I Am Dead review: Where's Waldo's ghost?

Annapurna Interactive, Hollow Ponds, and designer Richard Hogg have put together a puzzling story of ghosts and a race to save the living in I Am Dead.

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I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for when I checked into Annapurna’s latest quirky adventure, I Am Dead. Developed by Hollow Ponds and designer Richard Hogg (Wilmot’s Warehouse), I knew I was in for a puzzle and a narrative about ghosts, but I Am Dead has quite some quirk and charm past what I expected. It’s an interesting experiment, not quite in bending blocks, turning keys, or meddling in contraptions, but rather in using ghostly influence to see the world the way you need to see it to find answers. There’s some extra baggage here that I find unnecessary, but the narrative and gameplay loop of I Am Dead is definitely an extraordinary one.

Tribulations of a Dead Man

In I Am Dead, you play the role of Morris Lupton: A kindly old recently deceased fellow hanging around the tiny island of Shelmerston where he once lived. While going about his business, Mr. Lupton discovers the spirit of his likewise deceased pet and best friend Sparky, who tells him there is trouble brewing on the island. See, Shelmerston is home to a dormant volcano. Or rather, the volcano is supposed to be dormant, but it has started becoming active because it was kept in check by a Custodian who soothes the island. That Custodian is weakening to a point where they can’t keep the volcano calm for much longer. If the people of Shelmerston are to survive, a new Custodian must be found and it can’t be someone who died recently, so unfortunately Lupton is off the list of possible candidates.

This sets Lupton and Sparky on a quest around the island to convene with a number of ghosts who could be reasonable candidates for a Custodian replacement. To find these ghosts and convene with them, Sparky needs to smell possessions from their lives that were precious to them. That means entering the memories of people precious to their living existence, learning about their treasured objects from memory slideshows, and then discovering said objects in the expansive environments they inhabited. Through both the memories, the objects themselves, and the convening with ghosts, I Am Dead has a lot of story to tell about each character and it does a very unique and engaging job of telling it.

The story takes some expected beats throughout (slight spoiler, the first ghost you find does not want to be a Custodian, putting an end to this journey in short order), but generally it’s a relaxing and unique way to tell an enjoyable narrative about Shelmerston, its inhabitants, and the cause of the volcano’s activity.

I spy dead guy

So how does it work, this whole finding artifacts thing? Well, let’s start at memories. When you discover someone with a relevant memory of your target ghost, they’ll have really obvious bubble-like animations flowing from them. Poking them takes you into their psyche where a memory of the deceased plays out. It’s fuzzy though, so you have to cycle forward like a kaleidoscope until the image becomes clear, and then the next memory segment will play and you’ll work to unfuzzy the next image. It keeps going until you lock onto a precious possession to the deceased, after which it will be findable in the environment.

So that takes us to the next part of locating objects. As a ghost, you can lock on to objects, sway about them, and zoom in through their solid being. For instance, take a gym bag. If you lock onto the object with a click, it comes center screen and you can rotate it. Zoom in and the surface of the gym bag will fade as you pass through it. This allows you to see that there are water bottles, towels, and even a secret compartment of hidden cupcakes inside, displayed for you in profile as if you just cut a burrito in half lengthwise. You can also lock onto objects within objects. For instance, you can lock onto the waterbottle in that gym bag to explore it individually and even zoom in on the bottle itself to see if it’s just water inside.

Through this layered method of environmental exploration and discovery, you can examine objects in the environment until you find your way to the object that was precious to your ghostly target, after which, locking onto it will mark it off your list. Each ghost has five objects associated with a living being’s memory of them, hidden throughout their environment, and waiting to be found. Once you have them all, Sparky will lock onto their ghostly presence and you’ll gather their essence in a quick minigame to put them back together and engage with them, essentially ending a level. In this way, I Am Dead is a very ethereal kind of I Spy or Where’s Waldo that’s just filled to the brim with narration and fun context to go with its clever method of puzzle solving.

Distractions in a race against time

It should be mentioned that the core object-finding and narration isn’t all you can do in I Am Dead. Throughout each level, there are also a number of extras to explore. One of those extras are Grenkins. These odd-shaped little spirits are scattered around the environments you’ll explore. When in the presence of one, Sparky will let you know and share a shape you should be looking for. What this means is that you need to find an object and then rotate it in a way that its dissolved or distorted edges and features makes it look like the outline Sparky shows you. For instance, observing a pot and then zooming into it until the dissolved edges of the pot and a sausage within the pot will make it look like something close to what you’re looking for. Once you’re on the correct object, the image will pulse letting you know you’re in the right place, and when you get close enough, the object will somewhat rumble, magnetizing your view slightly towards the correct orientation, so it makes things a bit easier to deal with. When it’s all lined up proper, a Grenkin will pop out and be gathered in your collection.

Then there’s Mr. Whitstable. This derpy looking clown goat thing is lurking about in each environment. Find him and he’ll ask you to find five very specific objects hidden around the environment whose descriptions are obscured by Mr. Whitstable’s riddled antics. Once you select a riddle, you have a limited amount of time to find the object Whitstable is hinting at, but never fear if you don’t. You can try any riddle as much as you’d like. I’ll give you one for free as an example. Whitstable might tell you to find a “Rabbit’s Run”. Very close by, you’ll find a rabbit’s burrow, and if you lock onto the burrow and zoom in, the tunnels will reveal a pair of shoes to you, tucked away in these bunnies’ abode. Poking the object will solve the riddle and mark it off Mr. Whitstable’s list.

I do want to mention that while these add some extension to the overall game, they’re not my favorite things. Don’t get me wrong. They serve a purpose, but they also break up the natural and relaxing flow of the game. I found myself often pausing my core progress through I Am Dead to make sure I collected these riddles and Grenkins completely before I’d get back to the exploration, precious possessions, and narrations of ghosts and memories I was thoroughly enjoying. I wish there had been a more natural way to work these asides into the overall flow of I Am Dead instead of feeling like extra chores on your way to the goods of the game.

I Am Satisfied

I Am Dead has a very interesting story to tell, a colorful and varied environment in which to tell it, and a very cool way of going about the telling. The use of ghostly powers to explore, but never directly interact with the world, yet still solve puzzles was quite fun and unique. The more I unraveled of the mystery, the more intrigued I was and the more I wanted to know about each of the people presented to me, their lives, their connections, and the island they lived on. The additional bits like Grenkins and Mr. Whitstable, while amusing, don’t really do enough to add to that core experience in my opinion outside of being an extra challenge for the puzzle-minded, but the story is well worth the romp. I Am Dead is a veritable search-and-find like no other I have ever seen before with a charming world to match. I don’t know when my time will come, but when it does, I should hope any possible afterlife might be a little something like this game.


This review is based on a PC digital edition provided by the publisher. I Am Dead will be available on October 8, 2020 on Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
I Am Dead
8
Pros
  • A rather colorful and fun setting
  • Very interesting narrative to explore
  • Incredibly unique method of puzzle-solving
  • Relaxing core gameplay throughout
Cons
  • The additional puzzles can feel too abstract
  • Gremkins and Mr. Whitstable feel tacked on and distracting
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