Journey Review: The Most Exciting Nature Walk You’ll Ever Go On «

At its simplest level, Journey is a game about walking. You start in a desert, controlling a character without a name or a backstory or even knowing if you’re human. Your only objective comes from the camera angle pointing towards a mountain in the distance.
So you walk up a small hill and start to learn this is how it’s going to work. The game isn’t going to tell you anything. It’s going to give you a vague sense of direction and let you go there when you’re ready. There’s no challenge. You move slowly. And your only abilities are to jump and shout, or whatever you call it when your character emits a sonar bubble to interact with the world.

If what I’ve just described sounds more like a nature walk than a game, I’m doing this right. But I assure you, it’s more exciting than it sounds. Initially, the desert just seems like a beautiful place, so you don’t mind wandering and sliding around the sand dunes. But you soon notice that because you have limited abilities and forgiving controls, you tend to think about the game differently than most others — I’m not even sure it’s possible to be a “talented” Journey player. It’s less about how to accomplish tasks or solve puzzles, and more about deciding where you want to go and running into interesting things along the way.

I realize I’m being vague when I write that. “Interesting” and “things” are horrible words that I’m ashamed to put on this page, but the game thrives on that lack of clarity. It mixes that mystery with the simple interface and genius pacing to make abstract sculptures and statues and pieces of scenery seem important. The designers have figured out the right theme park-style subtle visual and audio cues to make it feel magical when you interact with anything, so the game constantly rewards you for exploring and shouting, even when you’re just doing the normal switch-flipping you’d do in any other game to reach the next area — shout at a batch of cloth and earn the ability to jump; shout at stone pillars to see murals appear; shout at a series of cloth sheets flapping in the wind to create a bridge to cross, etc. I think of it similar to how in Heavy Rain you don’t use guns for the majority of the game, so when the one scene comes along where you have to decide whether to take a shot and the game plays it up with dramatic camera angles and music, it stands out far more than when you take a single shot in Call of Duty. Journey is built on interactions that seem insignificant on paper, but feel special when you perform them.

That’s not to say the game is only filled with small moments — it knows when to go big, like a sand surfing sequence at sunset that’s so pretty it feels like the developers spent half their budget on just those three minutes.

But the game’s best moments come from the surprises, which I suppose means the rest of this paragraph consists of a spoiler. For instance, when you first see carpets swimming through the air, they make for incredibly strange and nice scenery and guide you along a specific path, but later on if you jump on one of them at the right time, you can ride it as it flies. Those kinds of moments stick with you.

And some of the best surprises come from the game’s multiplayer where, if you’re playing online, you’ll occasionally stumble into another real-life hiker on their playthrough. I’m almost hesitant to call it “multiplayer” since that word leads to a lot of assumptions. The game just kind of magically zaps two of you playing in the same area together, and it plays out like two dogs meeting in a park — you can wrestle and bark at each other, but there’s little practical influence on your game. Players aren’t boosting each other over ledges; they offer companionship rather than function.

Since you can’t speak to each other and have no radar, the game offers the very real possibility that you two will split up if you don’t pay attention. It’s a simplified friendship, which seems limiting when you step back and think about it — it feels like the game doesn’t trust you to act like a human being — but the limitations work in the game’s favor, creating scenarios that work perfectly with the mystery that the rest of the game likes so much. At one point when playing, I unintentionally lost track of a partner because they started the sand surfing sequence about 10-15 seconds before me, and I started freaking out trying to catch up. At another, I stuck with a partner for quite a while and we barely acknowledged each other. Both of those would have played out vastly differently if I’d been able to speak to them.

Inevitably, people will to complain that Journey is too short — that they can finish it in two hours. That they were expecting something longer from a game called “Journey.” I’m not these people, though I agree with part of the complaint — because of the amount of media coverage the game has had and because Thatgamecompany and Sony haven’t used that forum to warn people about the length, it feels like they pulled the rug over players’ eyes. I’m not factoring that into the review score since it’s a perception issue rather than something in the game itself, but the more you’re aware it’s a short game ahead of time, the more you’ll enjoy it.

That aside, Journey makes a phenomenal case for what a short game can be. It’s a rare example of the kind of crazy design you get from someone in their garage mixed with the execution you expect from a retail game. It’s consistently beautiful from every angle. It never feels repetitive or bland. And it’s the kind of game that keeps you thinking when you walk away, since it gives enough breadcrumbs and imagery to spur theories that will almost certainly fill blog posts for years to come. To me, that makes for a game far more elegant and satisfying than most others regardless of their length.

 

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