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nekobun avatar 12:00 AM on 06.29.2011  (server time)
Every Journey Begins With A Single Step

And thankfully, none of those steps were part of a retread of Journey Escape for the Atari 2600.

I was fortunate enough to score one of the Journey beta codes Dtoid was giving out earlier today, and it's probably the best thing that's happened to me in the past few weeks. Already intrigued by some of the teases floating around the internet, getting to really dig into the game rather than waiting on previews and trailers is pretty amazing.

Right off the bat (well, after a software update - this is a PS3 game we're talking about here), Journey's world is breathtaking, opening up to a view of your stylized, humanoid character gazing out across a sea of sand. The game prompts you with a translucent image to tilt the sixaxis in order to move the camera. Later introductions of controls are similarly simple and elegant, and so far, the game seems to only involve two buttons.

The primary actions available to you, besides movement, seem to involve projection of an aura around yourself, used to trigger dilapidated-looking banners that tend to open paths for you, and jumping. The latter isn't even inherent to your character at first; rather, you earn and extend the length of a scarf that reflects your flight time by finding white, glowing ribbons swirling about on their own around the landscape.

The environment itself is a complete mystery, given a complete lack of any sort of intelligible text, even in cutscenes that seem to be trying to tell the story. Everything is told through pictographs, and there are sigils here and there, such as on the small obelisks (possibly grave markers?) that litter the early levels, and there's not a lick of vocal communication. This seems like it would hinder cooperation between players that encounter one another, but I found myself surprised as it seems to have actually engendered helping one another out.

Both playthroughs (the beta consists of three, maybe four stages), I encountered other players wandering, and while we couldn't directly interact, we inadvertently ended up helping one another out. My first time in the second stage, I quickly picked up on the need to make contact with the large banners flapping about in order to build cloth bridges between the ruins climbing their way across the sky mid-stage. My new companion, initially just wandering about and investigating the swarms of jump sigils scattered about, noticed the circle I was making, and finished the other half, saving us both a load of time. That, and I noticed his scarf was a few segments longer than mine, which would end up leading me to explore a bit more later.

Unfortunately, I ended up freezing up in the next area, but upon revisiting the game and working through the beginning once again, I found someone else waiting for me toward the top of that same area, though different, and sporting a slightly shorter scarf than mine, proving I wasn't the only one who'd missed a couple of extension ribbons (I don't know what else to call them) my first time through. My best guess is that s/he spotted me from up above and decided to hold up until we could press on together. This time, the third area went without a hitch, and we kept pace with the flying, squid-like rugs that were guiding us through a pinker, more desolate stretch of desert to an ominous tower that sounded of machinery and loomed above an enormous pit in the sands.

Even without the use of words, I noticed our scarves and capes would light up whenever I came in contact with another player, which was surprsingly powerful in its simplicity in reinforcing how companionship is probably hard to come by in this game world, and made it feel like even brief encounters held some sort of value. I'm already beginning to wonder if cooperative efforts are going to be necessary to open optional paths or access supplemental narrative in the full version of the game.

Also, no screenshots can fully portray just how beautiful the game is; for just a desert, thatgamecompany did an amazing job of stylizing sand physics, building an environment that feels natural to interact with without feeling too obvious, and even being reasonably subtle about establishing some borders to the environment; rather than straight up invisible walls that keep you from wandering too far, strong desert winds redirect you should you be heading off a bit too far into oblivion.

If there are still codes floating around somewhere, I highly suggest anyone with a PS3 and an appreciation for atmosphere give it a shot. To be honest, three areas were more than enough to sell me on the final version.

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