So I have Playstation Plus, which gives me somewhere in the area of four to seven free games on the first Tuesday of every month. I figure it’s high time I started using it.
Playstation Plus does tend to focus mostly on older games. As an intelligent person, I see the sense in this, as giving your game away for free on day one is a pretty crummy marketing strategy. As a gamer, grumble grumble, I want new free games.
There’s not much point in reviewing games that have been out for months or even years by the time of their free release. Reviewers have already said pretty much everything there is to say within a few days of any game being released. In the case of preview copies, reviewers cut that time down to about a week before the release.
All that being said, let me immediately break my own rule and review Journey.
The Background. Journey first came out in Spring of 2012 and was developed by Thatgamecompany. And no, that isn’t a typo. That’s their actual studio name. Which I guess makes sense, because using no creativity whatsoever to come up with their name gave them plenty to spare for their actual games.
Though they haven’t made many thus far, they have a solid pedigree as the people who made that game where your little thing ate smaller little things (Flow) and that game where you controlled flower petals in a breeze (Flower). Again, none of the preceding things were typos.
Like the previous two games, Journey is a short game with no dialogue, no onscreen meters and only the barest of story lines. The graphics are stylized, looking beautiful without wandering too close to actual realism. Except for your character’s robe and scarf, which animate well and flow about in the wind believably. If nothing else, I can say that this title revolutionized scarf and robe physics in video games.
In the same way that Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball revolutionized…um…jiggle physics, except without the long sigh when you say it.
The Basics. The game starts you off as a nameless robed figure in the middle of a ruin-filled desert where you’ll spend most of your time playing. After climbing a small hill you’re presented with a view of the glowing mountain in the distance. And that’s…pretty much all there is to it. There’s no story or anything else to otherwise motivate you to go there, except that it’s constantly looming there in the distance looking all enticing and whatnot.
With so many games beating you over the head with your character’s motivations (which are oftentimes stupid or impossible to relate to) or throwing long, convoluted stories at you (which are oftentimes boring or impossible to understand), Journey was honestly a breath of fresh air.
The same objective is in sight almost the entire game with no need for detours. There are no sidequests to rescue supporting characters. No collect-a-thons to pad out the game time. Just a robed figure. A glowing mountain. And a desert between them.
There are some story pieces thrown in here and there in the form of visions and murals, yes, but because there’s no talking, almost everything you see is open to interpretation. While it’s fairly clear that something very bad went down from the paintings you find, that much is already clear to anyone who notices the ruins almost everywhere. The clues are subtle without being intentionally vague, meaning that any two players might have played very different stories on their way through the game.
The ending was admittedly open to some interpretation but by the time you reach that point you sort of get the idea that it doesn’t really matter. It’s a fulfilling enough closure that you don’t feel cheated. And, as the title suggests, the point of it all was the journey – not the destination.
Or, at least, I think so. The cynical part of me says that a lot of the praise this game gets for being philosophically deep could have just been people filling in the blanks themselves. I suppose we’ll never really know.
The Rest. Gameplay itself is simple and straightforward. You have a scarf that lets you jump and glide through the air slowly. As you progress your scarf will grow longer, allowing you to jump higher and glide longer. You’ll slide down slopes in certain sections. And that’s pretty much all there is to it.
There’s is a mechanic that seamlessly adds other players to your game as semi-permanent companions on your quest. I’ve heard it can be very fun and you can grow very attached to these people, but they’re an entirely optional experience. Unfortunately, I had a sum total of three people appear – two of which were too busy screwing around to move forward and one who kept me waiting ten minutes while they failed the same simple puzzle over and over again.
I inevitably left all three behind and didn’t look back, though your mileage may vary if you find people who are helpful and/or competent.
While I wouldn’t say the game is very challenging, I personally feel that it’s as hard as it needed to be. It’s enough to engage the player without bogging down the straightforward narrative. I don’t think the developers wanted the video game portion to detract from the story, if that makes sense.
The simple story and soundtrack get you very invested in a character you essentially know nothing about (aside from them being a robe and scarf enthusiast). The result is that you’re given swells of excitement, fear and hope as you get closer and closer to the summit. And it leaves you wondering why games that give you so much more emotional fodder to work with rarely provide the same highs and lows as Journey.
(Except for “The Last of Us.” I have paprika in my eye. I was making deviled eggs. Shut up! I’m not crying. You’re crying.)
That all said, I realize that a two-hour game with very little story and possibly less payoff for an ending might be a hard sell for some. I liked the cinematic feel of the game and its ability to get me to feel things, but I also understand that some of you are dead inside. And that’s fine. I mean, I guess it’ll just hurt less when your pets die.
Final Thoughts. I honestly haven’t come up with a concrete scoring system for reviews yet. (My best idea thus far is a sliding scale of “not fun at all” to “amazingly fun” atop a scale of “short” to “long,” but I have to tinker with it.) In the case of this game, I would even hesitate to rate it by the same scale as other games because it just is so fundamentally different as a playing experience.
The Verdict. Though not exactly rollicking fun to play, the game is nonetheless absolutely worth experiencing from beginning to end. Just prepare for the feels.