Review: Journey

Journey

I want to start my review for Journey backwards.  That is to say I 100% recommend this title as an experience that should not be missed.  Thatgamecompany’s latest title is a lovingly crafted game that weaves touching music, stunning visuals, mystery, exploration and a unique take on multiplayer into an unforgettable game.  The beauty of Journey is the self discovery that is offered through each gamer’s own personal adventure.  My experience is different than that of any number of the other players I encountered along the way, and while the end result can technically be described the same for everyone, personal discovery and life experience is going to be a factor in how any one gamer will interpret Journey on their own.

As a warning, I will say now that the rest of this review will describe events or moments in the game that are best discovered on your own, so please read on only if you have taken the journey yourself and are curious to read about my own personal experience of the game. Spoiler warning, engage.

When thatgamecompany released Flower in 2009, I played through that game for a week straight.  Not because I wasn’t good at it, or was hunting for trophies (although there may have been a bit of hunting involved at some point), but rather because Flower was a game like nothing I had ever experienced before.  The beauty and exhilaration of each potted flower’s dream kept me returning nightly to explore and help each flower stuck on that window sill to bloom into its full potential.  In the final level, soaring through the twisted metal and concrete, renewing life to the overgrown modern encroachment, I realized that video games have a potential to touch emotions and not simply be a different means of escapist entertainment.

When Journey was first announced, I thought the visual design was striking, but still photos didn’t sell it for me.  Being intentionally vague (and for good reason), thatgamecompany simply explained that Journey would take players on an adventure while bringing the same emotional resonance to the table that was offered up in Flower.  I was curious and wanted to take the plunge, and thus avoided reading or listening about any other preview experiences.  As an enticement for buying into PlayStation Plus, Sony offered Journey a week early to those members and thus the flood gate of praise and love rushed forth.  I tried to hold fast and avoid reading anything, but the one thing that kept coming up was how unique the multiplayer experience was.

When I finally got the game loaded, I seem to have missed the opening cutscene (or maybe I did watch it but didn’t understand the importance of what was being conveyed at the time) and thus in my old, tired, long, day-job absent minded ADD brain, overlooked a key moment from the start.  Next I find myself sitting in the sand with a faint controller image indicating to tilt my controller.  Doing so, I discovered that the camera rotated around my character and then suddenly he (I imagine that our Journeyer could be a she but since I’m a he, he was a he) stood up.  Left stick indications instructed that was how I was to move through the world and I was struck by how gorgeous the world was.  Just a simple stride up a sand hill and I realized that the game was meticulously designed as the sand flowed and deformed with each step.  The steeper the hill got, the more effort my character had to apply to struggle up to the top.  At the peak a forked mountain top could be seen in the distance and suddenly the title appears.  ‘Journey’.

OK.  My journey is to reach the top.  Let’s do this.  I pushed forward with the left stick and felt immediate joy as my character slid at a quick pace down the sand dune.  The sand deformed as if I was actually out in the real world.  I couldn’t believe how perfectly “right” the game already felt, just with that one simple game design.  In the near distance I could see a ruin of some sort with cloth blowing around a bright cube.  I trudged my way over to the cube and suddenly my character lit up and I had a small scarf glowing brightly.  The faint controller instructions indicated to hold down X.  Ever briefly I was suddenly floating in the air, my cloak flowing and fluttering like a butterfly of sorts.

Again in the distance I could see another ruin so I made my way to that.  Along the way–holding X–my character would briefly float until the scarf no longer glowed.  Passing by fluttering bits of cloth, my scarf once again was renewed with a glow and I could jump/float some more.  A perfect tutorial without ever saying anything.  Reaching the ruin, I found a wall with small pillars lining either side which glowed as I approached.  One final controller instruction faintly appeared indicating that I could hold down circle.  Doing so caused the wall to reveal a glyph.  Moving out of the ruin, I found myself wandering.  Obviously to my left was likely the path I was intended to travel, but I wanted to see what would happen if I went a different direction.  So I struck out the opposite direction and found that the further I went the “wrong” way, wind and sand began to blow and soon I found myself being lifted and blown backwards.  Truly one of the best ways of building an invisible wall and helping to focus players toward the true path.

I headed back in the direction I was supposed to go, toward a group of ruins sunk lower in the sand standing between me and the ever present forked mountain top off in the far distance.  Up hills and sliding down dunes, I enjoyed exploring at my leisure, taking in all the wonder of this forgotten, desolate world.  I found another glowing cube atop a small broken pillar and upon touching it found my scarf growing in length which allowed me to float higher and longer.  Doing so, I reached the top of a larger ruin which obviously was meant for me to release more tattered bits of cloth.  After releasing them, I suddenly found myself lofted high into the air and was able to reach a clearing with a triangular stone and more glowing pillars surround it.  Activating the pillars unlocked a glowing circle on the ground in front of the triangular stone which triggered a memory cut scene for my character as I stood within.

Let me stop for a minute to describe in probably more detail than necessary what I had played.  The journey is about reaching the forked mountain top by passing through areas of ruin, unlocking tattered bits of cloth, releasing chirping, kite-like swaths of cloth and discovering glowing cubes and revealing glyphs.  All the while sections of the game are stitched together with cryptic memories of my character talking (but not talking since no spoke words are ever uttered in the game) with white clad elders preparing my character for the journey.  If anything in the game doesn’t make sense, I find that the cut scenes (while they do convey and progress the story to some extent) almost take me out of the flow and natural progression with the game.

The cut scene finishes and a gate opens.  I head to the gate and watch the screen fade to a white loading screen, and the next thing I know I’m in a new level.  I move forward and find staggered, almost step-like pillars take up the focal point in this new area with plenty of tattered cloth waiting for me to come along and activate it.  I wander around exploring and unlock a swarm of tattered cloth only to discover I’ve created a bridge up to the first pillar.  Obviously, I need to explore the area some more and do the same with the rest of the pillars in order to continue my journey forward.

Suddenly, I can hear a musical cacophony of chatter.  I spin my camera around and find another red cloaked journeyer chirping away in my space.  I wanted to say, leave me alone.  Go away.  This is my journey, not yours.  You’ve ruined my self exploration.  As that player found and unlocked another section of cloth bridge.  But there wasn’t much I could do except to accept the fact that I now had someone else who potentially wouldn’t play the way I played–methodic and slow, trying to find every hidden secret in the area before moving on.  Sure enough, the other player finished creating the bridge and wandered off into the next area.

At that moment, I stopped playing.  I wanted to play at my pace, not at the pace of some nameless kid who simply wanted to race through each level.  Thus my initial disillusionment of Journey formed.  All of my hopes of a game that would hold the same emotional impact that Flower did was crushed.  I turned the game off and went to bed.  Maybe it was the overly long day-job frustrations taking control, but the game that I kept hearing was so grand, was crushed in five minutes by a similarly red-cloaked player, unintentionally and without any control, joining my world.

The next day I realized I wasn’t giving the game a fair shake.  I needed to stay open minded and finish the game regardless of nameless others rushing through my world.  I started Journey up again and found I was back at the pillars now with no bridges built and began to release the cloth to get the bridges built.  Of course another nameless player appeared and we both seemed to be on a bit of a closer wavelength about play style, discovery etc.  We would chirp back and forth and soon the bridge was built and we crossed into the next level.

Pink sand dunes filled my vision and we proceeded to find and release the kite-like flying cloth creatures which chirped back at us to follow, which allowed us to find and release more of their brethren.  Soon, we were climbing a tower which held another triangular stone, which meditating at brought another cut scene and unlocked the path to continue to the fork-peaked mountain top.  What opened up next, though, was a complete blast.

Achingly beautiful copper sand, reflecting the sun in a downhill slalom of ruins and chirping kite creatures.  The speed of zooming down the sand slide was overwhelming.  Music played to the strength of the moment, jaunty and fast and truly a joy.  Jumping and chirping and getting completely caught up in the moment, I lost my friend.  My fellow journeyer.  Sadness crept up as I realized I was alone again in the world of ruins and mystery.  I worked my way around the new location only to discover that I was no longer alone again, but it wasn’t the same nameless friend I had met a few moments before.  Again, I was stuck with a journeyer who had no sense of exploration or self control.  This time I figured I would follow along and see if my impression of him or her would change.

Up into the air and through a hole in the high wall, we were back again sliding down sand, this time turning more gray and blue from the original blinding copper.  Down we slid into a darker, foreboding ruin.  Somehow, again during the sliding, I seem to have lost my companion as I found myself in the dark, gray, blue underground alone.  I pushed on and found a cavernous world with the cloth almost acting like seaweed.  Touching it, I found myself bounding up, ever higher until I reached a chirping kite which indicated I should go forward into another darker area with ominous sounds emanating out.

As I moved forward I found myself again accompanied by another journeyer, and we cautiously made our way through the dark recesses of what could only be described as a nest of hunter rock dragon-like beasts.  Their singular eye shining a blue beam of light down on the sand, seeking out any who dared travel through the tunnel.  Sadly, my companion was spotted, the blue light turned red, and the rock dragon charged at him, tearing his scarf and tossing him into the air.  Fear and dread filled me as I had managed to find many glowing cubes and so my scarf was long and I did not want the same fate to happen to me.  I pressed on without my companion and moved as quickly as I could through the tunnel filled with more and more hunter dragons.  Suddenly, I was spotted as I slid down the sand, moving as quickly as possible to an area filled with light.  Dragons, screeching and charging at me, I reached the light-filled area just as the dragons charged and found them rebuffed by a wall of pure light.  I was safe, my scarf was safe. Another triangular stone sat waiting to be activated.

Following the cut scene, I pressed forward to the next area.  A light-filled, column-like room that reached high up.  Jumping from tattered patch of cloth to tattered patch of cloth, a new journeyer and I worked our way up the column, each time activating a new glyph which flooded the room with energy granting water. Soon a cloth like whale appeared out of the wall and lifted us to our next glyph, and then we reached another triangular stone.

Upon passing through the next gateway, I could tell we (I, mostly, as it would seem I had chewed through several journeyers at this point) were almost to the end of the journey.  Snow blew across the path now and instead of sand, I trudged through cold winds and realized my scarf (while glorious and long) was devoid of glowing power due to the cold.  Moving slower, ever up and closer to the forked mountain pass, I could hear more hunter dragons.  Cautiously, this time I hugged the walls to avoid being spotted by the hunter’s blue eye.  Fear gripped me, though, as I realized the dragon was onto me and I had nowhere to run or hide, nor the energy to leap out of its path.  The dragon got me and tore my scarf from me.  I could only press on, defeated and upset that I had lost all that I had discovered along the way.  Through a gate like passage I pressed ever so slowly up, the forked mountain just moments away, but the elements took my character and I collapsed.  Snow and wind keeping me from my final destination.

I felt robbed.  Cheated from seeing what I had set out to do.  Suddenly the screen went all white and I could hear chirping and my character was all aglow.  I was zooming up fast.  Zooming through a tunnel of clouds and screeching dragons. Up. Up. Up through the clouds.  Music gloriously strumming my journey.  Beautiful clouds, light and fluffy, gorgeous blue sky.  Stunning red gates.  Flying.  Zooming.  Is this heaven?  Was I going to make it after all?  Waterfalls and beautiful red cloth seaweed, flying cloth whales and chirping kites all pushed and guided me on.  Until I was at my final destination.  I made it to the top.  The ground where the forked mountains met.  I walked forward to find a blazing sun and all white.  I was blazing and glowing, and the next thing I know I’m a shooting star rocketing from the mountain top.

So, yeah, the game was pretty good.  Yet I still had some nagging doubts about the multiplayer.  Why did thatgamecompany put in uncontrollable party play?  Sure I could log out of the PSN and play without worry of running into nameless asshats.  But part of the journey is being with a companion.  When I was playing and had a worthy nameless companion the game worked on so many levels that felt perfect.  I missed having a companion in the vast ruins and felt alone and afraid without having someone to share the moment.

I had to play again.  I started up and next thing I know I’m back at the pink dunes, then on to the copper sands, down through the dark tunnels with dragons and back up the snowy peaks.  This time through I’ve got a companion with me who felt the same way and we worked together to stay together through to the end.  Flying over the waterfalls and red gates and bounding from the whales and kites, we chirped back and forth with each other with so much excitement, knowing we would cross over together.  There is something compelling and completely satisfying with completing the journey with another companion. It makes the journey whole.

So now that I’ve related my entire journey in more detail than I probably should, I hope that you readers understand why I stated at the beginning that this game is one that absolutely must be experienced.  I’ve noticed that as I have continued to play through again and again, my own character’s cloth has become more and more detailed. Touches like this show that so much thought and care has been put into Journey by thatgamecompany. This truly is a special game, and just thinking about all of the little things that have been hidden and allow for discovery warms my heart.  If you have read this far but don’t have the game yet, stop reading and go buy it already. Then come back and share your journey with me.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Rich, beautiful environments
+ Amazing, evocative music
+ Replay offers players a chance to discover things missed on the first journey
+ Multiplayer companions add a depth that brings the game new meaning

Cons:
– Multiplayer can also distract from taking in all of the nuance that the game provides

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: thatgamecompany
Release Date: 3/13/2012
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-2
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.