I'm going to start off by saying that I don’t buy into the whole “games as art” argument. I think games can be pretty and use said trait to enhance gameplay, but I think defending a game by saying it is a work of art rather than traditional software is frivolous. A game can be beautiful – for example, Uncharted 3 or Battlefield 3 – and it can definitely use that to its advantage, but there must be something more to the experience that makes it feel complete. The few games that have tried to pull this off such as Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire range from limited success to fairly good, but some developers just don’t grasp this concept.
One of said companies is thatgamecompany, whose previous outings include flOw – an experiment rather than a game – and Flower, which was admittedly very charming and a neat concept but failed to pull me in. With Journey, thatgamecompany’s newest release on PSN, they have finally found their niche and made an amazing game in the process.
As previously stated, Journey was released onto the PSN during their Spring Fever promotion. The game also marks thatgamecompany’s final contractual project developed for Sony. Journey could be described as an adventure-platforming game, but to do so would ruin some of the ingenuity that it has to offer. What the game really entails is exactly what the self-explanatory title implies: it’s a journey. When you start the game, your avatar (a robed creature with no arms and seemingly no face) is dumped into the middle of a desert with nothing in sight except for a tall mountain with a glowing orb in the center. Armed with no HUD and no instructions other than two small diagrams illustrating camera movement and the character, you set off. What follows will probably be two of the most well-paced, beautiful, and meaningful hours of your life spent playing a video game. It might seem as though I'm exaggerating it, but trust me when I say that it’s true.
The gameplay is very minimalist with only a few actions available at your disposal. The main mechanics apply here such as left stick to move and right stick for camera, although you can optionally use the six-axis motion on the PS3 controller to move the camera around as well. The other two actions that the player can use is the ‘X’ button to jump, which must be recharged after a certain amount of uses depending on scarf length, and the ‘O’ button to use a shout that interacts with certain objects in the environment and to call other players in the multiplayer.
This journey is what you make of it.
What makes the experience so good is a medley of specific design choices that all come together beautifully. For one, the game is an excellent example of how to make a tight, well-paced experience that doesn`t overstay its welcome or leave the player underwhelmed. Clocking in at about 90 minutes (my first playthrough took about 120 minutes), Journey is certainly not a long game, but what that allows is for a story that can precisely time the points that are supposed to impact you and make sure that at no point does the player get bored. Some people might be turned off by the succinctness of the experience, but the game encourages multiple playthroughs. Yet even with only one playthrough, the game still leaves an impression.
Another design choice that greatly aids the game is the multiplayer aspect. Instead of allowing people to join up with friends, Journey instantly merges two games that are at the same point. There are no profile names shown, no way to communicate, and no indication that someone has joined your game. The only interactions that the two players have are the ability to recharge each other's jump and chirping to interact with the environment as a pseudo-morse code. At the end of the game you are given a list of all the people that you played with, and this is probably one of Journey's biggest surprises. During my two hours, I thought four distinct people were playing with me when in fact I played alongside eight. The players switch out so seamlessly that you likely won’t notice unless they disappear completely. I should note though that there are a few points where you will lose your companion, and while the first few might not seem that important, by the time you get late into the game, you really start to connect with your anonymous buddy. As the adventure was wrapping up before the insane final sequence, I was having a great time, and I finally understood why some people have complained about losing their travel companion. If I were to lose my partner, I might not have been able to finish the game.
Alongside the main journey, there are also collectible artifacts that lengthen the scarf your character is wearing, which in turn allows for more jumps that can be stored before you have to recharge.
Other parts of Journey that should be celebrated include the soundtrack and the visual style. For one, the soundtrack is one of the best that I’ve heard in a game in a long time. The mysterious violins ramp up to be downright nerve-racking towards the end of the second act. But the visual style is something that I haven’t touted too much because by this point, it is a given that Journey's a beautiful game. The sand tech is amazing, the character design is great, and the whole feel of the minimalistic yet intricately detailed world are perfect for what the game needs.
Journey might not for everybody, but I think that it has a large appeal to the gaming audience who want something more than repetitive FPSs and adventure games. Even though $15 might be a bit steep for a two hour game, albeit with some degree of replay incentive, the art style looks great, the music is powerful, and the anonymous buddies that you connect with make this one amazing journey.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PSN (Reviewed)