In an age of gaming that’s flooded with big blockbuster shooters or intense action games, every so often we get a smaller developer who dares to innovate or cross through the threshold that separates games from being mindless entertainment and “art”. With highly praised games like FlOw and Flower, thatgamecompany has been taking up that artistic mantle for several years now. With Journey they continue to push even further into that territory that explores evoking emotions from the gamer and causes us to experience video games in ways we may have not even considered before.
The premise of Journey is simple. You wake up in the middle of a desert and see a mountain with a glowing peak in the distance. Not having any other immediate landmarks in view, you set off to go towards the mountain while exploring the world around you along the way. You’ll quickly notice that you are very limited in your actions (part of this being due to your lack of arms and inability to jump) and so the game becomes primarily about getting from point A to point B. The maps are quite wide open with various nooks and crannies to explore, but this still remains a very linear game. At the end of each section you’ll be shown a series of imagery that makes up the narrative, but with no dialogue or text the meaning is left for you to decipher on your own. The story can vary by whoever experiences it as nothing is written in stone and it’s your own personal experience and imagination that you project onto to the game. That said, it would have been nice if you could skip the cut scenes altogether because if you’re doing multiple playthroughs or are choosing to ignore the imposed narrative altogether, they can get somewhat annoying.
The controls in this game are very simple and it’s easy for anyone to just pick up and play. Throughout the game you only have two commands to worry about. The first and most obvious is the ability to jump and float. This ability becomes available to you at the beginning when you grab your first glowing symbol. The more glowing symbols you collect throughout your journey, the longer your scarf becomes and the farther you’ll be able to float. Collecting the symbols is more so a novelty than a requirement however as I can’t think of any instance in the game where you would NEED a certain number of symbols to proceed. Finding other symbols becomes easier if you have a longer scarf, but it’s never completely mandatory. If you choose to use the level select hub after clearing the game, your scarf always gets reset. Finding as many glowing symbols is still good for you to do though as floating will allow you to move through levels faster and make the platforming bits easier. It’s a satisfying secondary objective that makes the game more interesting than simply running to the end goal and gives you an excuse to really explore each area before moving on.
The other command at your disposal is the ability to press the circle button and let out a soft musical note. This is the only way you can interact with the world and other players if you’re playing online. There is no voice chat, no in game lobby and no way to know who you’re playing with. The only way you can interact with other players is by making that musical note and running around them. At any given time you will only be able to play with one other random player and each time you play it’s a different experience. I’ve had players who would rush through levels and miss a lot of glowing symbols, causing me to miss them too as I was trying to keep up. I’ve had other players who would actually stop and wait for me to catch up and I would feel genuinely sad if they disconnected or left as a sort of unspoken bond was formed. During the snowy levels, if you huddled close to the other player you can warm up your character, getting rid of some of the frost slowing you down and charging up your scarf, however the person I was playing with didn’t seem to pick up on that and kept on running away from me which genuinely made me irritated. Not being able to directly talk with the other players was a brilliant move on thatgamecompanies behalf as I experience a wide range of different emotions just based on who I was playing with or if I played with anyone at all. They wouldn’t have been able to pull that off if I was able to just say “Hey, get over here and sit with me for 20 seconds so I can get a trophy”. Instead of seeing them as just a gamer playing a video game, I was able to profile their personality based on how they acted. This was perhaps the most unique and interesting coop experience I have ever played before.
As the title suggests, the game is all about journeying to a mountain and exploring the world along the way. While most screen shots and trailers have placed the game in the desert, that actually only makes up the first half of the game. You actually get to explore a variety of locales including underwater caverns or snowy mountain paths. The visuals in this game are absolutely stunning. Despite being a $15 downloadable title, the graphics can hold their own against the best retail games, rivalling even the likes of Uncharted 3. A great deal of attention was put into the details; the way the sand swooshes around your feet or blows in waves with the wind, they way sun reflects off the sand and causes a watery mirage or even the way frost will slowly build up around your cloak when you are in the mountains. All the animations move fluidly and organically. As you trudge through the snow you’ll notice your character slow down and struggle to move as you slowly get colder and colder. The way the cloth waves in the wind looks and feels natural both on your character and the cloth creatures and objects you encounter. If the main object of the game is to explore, thatgamecompany did an amazing job making you want to see this entire beautiful world they have created.
The game isn’t perfect however as it does have its share of flaws. Well...actually, just one flaw. The game can easily be finished in a single sitting and the entire game, start to finish, only lasts about an hour or two. Once you beat it, the first level acts as a hub with portals that lead to other areas and you can go back and find any glowing symbol you missed (collecting all of them unlocks a special prize for your character) or finding all the hidden murals. You can do more playthroughs, either online or offline for something different, but once you’ve seen everything, that’s pretty much it. And it doesn’t take very long to see everything. After the second day I had already finished 2 or 3 playthroughs, found all the collectibles and felt like I had seen everything the game had to offer. So you’re not getting a whole lot of bang for your buck. It’s a very short but sweet ride. At the end of it all, I felt like I was still wanting more, but I wasn’t exactly sure if that was in a good way or bad. Had they made this a full length game (even if it was 5-7 hours or so), I have no doubt this would be remembered as fondly as Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. But since it is so short, the incredible impression this game leaves wears off after a few days.
If you had even the slightest interest in Journey, I’d strongly recommend picking this game up. It is an amazing game and a great addition to any collection. The short length may be disappointing, but I’m confident you’ll thoroughly enjoy the amount that you do get to play. However, if you were on the fence or worried that it just might not be your type of game, then perhaps wait for it to go on sale as the small amount of content might make you feel cheated at $15. I’d still recommend picking it up and trying it out though as creative games of this high caliber don’t come around very often.