Sparky will bark to let you know she senses one and an image of some geometric shapes will appear in the bottom right corner. You’ll have to find the right object and then zoom in and tilt it just right to match the pattern you’re shown. Doing this will set the Grenkin free. It adds nothing to the story and you won’t get anything for finding them all (except for a trophy or achievement), but it’s still fun to have something else to do.
Then there’s my personal favorite: the riddles. You can get these by interacting with specific posters found in each section. Upon doing so, you’ll meet Mr. Whitstable, a laughing goat-headed jester that gives you cryptic clues about specific items he wants you to find within a short amount of time. Honestly, this is the only challenging aspect of I Am Dead. It’s also highly missable. I only discovered the riddles by accident in the second area, so I missed them completely in the opening lighthouse section. The riddles will have you looking for things that are often very well hidden, so considering you won’t have much time to search around for them, it’s a good idea to thoroughly scout the area before starting them.
Finding the objects can be difficult at times, not necessarily because they’re well hidden, but rather that it’s not always clear what you’re looking at. I Am Dead is not a good looking game by any means. I understand that they weren’t going for realism, but the rudimentary graphics make many of the objects look like colorful blobs. It’s hard to find what you’re looking for in a sea of nondescript shapes. The character designs suffer from this as well, so they have to rely on the vocal performances to sell the emotion being conveyed.
Which leads me to I Am Dead‘s sound design. It’s… not great. There are neat details with the sound effects when you’re zooming in and out, such as soft textures sounding squishy and liquids having bubbling and gurgling sounds. The voice acting on the other hand is another matter. Some of the performances are good, like David Shaughnessy’s portrayal of sweet Morris Lupton, but many others are downright cringeworthy. The soundtrack is decent, albeit somewhat forgettable with the exception of the tune that plays whenever you discover a memento. That melody will get stuck in your head for days.
I wanted to like I Am Dead, I really did. There are aspects of the game I enjoyed, such as the deeper themes to some of the memories and the sense of a genuine small town community. However, with nothing else to do except find hidden objects and peer through things, the gameplay quickly felt repetitive and tedious. It also feels disjointed, as most of the game focuses on the smaller interactions with Shelmerston’s locals, but the overarching plot takes a drastic turn that doesn’t fit with the overall tone of the game. There’s absolutely no challenge in I Am Dead, aside from the easily missable riddles. I understand that some games are about the journey and not the challenge, but most of I Am Dead is a bore. If you’re looking for a casual and uplifting gaming experience about death and finding yourself, try Spiritfarer instead.
Even understanding that this game isn’t going for a realistic look, I Am Dead is so rudimentary in its aesthetic that it’s borderline ugly.
The main focus of the gameplay is investigating objects and slicing through their layers like an X-ray. It’s an interesting mechanic, but without much else to add to the gameplay, it feels stale by the end.
The soundtrack was pretty decent and the tune that plays when you discover a memento will get stuck in your head. The voice acting ranges from charming to cringeworthy.
I Am Dead is essentially a hidden object game with a twist, but not much else. The short stories told through memories of the island’s inhabitants make the small town feel alive, but the stakes aren’t felt until the very end.
Final Verdict: 6.0
I Am Dead is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of I Am Dead was provided by the publisher.