Wednesday, March 14, 2012

REVIEW - Journey.

A hooded figure sits in the sand, motionless. The camera pans around, and a mountain sweeps into view. 

At the sight of it, the figure springs to its feet. It walks forward, into the endless desert sands, singing as it goes. Soon, it comes to a holy place, and has a vision. 

An angelic figure appears to it, and it sings the same song we do. It sings the song of the mountain, where all must go...

You definitely need to check out Journey, but given that it would take you about an hour to do so raises questions about the game's... well, gaminess.

Video games are arguably one of the more cost-effective means of entertainment, nowadays. If I spent twelve bucks to go see an awesome two-hour movie and you spent sixty to play a wonderful hundred-hour game, one of us is making more economic sense than the other. That's a general principle that many gamers can agree on, which Journey demands you turn a blind eye to.

A mere seventy minutes in length, Journey hopes that the experience it offers will be so meaningful that it renders its fifteen dollar price tag moot. It's more than worth it, if you hunger for something different that's not too different, on a mechanical level.

It's certainly worth it if you place a premium on games that will probably make you tear up at the end, and find yourself forgiving of profound pretentiousness. You must be - after all, you read this blog.

Journey is a beautifully-constructed experience. The haunting music, use of (sand physics) tech and stark, striking art direction are all sublime, and it offers a very unique spin on multiplayer by making it an entirely anonymous affair.

Strolling through the sands, you'll hear someone singing in the distance. High chirps and low thrums, they dance across the scenery with a fraternal, effortless grace, and there is no hovering gamer tag to yank you from the experience.

Whether or not you choose to engage with these fellow wanderers is entirely up to you. Oftentimes I found myself ignoring them, but when you discover you have actually formed a connection with one of these faceless fellow wanderers, suffering together and protecting each other, you may find yourself possessed by a desire to reach out, and reassuringly squeeze their hand - or thank them for being there when you needed someone. At the very least, in that it is remarkable.

Yes, suffering does occur. Journey isn't all picturesque dunes and golden skies, and after the first third of the game it does a great job of shuttling you from one unique, memorable set piece to the next, each of which dramatically changes the tone of the game.

At first you'll be grinning like a kid on Christmas when you find you're playing a platformer made by the Flower team, but the game quickly reveals itself to be more about atmosphere than mechanics. As a game where you run and (sometimes) jump, it's merely serviceable - significantly propped up by its stellar presentation.

It is, at least, very cool to discover you can use your ability to sing in concert with fluttering bits of cloth in the environment. When you sing to them, they'll sweep you up into the sky, providing an unusual jump mechanic that feels very rewarding when chained together in a series of perfectly-timed songs and swoops.

The game's limited mechanical variety and near-total lack of gameplay progression ensures it has relatively little to offer, but at least ThatGameCompany was wise enough to ensure Journey isn't bogged down by the merest scrap of filler. Yes, it's short - but it's also lean. There are no sequences that should have been shortened, no points where you find yourself bored of its same-old singing, flapping, swirling platforming.

Journey is successful on nearly all fronts. Its incredible art direction and uplifting, echoing score are more than invitation enough to strike off into the desert, but what will stay with you for far longer is the smorgasbord of feelings it inspires. Joy, fear, camaraderie, loneliness, relief, wonder, courage - all leveled squarely at you, over the course of a mere seventy minutes.

As a game - or at least, what we understand a game to be - it's a bit bare-bones, but as an experience it shares the soaring, gorgeous spirit of the brilliant Flower. ThatGameCompany certainly fulfilled their ambition of creating an interactive parable, but to be honest I felt some of the wordless narrative was a bit more heavy-handed than was necessary.

Though not without flaws, it's a visually stunning, emotionally gripping experience - and let's be honest, that's a lot more than you'll get in most movie theaters these days.

  • consistently beautiful art direction, constantly changing in tone
  • gorgeous music
  • dynamic sand is cool sand - thanks, Sony Santa Monica!
  • very unique, affecting multiplayer
  • all killer, no filler
  • a successfully-realized video game parable
  • singing to make fluttering bits of cloth swing you into the sky never gets old
  • similar to Flower, you may find this to be a deeply moving experience
  • ugh, what a marvelous ending
  • the platforming is bare-bones
  • they should have completely cut out the tableaux and visions - it eliminates a great deal of the world's mystery, and makes the whole thing feel a bit pretentious
  • fifteen dollars is a bit steep for such a short game, but when the game is so totally unique, it's pretty hard to complain about price.

A walk to remember.

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