Journey: art you can play with…

After flOw and Flower it’s no surprise that Journey, the latest offering from thatgamecompany [sic], is a gorgeously designed piece of software, eschewing the near photo-realism of its predecessor in exchange for a luscious and richly detailed cell-shaded look which is still delicate enough to handle the minute details in some of the architecture or the shimmering sand dunes and flurries of snowfall the game is, understandably, keen to show off in each of its carefully colour-paletted levels. For most games that might be enough, but Journey’s visuals would be even more remarkable in the context of the game if it weren’t the case that Austin Wintory’s score and the rest of the sound design are as close to absolutely perfect as I’ve found in a game, beautiful and distinct and suitably epic but unselfishly utilised to emphasise the whatever atmosphere the level design and gameplay are portraying.

It’s interesting (to me) that Journey comes so hot on the heels of John Carter (see previous “review”), inasmuch as it covers a lot of the same dramatic and thematic points, only does so in a far more engaging way. Dropping the player into a desolate sea of burning sands, the desert is both familiar and alien, littered with rubble and ruins which hint at a history and mythology which you are eager to explore. Like John Carter the mission is, initially, singular; the only landmark in sight is an imposing and distant mountaintop, aglow with its own light, and the ‘hero’ must make their way to their goal. Along the way both the eponymous John Carter and the unnamed protagonist of Journey discover strange creatures, both friendly and less-so, and remnants of a civilisation whose technologies and metaphysics they have to exploit in order to survive.

In comparative gameplay terms Journey is closest to a mixture of Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, in terms of its progress through exploration and its sheer scale and Flower, in its fluidity and almost uniquely anti-violent temperament, with something of Portal 2’s puzzle-platforming and co-operative elements thrown in for good measure. It’s probably, and it feels almost like heresy to say this, even more emotionally engaging than any of the above, with the sparseness of instruction and initial direction forcing the player to exist immediately and completely within the confines of the game. As you wander you discover glowing icons that extend your veiled character’s scarf, which becomes increasingly decorative to indicate the amount of glyphs you can store and use to fly and unlock pictographic murals and other secrets which hint at the history of the game’s world.

Whilst the gameplay is fun in single player once you’ve found a compatible companion (for me it was the second player I came across) it becomes almost gleeful. It’s quite remarkable how expressive the single, wordless noise which each player makes can become, how versatile for parsing strategy, instructions and gratitude, and how the presence of another anonymous robed figure fundamentally alters the feel of the game. Where there is danger it ratchets up the tension as you’re no longer responsible just for yourself, where there are puzzles it becomes more playful, and having struggled alongside this stranger for a couple of hours it makes the ending of the game all the more tragic and joyous. The level design take you through a number of environments and the latter half of the game, and the last few levels in particular, are far more accessible and more rewarding alongside another player.

It’s not quite flawless, and whilst it feels about right for the content the playtime is rather short for the price and I’m not sure how much replay value there is beyond demonstrating to close-minded friends that games can approach the depth of art. It’s also a little disappointing that Journey is a PS3 exclusive, since that necessarily limits the potential audience to fewer people than such an immersive, enjoyable experience deserves. Still, by almost every metric that a thinking gamer could use and on every artistic level Journey comes out ahead of the vast majority of its digital competition (Scrabble is still better, even without italicisation) and if my words are not enough to convince or convey just how awe-inspiring and peaceful just the visual design of this game is, then please enjoy the following trailer before heading out to visit the nearest friend or family member with a PS3 and an internet connection and co-opting their space for a brief few hours. Then thank them politely and go home again…

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~ by Thom Dicomidis on 16/03/2012.

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