Friday, April 13, 2012

Journey review

Journey is a beautiful and unique experience from the creators of Flower, just don't say it isn't a video game.

Format: PlayStation 3 (PSN)
Developer: thatgamecompany
Publisher: SCEE
Released: Out now (£9.99)
With CloudflOw and Flower, thatgamecompany have built a reputation on toying with the definition of a video game. But for all the artistic superlatives, the real brilliance of their work is that, actually, it couldn't be anything else.
Journey is thatgamecompany's best, most beautiful and most edifying title yet, but its heart is undoubtedly that of a video game. There is a goal, a jump button, obstacles, enemies, puzzles to solve and even co-op... of a sort. The trick is that Journey takes these staples and uses them in brave and exciting new ways.
You play as a robe-swaddled traveller, making their way across a harsh, sparse desert. The undulating sands stretch out into the distance, shimmering gold as the baking sun hits the dunes. It feels vast, you as a speck on a never-ending canvas. But you're not lost, the mountain peeking through the clouds is your destination. Never explained but never in doubt.
Journey is a gorgeous looking thing. The middle-eastern inspired art and architecture glisten with a rich painterly wash, and the delicate animation of your pilgrim is bewitching from the very first step. Your robes flutter gently in the breeze, while grains of sand tumble and part behind you in a glittering trail.
Journey's visual language is its most important tool, speaking to an equally sparse control scheme and dragging you through ever-shifting environments, desert giving way to crumbled temples and snow-swept carapace. While movement is contained to a floating jump that can be enhanced by collecting scattered ribbons, no moment across Journey's two hours are the same. Gentle platforming, simple puzzles and genuinely unnerving stealth sections pepper the trip. Journey is never particularly complex or challenging but it's always engaging, your interaction married to an aesthetic that conveys a genuine sense of wonder and achievement.
Journey's construction is no accident, nor is it the flamboyant whim of an eccentric artist. It is a precisely --albeit beautifully-- engineered piece of game design. thatgamecompany have become so adept at their craft that Journey can feel almost too perfect, lacking the endearing rough seams that Flower had.
So to introduce that human element, Journey simply introduces humans. As you continue on your travels, you will often see another pilgrim in the distance, making the same trip as you, their aura shining brightly on the horizon. This is another Journey player that happens to be at the same point of the game as you, two travellers thrown together by fate (well, alright, a clever programming script, spoilsport).
There's no voice chat, you can't invite friends and you have no idea who the other person is. The only form of communication you have is the indecipherable singing assigned to the circle button. But you will team up, keeping each other's jump power boosted by singing to each other, showing your partner secret areas and helping new players along the way. Or you might just zip along hashing together an approximation of the Match of the Day theme tune from your pilgrim's limited vocal range. This actually happened and, in doing so, hit upon the best thing aboutJourney's co-op implementation: companionship. You don't realise just how lonely and isolated it feels on your own in the desert, and sharing the trial with a like-minded partner is what transforms Journey from a gorgeous, but over-engineered trek into something special. Even if it's just for the company.
As you reach the end --with the first partner you met or even the third or fifth-- thatgamecompany's inimitable skill at creating a narrative arc with the most minimalist of tools comes together for a soaring, uplifting, heart-in-your-throat finale.
Some will find Journey too slight and too sparse an experience to justify the asking price. And that's fine, it deliberately speaks to an audience that will fall head-over-heels for its painterly style and worthy metaphors. But whatever camp you fall into, never say Journey isn't a video game. While it is one of the most expressive and unique titles of the medium, itis a video game. A magnificent one. Embrace it.

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