Thatgamecompany’s latest title is an unadulterated work of art.
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Aside from explicit "interactive art," such as Plastic's Linger in Shadows, you won't find a more deliberate artistic experience on the PlayStation Network than Journey, a new downloadable title from thatgamecompany, developers of flOw and Flower.
It's easy to spoil this experience simply by reading a review. We'll do our best, but for fans of Flower we do recommend just downloading the game immediately. The experience is delightful at all times, groundbreaking throughout, and flies in the face of almost every gaming norm we can think of. Plus, it's a lot of fun.
The game opens on a vast sea of desert sands. Cresting a nearby dune, the only distinguishable feature is a massive mountain in the far distance, illuminated by some kind of beacon shining upwards. Without any other indication of what else to do, instinct takes over, and you set out ahead to climb the mountain. This is the "object" of Journey.
Core gameplay is best described as traversal or platforming, however this definition is vague at best. The player character is a cloaked, unspecific humanoid, and he (or she) has two abilities: jumping and...speaking? Speaking is another loose definition, in truth it's more like singing, or playing a musical note. Half of the game's appeal comes from slowly learning how to use these abilities to make your way across the environment.
Further description risks spoiling the experience, but you'll soon find your character able to glide majestically through the air. And over the course of the game, you'll improve both your flight time and your ability to harness the world around you.
If all this sounds a bit like Flower, it should. And anyone who has played Flower knows this is high praise. Journey captures the serene and relaxing—yet absolutely focused—gameplay of its spiritual predecessor, and translates it for a somewhat more traditional adventure.
Controls are extremely simple by modern standards, but they're actually relatively complex for the work of thatgamecompany. Dual analog sticks are used for movement and camera rotation, however physically rotating the SIXAXIS in space may also be used to control the camera. X (or holding X, eventually) is used for jumping, and O is for talking/singing/whatever. Again, pretty simple, but a tad more sophisticated than Flower for example.
Other than a gold trophy, there is little built-in incentive to play through Journey more than once. A few hidden items, no unlockables, however the experience is so compelling and so dense with sights you may have missed the first time around, that you'll probably find yourself playing it again purely for enjoyment.
Pacing & Flow
Pacing is nearly perfect. The short, two-hour average gameplay length means the entire experience can be easily digested in one sitting. At no point during your initial playthrough will you experience boredom or detect repetition. Journey is not challenging, however thatgamecompany has done an excellent job keeping gameplay fresh within the confines of its own simplicity. Environments are also quite varied, lending an epic quality to the journey, despite its short form.
Storytelling is much more traditional and on-the-nose than it was in Flower, but this is still a very non-literal narrative and impressions will likely vary from player to player. We recommend you play the game yourself, and skip reading this section. Don't read anything we write on this page. Don't do it. Just skip to the next one.
Still here huh? There is no spoken narrative. The story is symbolic and seems to follow the rise and fall of a civilization, that is, the civilization of your cloaked and hooded brethren. The mountain, the one you're heading toward the entire game, is depicted as a source of energy or possibly genesis for your people. The cloaked people apparently tried to harness this energy, and were successful for some time, however things eventually took a turn for the worse.
Your titular journey takes place alongside the exposition of this tale, and also takes you physically through the relevant locales. In this way, we experience both ancient history through cutscenes, and the long-term ramifications through context, at the same time.
Unlike Flower, which used context-driven storytelling exclusively, or flOw, which had no story to tell, Journey does take advantage of cinematic cutscenes for the first time in thatgamecompany's body of work. We definitely think contextual storytelling is more appropriate for this type of game, and although the cutscenes fit in visually, we felt like the game design wasn't as smooth with their inclusion. And it's not like these videos are conveying complex ideas, we could've easily picked up adequate history and plot from creative context clues.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Technology and art design come together to give Journey an extremely compelling visual appeal, while music and sound complete the atmosphere and lend the game much of its emotion.
An exemplary application of cell shading, Journey's visual aren't quite cartoony but certainly aren't realistic either. The result is a notably versatile style that's capable of cute, whimsical moments, as well as dark, suspenseful moments. The clean, minimalist technique creates an evocative environment without distractions from the gameplay or the meaning and mystery of the plot.
Although screenshots can't do the game justice, Journey is a technical powerhouse. Sand physics are amazingly realistic, among the best in gaming so far, and draw distance extends incredibly far, creating an impressive and necessary sense of scale. A number of gorgeous effects are used to achieve the goals of the narrative, though we won't spoil them here. The only trouble spots are textures, which are sharp but bland and repetitive.
Journey's fully orchestrated soundtrack is one of the best in modern gaming. In the absence of spoken dialog, music actually plays a large part in conveying this story to the player. Cellos mix with just a hint of electronic for a timeless soundtrack perfectly suited to the game.
But by far the best part of the score is the way it dynamically reacts to your actions onscreen. Music adapts quickly and dramatically to what you're doing. On-foot exploring will be met with equally slow-paced background notes, but start sliding down a hill and the music swells to exciting and upbeat composition. This gives the player a strange sensation of no longer controlling a character in a videogame, but acting as the main character in a choreographed performance. Journey's music will be found on Top 10 lists for years to come.
Sound effects are masterfully infrequent, and used only to highlight important aspects of gameplay. No matter the application, most effects are actually musical notes, so they'll enhance the soundtrack rather than clashing with it. Again, stunning.
Multiplayer is highly experimental and unlike any other implementation on the market. Over the course of your journey, you will sometimes run into another cloaked person, presumably on their journey as well. The transition is absolutely seamless, and there is little to indicate this is even another human player. In fact we expect some new gamers may even assume this companion is an A.I. Remember that the O button is used for speaking/singing, and players can use this feature to perform rudimentary communication with each other.
Cooperation is by no means required here, in fact we were at first a little annoyed by this intruder, and actively sought to leave him or her behind. That's possible too, you may leave or be left behind by another player and the game will not miss a beat. You may, in fact, encounter more than one other player in your journey, and interact with them (or not) as you see fit. But some of the most human, most compelling moments in Journey come from traversing the game with an anonymous stranger. Being restricted to an infant's level of communication defends the gameplay experience against griefing and immaturity, and the dynamic just works. By the end, we were rooting for our compatriot, waiting for them before moving on, and genuinely smiling when they waited for us. The result is a shockingly legitimate electronic friendship, forged in shared adventure and enabled by ingenious game design.
The experience of Journey is best described as dining at a fine restaurant: you pay a little extra, leave without feeling full, but taste the most delicious morsels of food along the way. If you'll pardon our silly metaphor, Journey is a delicious morsel of gaming.
A whimsical, emotional experience awaits you in this download. Technological, musical, and conceptual brilliance come together and provide two hours of gripping gameplay that's unique from anything else. We reserve special praise for the adaptive orchestral score and the beautiful, consistent art design which, frankly, we can't believe is successfully pulled off in real time.
We were initially skeptical of Journey's multiplayer component, and for a few minutes wished it had been omitted. Our mistake. The game's speechless interactions evoked more real life companionship than months of Call of Duty could, and we have a feeling more than a few friend requests were sent out between formerly cloaked adventurers.
The $15 price tag is the game's biggest flaw. That's a lot to ask for a two hour game, especially one that—although excellent—isn't quite as tight and perfect as Flower was. Still, nobody ever complains about dining in the second-best restaurant in the world. Journey is almost certainly worth your time, but those on the fence will want to check out the demo first, or purchase the upcoming Journey Collector's Edition, which includes flOw and Flower for only $30. But at the very least, get off the internet to avoid spoiling this amazing experience.