Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Journey Review

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a sharp increase of games that take a nontraditional approach to game design by either incorporating nonlinear gameplay or stories or using the “outside-in” design mentality wherein the user’s experience is imagined first, followed by the mechanics to make that happen. Games like Limbo, Flower, and Minecraft have all become successes despite—or maybe because of—their ability to differentiate themselves from most mainstream games through their gameplay or storytelling elements.

Journey is the latest title from thatgamecompany, creators of Flower. With its simple, unique art style, powerful music, and strange story, can this game measure up to thatgamecompany’s previous success, or has the community finally grown a distaste for niche?

Journey is a game in which, in the same vein as Flower, music and visuals guide you through a level free of usual game constructs like lives, score, and missions. In the game, you take control of a red-clad being trudging through the desert, collecting light symbols and manipulating magic ribbons to help you progress. It’s a lot less boring that that description made it sound.

At first, I thought the minimalist game style would hinder the gameplay, but it actually made me appreciate it more. Having so few frills to distract me meant that I focused on the controls and appreciated what I could do. I also had to learn the controls very quickly and discover what did and did not work, though the game also provides non-intrusive, simple guides for this as well. The learning process is an enjoyable one, and it’s helped by the fact that the light symbols are scattered in less-traveled paths, putting an emphasis on exploration. Though the controls are few, they are fluid and feel good to exercise. It’s quite gratifying to start flying through the air after having to trudge up a steep sand dune or walk a great distance. Though simple, Journey’s gameplay is certainly satisfying and polished.

The story of Journey is about as well defined as that of ICO or Shadow of the Colossus; it’s mostly written in the mind of the player by connecting broad story strokes. Without spoiling what little story there is, you’re some kind of entity in a red shawl on the way to a mountain with a light on top of it, guided by visions from an individual in a white cowl that details the history of the world up to that point. Though not a single word is uttered, the story is basic enough to be conveyed through images, small cut scenes, and music, yet still delivers the same impact as most games with long, sweeping narratives. Its simplicity has its own beauty to it, and leaves room for so many experiences for the player. I’ve read player feedback of people having completely different experiences than my own within the same level, which is rather remarkable considering how straightforward the game is.

If you watched our Dear Esther review, you’ll notice a distinct link between it and Journey. Both have minimalist gameplay, and both focus heavily on storytelling to drive the game to completion. The biggest difference between the two is how each game tackled this vision—one doing so effectively and the other, not as much. Journey approached a similar problem as Dear Esther, but did so by focusing on the player’s experience and not the narrative—an approach that resulted in an overall more successful game. Dear Esther bogged the player down in so many details that using your imagination to connect the pieces became less of a joyful experience and more of a task, to be completed or be miserable. Journey, on the other hand, shows images and tells a history that must be connected in your head, but has a major plot element—reaching the mountain—that drives the story along. Even if you completely ignore everything you find and all the storytelling of Journey, you still have fun playing because of the overarching objective, whereas Dear Esther’s draw was a needy story that begged to be supplemented.

The other way in which Journey excelled over Dear Esther is in its fun, easy-to-grasp gameplay. Dear Esther had little to speak of, choosing to force the player to focus on the narrative and visuals, whereas Journey used the gameplay as a tool to enable the player’s exploration of and immersion in the environment. Both games ran about the same time from start to completion, though I feel so much better about spending the money on Journey. The value is not only in the game and story, but in multiplayer.

Journey’s multiplayer takes follows the game’s aesthetics of keeping things uncomplicated. Along your journey, you can find a random player from the internet to travel with, going through the trials together, being surprised with one another, but not necessarily tied to how the other plays. If you want to explore an area that your partner would rather neglect, you can do so freely. The only downside is that if you want to complete things yourself, you may find yourself frustrated being paired with someone faster than you, since you’ll be following them most of the time. At other times, you may find yourself yearning to communicate that you need to recharge your flight ability to reach, but voice chat was purposefully left out of this title. I believe this move was a smart one, as the threat of being sucked out of the moment by angry troll yelling is much more detrimental to the game than not being able to convey something noncritical.

The multiplayer certainly does have the ability to draw a connection between players by alleviating a large portion of frustration between partners. By enabling players to help each other, but not requiring them to rely on one another, Journey’s multiplayer is much more leisurely and can be as intense as you make it.

Journey takes a more simplistic approach, using a limited color palate with cel shading-like graphics that are quite appealing. This art style separates it from other games in its genre like Dear Esther and ICO whose visuals are grandiose, modern and flashy. I will admit, however, that after six levels of orange on red on yellow, I craved at least one new color. The game consists of three separate landscapes, each having their own limited palate and details, and while each was nice to look at, they did get a bit tiring after two or three levels.

Do you know why everyone has been looking forward to Journey’s soundtrack? It’s damn good, that’s why. The deep cellos combined with light melodies make the landscapes and story feel exactly as they should. Soundtracks like Journey make me happy to listen to, as they do a great job of instilling a sense of wonder and scenery to a game.  Since I completed my journey, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to relax and it has done a tremendous job of helping me doing so.  Luckily, it’s being released soon, so I can stop Youtubing it and give the composer some much due monetary credit.

Verdict: Journey is the fastest selling PSN title of all time, and it’s not difficult to see why. Simple gameplay and story elements with unique visual style and an excellent soundtrack all come together to deliver an experience and a concise feeling to players. Whether you play multi or single player, you’ll be pleased you decided to give it a whirl. You’ll love this game if you enjoy titles like ICO or Flower or were disappointed by Dear Esther’s clunky story. The game only takes two hours, but it’s two hours you’ll be happy to spend immersed in a world of engaging story, fulfilling gameplay, and relaxing atmosphere.

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