Saturday, January 25, 2014

Journey: Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) - Review

Journey is a somewhat difficult game to classify, or even to describe. At the time of its release, I remember reading a handful of reviews all struggling to put into words what makes it such a good game, with their final recommendation only offering the promise that it is, in fact, a good game and that you should absolutely play it. "It's one of those games you just have to experience for yourself." Having now played the game myself, I can't elaborate on it much more than that, other than to say it's indeed a really good game.

Journey is what I guess you would classify an "art game" -- a short two or three hour game with simplistic gameplay meant to tell a metaphoric story through its use of visuals and music. Perhaps what's most impressive about Journey is that it's an art game where interactivity is crucial to the experience; it's an art game that gives the player goals and obstacles that require problem-solving and careful platforming and navigation to surmount. And the experience of making the journey from the outskirts of the desert all the way to the summit of the mountain truly is a beautiful one.

In terms of typical video game conventions, Journey is broken up into about a half-dozen self-contained levels, each with its own unique theme and gameplay mechanics. You begin on the outskirts of a vast desert with no other landmarks but a towering mountain lit by a beam of light off in the distance; moving towards it, you're introduced to the game's mechanics through short, simple tutorials before arriving at the proper start of the journey, an area that becomes your hub for subsequent playthroughs. Your goal in each level is to reach the statue at the end and progress to the next level, but along the way you can search for hidden glyphs that will help clue you into the game's backstory, as well as ancient symbols that will extend the length of your scarf.

Your scarf is your one tool for navigating the world. Scattered throughout this game's world are bits of red fabric that seem to have a life of their own; pressing the circle button near one will bring it back to life or call upon its powers to assist you. Using the X button will make you jump and fly through the air while depleting energy from your scarf, represented by the illuminated runes that run along its length. To recharge your scarf, you have to be near a source of red fabric, and having a longer scarf will let you jump/fly further/longer. As such, the length of your scarf becomes the most tangible symbol of your progression through the game and it provides a great sense of accomplishment to see it steadily grow the further you go.

Each of the levels provides a markedly different experience, both in terms of their atmospheres and their mechanics. In the first level you're faced with a ruined bridge and have to piece it back together with strands of red fabric; in the next level you're faced with a vast, empty desert and have to find your way to the mountain; in the next level you're sliding down a steep hill before arriving in the next level, the deep underground caverns with patrolling sentinel "dragons"; in the next level you're ascending a tower by jumping on platforms; in the final level you're ascending the snowy mountain, trying not to freeze to death or be blown off the side of the mountain.

So along the way, you're faced with a variety of situations that call for different types of actions on your part, making sure to keep the gameplay fresh and interesting from beginning to end. It's a short game meant to be completed in a single session, which feels very appropriate in order to keep the journey as poignant as possible -- it doesn't outstay its welcome or waste any time with repetition -- it's concise and to the point. Its simplicity is beautifully elegant, in fact; except for the two tutorial prompts showing you what buttons to press when and where, nothing else interferes with your suspension of disbelief. Everything you need to know about the game, from mechanics to objectives to threats are all subtly cued in a way that instinctively informs you without explicitly telling you.

That simple, non-intrusive design is critical in allowing you to soak yourself in the game's atmosphere and to feel a part of the journey, without feeling like you're playing a video game. The game itself is never challenging and the gameplay ultimately serves a bit of a perfunctory role of simply getting you through its roller coaster ride of scenery while giving you productive things to do. The gameplay does a fine job of making you feel a part of this world and attached to your character, but it's not really the game's emphasis -- it's the story and its atmosphere.

Simply put, Journey is a masterpiece in visual and musical design. Every moment is beautiful and has some sort of emotional salience, whether the game's depicting the crumbling remains of a ruined society, the foreboding and dangerous underground depths, or your own perilous struggles on the snowy mountain face. The scenic vistas are all breathtaking, and there's some pretty cool stuff going on in the underground sections that makes it feel like you're underwater with the way sun beams cut through wreckage far above to illuminate the red fabric sticking up into the sky like seaweed. I was so stricken with its artistry that I had to sit and just admire it for a few moments.

The music, meanwhile, is fantastic to listen to on its own but it works so well in establishing the tone of each sequence in the game. Parts of it are genuinely haunting, with ambient tones droning on and on with string and flute lines playing a somber melody, reflecting the vast expanses of the world around you and its complete desolation. Parts of it are thrilling and whimsical as you race downhill. Other parts use crescendoing, dissonant chords and heavy drums to create thick tension when your character is struggling, and the penultimate song of the soundtrack builds itself up so well to capture the grandiose feeling of reaching your goal at the end that it perfectly encapsulates the epicness of your journey.

Put together, the visuals and the music are the best treat the game has to offer, and it's an absolutely exceptional one. The journey basically is just seeing the sights, hearing the music, and feeling how it relates to your own progression from the outskirts of the desert to the summit, or passing your trials and accomplishing your goals. The simple game mechanics combined with the beautiful aesthetics do a wonderful job of instilling genuine feelings of wonder, dread, accomplishment, struggle, and eventually success in the player. As I said earlier, it's an emotional experience, and it's especially impressive how much emotion they're able to put into the game without any sort of dialogue or other characters.

A large part of what makes Journey truly special, though, is the way it implements cooperative gameplay. As long as you're online and signed into the PlayStation Network, you'll automatically be joined with another player to share the journey together. It's completely anonymous -- you don't find out who they are until finishing the journey, when the game shows the names of players you met along the way -- and you have virtually no way of communicating with them except through your movements and by pressing the circle button to make the chiming noise you use on the red fabric.

It's fun trying to use the game's limited options to communicate your thoughts while trying to interpret what the other player is thinking, and it's such a great feeling when you get yourself synchronized with another player and really work together. It's amazing, really, how attached you can become to another player without ever exchanging words, simply by finding creative ways to interact and by sharing the journey together. It was great the first time I realized that touching another player recharged our scarves, and that by emitting the loud chirps while in mid-air we could replenish our scarves and continue flying indefinitely. I felt a strong sense of camaraderie with certain players and was almost disappointed to part ways at the end. I still go back into the game from time to time just to meet up with new players.

At the same time, however, I'm not sure I'd recommend playing Journey online the first time through. When I first started playing I didn't even realize the game was cooperative until another person who looked just like me showed up. I then realized it was another player, but that person just wanted to move ahead in the game and made me self-conscious about stopping to smell the roses or exploring hidden areas for ancient signs. After he basically completed the first level all on his own while I was exploring around, I realized I would be deprived of many of the discoveries and decided to go offline.

After completing the game for the first time, I went back online and did a runthrough to see what cooperative play was like. I ended up paired with a guy in a white cloak -- a symbol that he'd unlocked every single ancient sign -- and he led me through the whole game, showing me every little thing I'd missed and getting me trophies that I'd missed or didn't even know about. He was extremely nice and helpful, and when it came time for the very end of the game he started drawing little hearts in the snow, to which I responded by drawing a janky-looking smiley face. That was a fun experience, but if that had been my first time I would've been so incredibly bored not being able to discover anything for myself.

If you're playing for the first time with another new player, that has the potential to be a great experience as the two of you learn the mechanics and work your way through the journey together, but there's a lot of potential as well to be matched with someone who's just going after a certain trophy or whose playstyle is vastly different than yours which might ruin the experience for a first time player.

That's about all I can say about Journey. It actually feels kind of like a cross between Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, except without Yorda and without the colossi, which should tell you a lot about how good it is or how remarkable the game feels to play. Journey is a very unique experience, and what makes it so special is that your own journey is entirely personal. To me, the game felt a bit like a metaphor for life, but everything is open to interpretation and everyone will have a slightly different experience. Figuring out what the game means to you is part of the journey, and it's a beautiful journey at every step along the way.

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