During the PSN sale that went down during the PAX week (or around then) I had the pleasure of picking up Journey, made by the same people behind flOw and Flower. While I've only played flOw before (spending about 30 minutes on it), I'm willing to bet Journey is thatgamecompany's most ambitious and fullest project yet. Journey came out last year and received much attention for its aesthetics and "emotional investment". It was an indie title that won many GOTY awards and top honors throughout 2012. An "art" game, if one would want to use a pretentious term.
I'll keep this review a bit short, not just because the game itself is short but because there isn't really much to say about it in text. Journey is basically a "journey" through a series of ruins and environments that almost imply a post-apocalyptic setting. You play as a nameless bipedal/cloaked creature with two eyes, but it's clear that you aren't the only one of your kind. The goal is seemingly to reach a distant mountain with a shining beacon sprouting out of it. It's cleverly the very first thing the camera points to you when you're given reign of the controls. Another thing about Journey's narrative is that it's all showing, not telling. This may raise concerns about the difficulty to interpret the meaning of its embedded world, but in my view it's perfectly fine to see the story however one wants. I believe the only words in the entire game are at the title and the credits (unless of course, you pause the game). While there are cutscenes, they are brief and simply serve as a break between what could pass as "levels" in the game. Overall, Journey's narrative is not about revelation or drama, which takes the pressure off its true strength: place.
Journey's locations should probably go down as among the most beautiful environments the gaming medium has yet seen. I shouldn't have to argue that the visuals are one of the main attractions of Journey and do a great job to keep the player engaged throughout the entire adventure. The game consists of less than five "acts" (or at least what I label them as) but the quality of the architecture and terrain help the game's imagery become unforgettable. While I doubt the polygon count is high at all by PS3 standards, thatgamecompany has done a splendid job at melding impressive draw distance with spectacular lighting control. Play this game on a big HDTV with good speakers, and Journey will put most AAA games to shame in terms of aesthetics.
The other half of the aesthetics part is the audio, and it doesn't necessarily take a backseat to the impressive visuals. The sound effects and music blend seamlessly into the graphics, creating a comfortable synergy. Austin Wintory's grammy-nominated soundtrack isn't exactly composed of videogame-ish melodies that stick in the brain, but that's not a bad thing as the orchestral ambiance will occasionally give players goosebumps at just the right times. A smart use of percussion and strings complement fast and slow sections of the gameplay. I'd recommend the soundtrack for anyone reading, studying, or driving in smooth traffic.
The gameplay consists of jumping, flying, and walking. Besides those basic actions, the protagonist has a "sing" ability that functions as an action button. The "sing" ability is used to interact with various flying cloth objects around the environment, all of which seem to feel alive and friendly to the player. While I won't say too much about the gameplay design, I should mention that these interactions are generally used for charging one's leaping/flying power (which may appropriate Journey as a platformer). After one understands that, it's smooth sailing from then on.
Journey is about two hours long, roughly the length of a film, which means it can and should be played in one sitting. I didn't know this and therefore played 70% of the game in one sitting before going off to work. I wish I started at a time that didn't hinder the perfect pacing of the adventure, so I highly recommend scheduling a playthrough with a couple hours to spare. The only instances where the length could extend is if one goes off searching/exploring for certain glowing lights that upgrade the protagonist's flight capacity. Even with the short length, I can see myself replaying this game once next year and maybe a year after that, as long as my PS3 is still active.
The last aspect of the game I'd like to touch on is the online component. Journey innovates in neat fashion by making the connected players anonymous. From time to time, players may encounter one another in a level as they turn the corner, and depending on mutual feelings they could play through the game side-by-side. Two players may help one another via the "sing" ability to recharge flight, or simply by showing each other the way forward. No traditional communication methods are enabled, so the journey remains quiet and peaceful.
Quiet and peaceful isn't absolute in Journey however, as the levels do make time to mix up the highs and lows players experience. Journey is surprisingly engaging and diverse for the minimalist style it appears to exude. While I won't spoil it for those who haven't played the game, be assured that there are other familiar game pleasures at work besides the usual run-and-jump aspects. What I love about this game is its delight in showing players the joy of "drifting" and interacting with the game world, and it does so in a pure sense that few titles demonstrate. Traversing a wide, almost barren landscape toward a mysterious destination would bring me back to the days of riding around in Shadow of the Colossus or certain Zelda entries.
I'd say Journey is quite worth the price listed on PSN, especially in the event that it's on sale. The game is accessible to anyone, from young children with plenty of time on their hands to casual or older adults with little time on their hands. Pick it up, play it, and let friends/family give it a try. Even if it doesn't emanate the same level of emotional punch for some players that more centrally story-focused games do, it will certainly remain one of the most unique gems in the medium.
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