A puzzle-box game along the lines of Monument Valley or The Room, The Almost Gone has you poking and prodding at beautiful miniature dioramas of homes and neighbourhoods to uncover the story of the family who lived there. Set in a liminal space between life and death, it is a surreal few hours of brain-teasers that revolve around secret keys, patterns and and hidden numbers.
Its clean architectural lines and calm palette contrast with the dreamlike (or nightmarish) puzzle logic: on inserting a wedding tape into a VHS player, the TV blows out in a snowstorm to reveal a wedding cake behind the screen; thick tree roots and black tendrils snake through otherwise pristine living spaces; an apartment is full of scale models of buildings, creating an unsettling Escher-esque feel.
I did once have to resort to a developer walkthrough to find out what to do with a laser pointer, but otherwise I moved unimpeded through these puzzles, absorbed in the pleasurable busywork of rotating and scanning rooms for clues and objects of interest: a number scrawled behind a painting, a poster of constellations, something hidden inside an innocuous trinket. The puzzle design is impressively disciplined, with no red herrings to throw you off. Once you’ve found something interesting in a scene, it’s picked out and highlighted like a Fritz Kahn illustration, saving you from poring over the same dioramas for ages in search of a way forward.
The storytelling, however, is less focused. The Almost Gone touches on addiction, abuse, neglect, murder and more, all in less than three hours’ play. It’s a bit much, and in combination with slightly imperfect translation and an opaque ending, it means the narrative is less satisfying than the puzzle-solving. Some chapters play out better than others, but a more intimate tale might have worked better here. I’m reminded of The Gardens Between, a similar puzzle game, whose straightforwardly touching tale of separated childhood friends lands better than this tangle of more sinister plot threads. The Almost Gone draws you in with a sinister family mystery, but its aesthetic beauty and strange, succinct puzzles end up carrying it.