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Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Journey

A magical multiplayer experience.

By Callum Rakestraw

Journey is a very simple game. It's about a journey to a mountain far in the distance through a land buried by sand. That's it. And yet, for such a basic premise, Journey is quite complex. It elicits a web of emotions, running the gantlet from happiness to sadness, from excitement to despair, and so much more, all over the course of a two hour trip. It establishes connections between players -- strong ones -- without words, but merely through each other’s company, facing the trek together.
It's so much more than Thatgamecompany's previous works, because it doesn't feel purely experimental (flOw) or overtly artsy (Flower). It's a game trying something new and confident in its ideas, never beating you over the head with its themes; precisely what a game like this should be.
Journey tells a wordless story. Its tale of an expedition to a mountain is an enigmatic one, using visuals, music, and gameplay to convey. You control a figure in a red cloak who’s able to interact with cloth and tapestry in mysterious ways, such as restoring damaged strands or calling on clusters of living tapestry pieces to ascend. What you are, exactly, is never explained or even hinted at, just as the world and what happened to it is never told. Murals hint at a civilization that once was, remnants of buried structures lending a sense of what the world looked like at one time. Journey never makes anything clear, however; it always shrouds the land in the unknown.
Movement is Journey's sole function. All of the game's mechanics serve that one point. Flight overcomes obstacles and lets you cover ground quickly (a frequently growing scarf your character wears powers this ability). Speech calls on creatures who will recharge your jump/flight abilities and carry you onward and upward. There are no battles, no puzzles, no challenge. Only walking.

Got a long ways to go. At least you won’t be alone.

This journey isn't one you have to take alone, though. Throughout your travels you'll randomly encounter other players out of the blue. No notification that someone has entered is given, nor is their PlayStation Network ID shown. They just appear; strangers walking the same road as you. Strangers that you're able to accompany, should you choose. Nothing ahead of you is impossible to achieve without another person, so it is entirely possible to go on alone. Just keep running forward, ignoring the cries of the person trying to grab your attention. They'll fall behind eventually. But it is awfully lonely out there...
Moving forward alone is a different experience than a shared one. Crossing the seemingly endless dunes alone doesn't affect anything on a mechanical level, but on an emotional level.
That's what's special about multiplayer in Journey. Even with no actual speech (you can only chirp at varying tempos), and no clear identity, somehow bonds manage to be forged. Something changes after you meet another. Suddenly you become attached, afraid to leave each other's side. Working together and assisting each other get around (you can keep each other afloat -- jumping, in other words -- by chirping while airborne) make a lone journey intolerable. It all just seems so... sad, trudging on alone after you've walked the roads before you with someone. These connections, therefore, cause unexpected separation to be that much harder to bear.
Many times throughout journey there will be times where movement is mostly out of your control. Sliding down massive inclines of sand lessens your control. Staying close to your partner suddenly becomes difficult, as they take a different turn than you. A small glow appears at the edges of the screen when your companion falls out of view, pointing you toward their general vicinity, fading gradually as you grow farther apart. And if and when they're gone, the realization is heartbreaking. Truly.
Losing someone in Journey is painful. While there's always the chance another player will come along, the loss never gets any easier, as its likely your first partner is one that stuck with you for most of the trip, especially so if you become separated as the end is in sight. To lose them there is downright devastating. To come so far, accomplish so much, only to be separated just as the climax is in sight... it's powerful stuff.

Scenes like this hint at the fate of a civilization that once was.

Journey is able to achieve emotional resonance because of the music. It's the secret to Journey's success. A soft hum, punctuated by the occasional high note, plays in the early goings, setting the mood of mystery and wonder of the desolate landscape splendidly. Over time, the music gradually increases its tempo, starting with a playful series of flute produced beats to accompany a walk with energetic cloth creatures, and ending with the orchestra in full force as the end is just inches away. Each track introduces a subtle change in emotion to match the atmosphere of the area.
Composer Austin Wintory understands the influence music can have when used correctly. Unlike so many other games where it's simply there to reinforce a certain tone or just serve as background noise, music is intrinsic to Journey. Its adventure relies heavily on its orchestra to carry the story along, invoke the right emotions at the very moment they're needed.
The art of Journey is no slouch, either. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Absurdly so, even, sometimes. Both the technical and artistic aspects are incredible. The way the sand parts as you walk through it, the way it flows in the wind and sparkles under the light; the intricate decorations of the cloaks, and the ruins themselves. It's all marvelously beautiful. Without giving anything specific away, there's this one moment where the sun is setting as you move past a series of pillars. In this scene, the camera frames the sun between those pillars, its red glow shining brilliantly against the sand and buildings around the area. It's breathtaking.

Final Score - 9.5

No doubt the two hour length and $15 price tag is likely to turn many away. Truly a pity, for what occurs in those two hours are more powerful and memorable than most 60 hour games are. It makes the long development processes of Thatgamecompany on such compact games clear. Because though they may be short, they're always tightly designed and executed, nary a blemish or piece of filler in sight, and ensure that every component works in complete service to the other. A real triumph.

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