Reviews// Journey

Posted 1 Mar 2012 15:00 by
It’s very difficult to write a review about Journey without inadvertently sounding pretentious. But in an industry where Hollywood blockbuster storylines are shoved down our throats, big burly musclemen with incredible superpowers are our heroes and the holy grail of online multiplayer is a shotgun to the face followed by a celebratory teabagging, ThatGameCompany is the unintentional ‘hipster’ of the game development world.

The indie studio, led by game design genius Jenova Chen, has a history of creating artistic interactive titles that set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd. Flow and Flower both contained messages of evolution and nature, using simple motion control mechanics to direct objects and creatures in a minimalist setting. Journey is an even bolder, and much more personable experience than its past releases.

As the name implies, the core philosophy behind this equally minimalist third-person adventure is the journey that your nameless character embarks upon. When the game begins, your nomadic virtual self awakens on a sandy dune. When you walk towards a glowing object in the horizon, the title rolls in and you understand that the aim is to travel to the source of the other-worldly light - a mountain peak that seems oh so far away.

This adventure is told entirely via visual clues and contains absolutely no dialogue - the point is that whatever this journey represents and the situations you face are completely up to your own interpretation as a gamer. There is a very small amount of background story that is offered to you, told from altars that outline something of a tapestry of the world’s history, but even this is rather open-ended.

But the real story that ThatGameCompany wants to tell in Journey is your very own. Without giving you any premise, any clues as to what you should do and no real backstory to speak of, playing this game really feels like you’re carving out your own little adventure. And from the very beginning, your story will begin with a feeling of utter powerlessness.

At no point throughout the journey do you obtain any special power-ups or special skills. You’re at the mercy of the elements, abilities limited to only the movement of your character (with the left analogue stick) and a jump-and-fly that’s restricted to a meter. This is represented by a scarf - collecting glowing symbols hidden throughout the game will extend its length and allow you to jump higher and farther. But, you have to keep your power replenished by standing near floating swarms of fabric.

Although you’ll never really be too far away from a scarf-refuel point, this arbitrary limitation forces you to think about how you play in a completely different way. I have always taken the jump button for granted in action-platformers - here I’m trying to be as resourceful as possible, scoping out horizons and judging how much use I could get from my sole power until I reach the next current of cloth.

The slow-paced, thought-provoking nature of your own powers allows you to spend a lot of time taking in the scenery around you. And the environments you travel through are nothing short of stunning. Watching sand kick up around you as you trundle towards a broken bridge is really nice to see, and being able to take a breather as you soak in the far-reaching horizon from atop a dune hill (after spending a few moments clambering up there) is a good example of the kind of spectacle that Journey is.

Most of the challenges you face in the game will be platform-based - which makes you even more conscious of your jump power. To aid you, swarms of fabric will do more than just replenish your scarf meter. By sounding a chime - the only other ability you have in the game - you can briefly control these pieces of cloth and have them carry you upwards like a sudden gust of wind.

Later levels feature similar environmental aids - an underwater level will have long pieces of cloth bunched together like coral that can be used to ascend through the stage, while chiming pieces of frozen fabric into life in a snow stage will allow you to ‘warm up’ and get a bit more of a footing in dangerous weather conditions.

Without a doubt, one of the most exciting and fulfilling things about playing Journey is in playing with someone else in the game’s unique online multiplayer mode. This may seem like an odd thing to say when the premise is all about finding one’s self and surviving the elements alone, but Journey’s multiplayer is presented in such a way that your feeling of loneliness is not affected. In fact, when you inevitably leave your partner, those feelings grow even stronger.

The multiplayer mode is a seamless feature that takes place wherever you are in the game world. You are paired up with a random PSN player who is in the same area, and it’s up to the pair of you to decide whether you want to continue the journey together or alone. You are not given any details about your anonymous companion, and there’s no way to communicate with them other than the aforementioned chime ability.

But as alien as two random players are when match-made in this fashion, there’s an almost immediate understanding of a mutual goal (whatever your interpretation of that goal happens to be). You soon start to realise that sticking together really makes sense in progressing through the game world. Keeping close will allow both players to automatically replenish each other’s scarf meters without requiring a fabric source.

This becomes invaluable as, without giving too much away, the environments you explore each have a way of manipulating your limited powers - in some cases even stripping you bare of them, making you feel truly helpless against the elements. It’s emotional enough experiencing this on your own, but has a much greater impact when you spend a lot of time traveling with an anonymous player, only to see them disappear right before your very eyes. Which is what happened to me.

After your play session, the game lets you know the usernames of the PSN users that joined you on your adventure. As it turned out, my Journey companion happened to have a connection issue and had to sign out. I received a message from the player explaining this to me, and he was clearly as encapsulated by the game as I was. “It was only when I logged back on did I realise how alone and isolated I was,” he wrote. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The only problem I have with Journey is that it ends. That, and you can ‘end’ it in record time - I finished the game in a two-hour sitting. That may seem too short for some (and the prospect of replaying the adventure again may not be a reasonable argument), but to dismiss the game on its length is to miss the point of the Journey experience entirely. This isn’t something that should be charged though by design. The real beauty is in the game’s surroundings, to reflect on your character’s solitary adventure and to feel the isolation that will inevitably befall you.

It’s not hard to ignore all of that though, in all honesty. But even if you are a harefooted gamer, there are many stunning set pieces that will make you pause, if not have your artistic heart skip a beat. Sand-surfing down dunes as the setting sun bleeds crimson into the earth is just one breathtaking example. And there’s one or two major surprises that will stop you right in your tracks and have you running the other way. This game is a roller-coaster ride of emotions.

Journey is ThatGameCompany’s finest achievement. The gameplay is gripping, the premise (or lack of it) is incredibly exciting and the dazzling spectacle of the world around you gives you a genuine sense of wonder and joy. A truly fantastic example of interactive entertainment, and a title that every gamer worth their salt needs to play.

Pros
- Stunning graphical style
- Emotionally rewarding experience
- Excellent online multiplayer

Cons
- Quite short
- Could have done with a few more environments

SPOnG Score: 10/10
Companies:
Games: Journey

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