Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Journey: A Lasting Impression

Journey is the kind of game which makes ripples in the background, but doesn’t jump out at you unless you really look into it. Going for just £10 on the PSN, I figured for all the good things I’d heard, it was worth the investment. I glimpsed it whilst wandering around Eurogamer last year – I was far too interested in Guild Wars 2 to give it the time it deserved - but I noted that it was made by the same developers as Shadow of the Colossus and Flower, so I knew it came from good stock.

The following review is based upon my first play through, starting at about 1:30am and finishing approx 3am; Journey is the kind of game which is infinitely improved when played in such a susceptible and sleep-deprived state. It is certainly the kind of game to be experienced before forming an opinion, rather than read about – so, instead of giving you my opinion, I’m going to tell you my story.

I knew very little about what to expect when I dropped into the world. The game doesn’t really give you any direction, I was told how to move (either by tilting the controller or, the more sensible option, using the right thumbstick) and pushed out into the desert – the only real indication I got was the distant visage of a glowing mountain.

As I trotted around the landscape, sliding down sand-dunes and blinking into the sun, the sand rustled softly under my feet. The musical score in these first few zones was gentle and serene, and gave off a sense of curiosity rather than adventure – encouraging me to move from distant landmark to distant landmark, discovering more about my purpose and the history of the world as I went. I moved primarily by scurrying along the sand, but early on I discovered a ball of magical energy which gifted me a scarf which allowed me to jump/fly for a short period, each time I encountered one of these swirling masses of light my scarf got longer, the longer the scarf, the longer I could fly for. I could “recharge” my scarf in a number of ways, chiefly by finding and touching the flying pieces of fabric which move in schools about the landscape.

Almost everything in the world seemed to have a friendly and playful nature – when I jumped, I spun in the air and cartwheeled to the ground, the benevolent scraps of fabric which recharged my energy swirled and gently buffeted against me when they bestowed their power.

The second zone was much larger than the first (the score expanded into a sweeping and rising crescendo as the sun-glare faded and the land spread out ahead of me before dropping down to a gentle hum as I began to explore). This area was punctuated by sand flowing like water over cliff edges, rocky outcrops with frayed scraps of fabric blowing in the wind and a series of gigantic stone pillars which jutted out the sand. As I moved around the area, the sand would ripple and flow like water under my feet.
In the distance I saw the glinting visage of one of the scarf-lengthening balls of energy, so that’s where I headed first. As I absorbed the power and turned to survey my surroundings, I heard a soft thud and the sound of the energy being absorbed again – I turned and saw another traveller gathering his scarf. We signalled each other with a note – by pressing O you can let out a shout which indicates your location with a sing-song cry and a wave of energy (which, incidentally, also recharges surrounding player’s scarves). There is no other way to interact with your companions; you don’t even know their names - you're just each assigned a unique symbol, which is printed on the front of player's robes. My new companion shot off in the other direction, he seemed to have purpose where I was lost, so I stuck to his tail – we moved from rock to rock, singing to the fabric and releasing clouds of scraps which danced up into the air and eventually reformed into bridges which connected the gigantic stone pillars. When the bridge was fully formed, I signalled to my companion – partly as thanks, but also as an indication that I was moving on - encouraging him to follow, but he was content to linger in this area, so I spurred on ahead, over the newly-made bridges, through the cut scene and into the next zone. My first in-game interaction was brief and practical, we were both a little confused, but together we worked the puzzle out and then went our separate ways.

My next interaction was one which would last the entire game.

As I entered into the next zone I stood and looked out over a seemingly endless and featureless desert. Figuring that one way was much the same as any other, I simply headed off in the direction I was facing. I hadn’t even reached the top of the first dune before I heard a note from behind me. I turned to see a player shouting to me in the distance. They seemed pretty insistent, so I headed over (indicating my compliance with a smaller note). When I reached my new friend I saw that their robe was far more ornate than mine (indicating that they had completed the game already), they mirrored my little “boop” with their own and we headed off together. They led me to a part of the desert I would have never found – it contained an energy ball and a trapped fabric-bird which we were able to free by singing. I sang my own thanks to my friend, and we followed the fabric-bird across the desert – singing to each other as we went to make sure we didn’t get lost.

Over the rest of the game my friend and I skated down sand-slides, crept through enemy infested temples, climbed flooded towers. Every time I fell behind they were waiting at the next platform; every time we had to hide they sang to signal to when to stop, and when to go; they showed me every secret they knew.

The final few zones took us through the snowy slopes of the sacred mountain. The more the icy winds blew, the more our scarves would be depleted – the friendly scraps of fabric were few and far between, and those that did exist and required a lot of singing to get them to thaw and bestow their power. My friend and I had to stay close together to keep our energy up, we scurried from cover to cover – dodging the enemy spotlights and the blustering winds which threatened to blow us off course. I was spotted by the enemy a couple of times, and suffered the consequences (being totally smashed and having my scarf left in tatters), my friend was patient and waited for me to recover and catch up.

The home-stretch involves a final push up the mountain, battling against winds and snow – our scarves being gradually worn away to stumps and then to nothing. We kept warm by huddling together and pushed towards the summit, as the darkness fell and we became more and more weak we kept singing to each other in weaker and weaker voices until, finally, with the sparkling mountain peak still a long way away, we collapsed - overcome by the elements.

I won't reveal the end. Needless to say it is (in the truest sense of the word) awesome - afterwards my companion drew me hearts in the snow.
After I put down the controller I was in a state of sleep-deprivation induced wonder. I felt exhausted. As an indication of the type of game this is, in my head, as I got further into the game, the "shouting" which you can use to communicate became "singing" the ability for the players to "jump" became "dancing", I found myself huddling together with my companion for warmth when the winds blew, and singing with my last breath when we both struggled up the mountain. The combination of the beautifully crafted landscapes, the excellently weighted score and the novel and endearing interactions had left me absolutely shell shocked.

If you have a PS3 and you haven't yet played this game I advise... no wait, I demand that you try it out. I can guarantee that you won't regret it.

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