There's nothing quite like finding a toaster tucked away in the depths of an armchair labeled "for emergency use only" to make you truly appreciate how wonderfully quirky a game is. And sure, you might find yourself saying, "A toaster in a chair? That's absurd!" But as strange as it might sound, on the island of Shelmerston in I am Dead, a puzzle adventure game from developers Hollow Ponds and Richard Hogg, it actually makes some kind of sense. In the shoes of recently deceased museum curator Morris Lupton, you find yourself caught up in a spot of bother when it becomes apparent that the island you call home is under threat thanks to the actually-not-so-dormant volcano.
Release Date: October 8, 2020
Platform(s): PC, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Hollow Ponds, Richard Hogg
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
In the face of an impending disaster, there's no resting in peace for Morris just yet, but what is a dead man to do? With the spirit of your beloved canine companion Sparky at your side, you set out to find a new custodian to protect the island using your new-found ghostly ability. Yes, in the afterlife Morris discovers he has a "slicing" ability that enables him to see inside anything and everything, including the heads of living people to see their memories. It's a bit like ghostly X-Ray vision, and there's something undeniably satisfying about letting your nosy side thrive by looking inside every object you come across.
During my time playing I Am Dead on the Switch, I'm utterly charmed by its unique quirkiness, which truly sets it apart from anything else. Brought to life with brilliant voice acting and a delightfully colourful art style, the journey Morris takes me on is a pure joy from start to finish, and with all of its eccentricities and humour, I catch myself smiling more times than I can count throughout.
Memories and mementos
From the opening few minutes, it's immediately clear when you first meet Morris that Shelmerston means a great deal to him. As you stroll along the sandy shores of the beach, he talks fondly about the little island with so much warmth and heart. I soak up the lilac-hued skies and see the orange sun peeking over the horizon that seems to warm the edges of the clouds above, and I can't help but already want to share Morris' idyllic view of this place. After seeing some of the island sights and catching my first glimpse of the volcano, I'm led to a bench made in loving memory of Morris, which states that he was the museum curator who collected the stories of the island.
It makes sense then, that even in death, Morris continues to collect the stories of Shelmerston. In order to find a new custodian, Sparky tells you there are several ghosts of deceased residents hanging around the island who could fit the bill of a new protector. Your first port of call is the lighthouse, which is used as the local yoga retreat. A fellow by the name of Pete Noach who used to run the retreat is the first prospect who could be the new custodian.
In order to track the ghost of Noach down, you have to view the memories of those still living who knew Pete in order to find mementos that will help Sparky sniff out the spirit. The lighthouse is split up into different rooms that you view by going up or down, and little thought bubbles appear above a character when they have a memory to share. If a character has a memory in a particular room, it indicates that a memento can be found in that location.
Using the ghostly X-ray, you can actually go inside their cranium and watch the memory unfold. Viewing a memory is like a simple mini-puzzle in and of itself that always works in the same way. The memory plays out like a story, with the person narrating what happened alongside an illustration that paints a picture of each moment they're describing.
The image is distorted and you have to move it with the ZR button until it lines up properly to keep the story of the memory going. The memories give you insight into the lives of the people of Shelmerston, and with every one I view, I start to get a real feel for the island and its inhabitants. It's such a wonderful way of recounting the story of the island and plays on the idea that even after we're gone, we still live on in the memories of those we met.
An island has layers
At the heart of each memory is a memento - an item that's tied to that memory that you need to locate in order to help Sparky find the spirit of your prospect. Once you uncover what the memento is, you have to search for it by using your ghostly slicing ability on objects in the room. After you've found all of the mementos in a location, you also get to fly around as Sparky complete with a barking button to sniff out the prospect. From looking through wardrobes to slicing through toy robots and toilets, there is all manner of objects to use your X-Ray vision on. It's a little like a ghostly version hide and seek. The memory can also give you little hints about where a memento might be found.
Essentially the X-ray vision takes the idea of ghosts being able to pass through a door to the next level by letting you peel back layers and look at the core of all manner of items. The rooms themselves become mini dioramas when you interact with them, and your cursor will indicate whether you can inspect an individual item. Overall, the slicing mechanic is so satisfying to use, and the true joy of I am Dead is whiling away a lot of time looking through objects just to see what's hidden underneath.
With so much attention to detail on every level, I'm rewarded for my curiosity time and time again. Packed full of surprises and silly little hidden gems that never fail to draw a smile from me, you never quite know what you'll find next as you inspect a box tucked away in the corner, or look inside a beehive. The detail isn't just in what's beneath the surface of objects, though. Every character walking around a location will have a name, and even when you can't use your X-ray vision on something, there's usually a fun little descriptor to tell you more about what you're looking at.
While you do end up falling into a bit of routine with the mechanics of hunting down a new custodian, there are some additional challenges in each level to add some more puzzle goodness to your adventure. Little spirits known as Grenkins can be found in certain rooms, and every location has a certain number of them for you to find. Sparky will pop up to let you know one's nearby, and a silhouetted shape will appear on the corner of the screen that moves when you land on the right object. Using the slicing ability, you have to rotate and move the object to match the shape on the screen, and doing so will uncover the Grenkin. Some are trickier to find than others, but it's a fulfilling little extra to complete on the side.
Outside of Grenkins, there are riddles in different locations to try and solve. Given to you by a laughing, ruff-wearing giraffe called Mr Whistable, these riddles present the most difficult challenge in the game. Aside from solving the riddle in the first place to work out what object it's hinting at finding, there are so many items dotted around that pinpoint a particular item can be pretty tricky if you don't know where to look. You're also timed when you trigger a riddle, so you have to be quick in order to reach the item in question. You don't need to complete these riddles to progress through the main game, so it's just an additional challenge you can take on if you want to.
From toast-loving fish folk (hence the toaster in a chair) to anthropomorphic birds, and a critic who's shaped like a pear, I am Dead is fit to bursting with personality and colour. It's such a delight to discover everything the island of Shelmerston has to offer, and Morris Lupton and his very good pup Sparky are great leading characters who quickly stole my heart with their lovable charm. Complete with its own special blend of humour, unique mechanics, and a pleasant laid-back feel, this is one puzzle adventure that will satisfy your curious side and offer you something a little different. Oh, and if you're anything like me, you'll be left with an overwhelming craving for a slice of toast.