Pros: Beautiful in every way
Cons: Requires very little involvement
Dear Esther is beautiful, in every sense of the word.
The atmosphere is eerie and peaceful at the same time, the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack chimes in at just the right times while leaving you in silence for most, the voice acting is superbly done, the story is a great blend of melancholy with a twist of hope, and the graphics are some of the prettiest I have ever seen.
The game starts with you, The Player, starting out on a dock, with a wrecked boat behind you. You have no tools, no weapons, no skills, no waypoints, no destinations, no nothing. All you have are legs, your inquisitiveness, and a flashlight for when things get dark. The story is esoteric and vague at first, but as you explore, pieces will start to come together, and you will slowly start to figure things out.
The story introduces The Player, Esther, The Narrator, Donnelly, Paul, and Jakobsen, and through interspersed amounts of dialog by The Narrator, weaves them all into a story that is quite sad and spiritual, and requires no small amount of involvement from the player. When I say involvement, I mean that, as with many things in life, what you get out of the story depends almost entirely on you. There are many different ways that the story can possibly come together, and the meaning of it all comes down to your perception, and your play style.
There are hundreds of visual and audio cues throughout the game to help you come to your own conclusion, but you should not expect to come away with a firm answer. I know I didn't. Is the island real or fake? Is The Player actually Esther, or is Esther The Player's wife or daughter? Are Donnelly and Jakobsen actual people, or mental representations of aspects of The Player's life? Or is it The Narrator's life? Is The Player The Narrator? Why are there diagrams of cells, electrical circuits, and molecules on the walls in glowing paint? How come there are bible verses written out on cliff sides? What's the significance of the oft-repeated #21? There are many, MANY more questions to ask, but they would spoil large sections of the plot.
The true beauty of this game is that no one has all the answers. After your playthrough(s), feel free to do a Google search for the meaning, but you may just come away more confused. It's not a matter of who paid the most attention. The narrative pieces as well as minor details about the island itself change from playthrough to playthrough, so your experience (colored by your perception of it) could be almost entirely different from someone else's. There are, of course, certain elements that stay the same, and the overarching plotline doesn't change, but there are enough minor variances that your understanding and interpretation of the plot may change completely.
The whole point of the game is not to know the developer's intent, but rather to gather clues and look inward, using your own philosophical bend to piece together a cohesive story.
I know there are millions of people who do not care for this type of open-ended storytelling (I always considered myself among them), but this experience was so well-done, and so utterly gorgeous, that I was glued to my chair the entire time. Even as of this writing, I'm still puzzling over elements of the story in my head, and trying to make sense of my feelings. This is an experience that will stick with me for years.
In the strictest sense, Dear Esther is not really a game. It is more like an interactive art piece. It doesn't last very long, and hardly requires anything from you other than your attention, your exploration, and your curiosity. It is a shining example of the experience being vastly more important than the outcome. It is a brilliant experiment on the classic tried-and-true video game formula, and is one you could have water-cooler conversations about for months on end.
I heartily recommend you pick it up and experience it. It is one of the more memorable gaming experiences I have had, and it is one that I will gladly return to later on, to try to find some still-undiscovered piece of the puzzle.