This review should start with a confession: thatgamecompanyâ€™s last title, Flower, is one of my favourite video games. Its simplicity, the way it captures the joy of flight, its meditative leanings â€” all of it combined to make a highly immersive experience that was very much a game, but a different game to most I had played before.
You could say Iâ€™ve been looking forward to Journey, then.
So what is it? At its most basic and mechanical, itâ€™s a third-person adventure game. You guide an avatar through various desert-based landscapes, solving environmental puzzles, collecting power-ups, and moving onto the next level. After about three hours, youâ€™ll have reached the end.
Stripped of almost every element, it sounds like a rather alarmingly slight and standard game, right? But the beauty of Journey lies in how every element, from the graphics to the audio to the gameplay to a thousand whimsical little touches, merge together to form a whole that will suck you in and leave you entranced. Letâ€™s break it down:
I wonâ€™t dwell on the story much, because spoilers tend to suck. Suffice to say, what youâ€™re given here is very similar to Flower: a premise that quickly puts you in charge of an avatar amidst some pretty scenery and a handful of unanswered questions. You are a red-cloaked traveller in the middle of a desert. Climbing a nearby dune, you get your first sight of a tall and distant mountain that becomes the focal point of the entire game. You get the idea that you need to reach the top of that mountain, but thatâ€™s pretty much all you know.
And like in Flower, a simple, understated, yet powerful story weaves itself around you. Thereâ€™s no dialogue â€” everything is slowly revealed to you through both the environment and animated vignettes. While it starts out simple and mysterious, by the time you reach the peak of that mountain, youâ€™ll be well entrenched in the narrative that Journey spins. And I had better stop there so you can experience the rest for yourself.
The first thing you do in Journey is walk around â€” and itâ€™s clear even from here that a lot of attention has been paid to every aspect of this game. The animation of your character, the shifting sand beneath his or her feet: it feels weighty and right. I always remember Shigeru Miyamoto talking about how, in Mario 64, they spent a long, long time with a prototype simply working on getting Marioâ€™s movement right. Well, it feels like the same thing happened here, and it really pays off.
Climbing up sand dunes causes your character to move more slowly, bending over as they struggle to make the ascent. But then, on the other side, they slide down the sand as if they were snowboarding. Itâ€™s a very simple effort/reward scenario, but a very cool one at the same time.
The environments have obviously been crafted with love. As you move through dunes, onto the ruins of massive buildings in the sand, and beyond, everything feels like it should be there. Exploring every nook and cranny of these places is a joy in and of itself. Whether youâ€™re passing small plaques that might be graves, or leaping over giant broken bridges jutting out of the rock, it all adds a sense of place.
Early on in the game, youâ€™ll pick up a little piece of cloth that becomes a short scarf wrapped around your neck. While itâ€™s glowing, you can tap X to jump into the air. It seems like a one-shot item: use it once and youâ€™ll need to find other pieces of floating cloth to recharge it.
Throughout your travels, however, youâ€™ll find glowing symbols that increase the length of your scarf, allowing you to soar higher and higher into the air. If you ferret around all the environments, youâ€™ll eventually have a scarf that allows you to reach some satisfyingly high places.
A lot of the time, though, youâ€™ll find there are a lot of cloth shapes â€” even cloth creatures â€” that nudge you skyward. The game weaves moments of running and sliding with moments of flight, organically varying up how you move around the levels. Needless to say, it feels good.
Hitting Circle, meanwhile, causes your character to make a brief musical noise and emit a small sphere of light. Hold Circle down for longer, and theyâ€™ll leap into the air and unleash a much larger sphere. This is your primary way of interacting with certain elements in the world, whether illuminating giant ribbons of cloth or activating stone tablets.
Oh, and all of these gameplay elements tie seamlessly into the story. I wonâ€™t say how, but youâ€™ll pick up on it. Suffice to say, you might get attached to your scarf.
Continue reading on page 2.