Review: JOURNEY comes from the acclaimed indie developers behind flOw and Flower. Is this mysterious PS3 game a grand adventure, or simply a bad trip? Read on to find out…
A nameless traveller wakes up in the middle of a desert that stretches for miles in all directions. They look up at the sky, and see a mountain crowned with a mysterious glowing light far off on the horizon, so they start walking towards it. That’s it. That’s Journey.
There are some amazing things to see on the way, but the rude mechanicals, the stuff you’re actually doing by moving the stick or pushing buttons, are not fundamentally different to anything you’ve played before. At least, on paper. You can clear the whole thing in 90 minutes and, once you’re done, there’s little practical reason to play through it again unless you like chasing PlayStation Network Trophies.
There’s also a good chance you could find this one of the highlights of the year. Journey and its glowing mountain were inspired by conversations with an astronaut about seeing the Earth from space, and how even the committed atheists among his colleagues were shaken by the sense of being in the presence of something much bigger than themselves. It’s an ambitious emotion to want to convey through a game, yet the different ways the developers realise this are frequently groundbreaking, even if the game underneath is not especially complex.
It helps that Journey is astonishingly pretty. From the brief intro sequence and the moment you wake up in the desert, to the final stage and the subsequent epilogue, it’s a jaw-dropping technical and artistic accomplishment. While it’s not pushing too many polygons, the effect of the sand as it ripples across the desert floor, gusts on the wind or floats down through sunbeams is gorgeous.
The shaders themselves don’t change that much, but the different settings thatgamecompany achieve just by switching out the colour palette or the lighting are unbelievably distinct. The audio deserves equal praise, with some fantastic effects on the wind or the dunes shifting underfoot (use some good headphones if you can), as well as a tremendous orchestral score.
But it’s here the clever little touches start. At its core, Journey is a very simple third-person platformer, but the way you appear in its world makes it so much more than that. Watch your avatar struggle up the very first hill, walking more and more slowly as he reaches the top. See him surf down the other side – wheeee! Watch the sand shift as you move. See him glance around warily whenever you leave him alone for a few seconds.
These are more than just flashy incidental animations: they reinforce the idea that this is one epic road trip you’re setting out on. And the way the camera almost seamlessly tracks you, pulling back to show how far you’ve got to go then zooming in when you’ve found something interesting, heightens that impression.
Then there’s the actual platforming. You move relatively slowly, but within a couple of minutes you unlock the ability to jump, launching into a soaring glide across the terrain. The scarf around your neck shows how far you can travel, and while at first you can only manage one or two leaps before needing to recharge, picking up hidden collectibles gets the scarf long enough you barely need to stop to refuel.
The controls are excellent, particularly for the flying, evoking a real desire to keep moving in ever-increasing, joyful bounds across the landscape. While Journey is rarely particularly challenging, the controls are tremendously rewarding to just play around with, or use to hunt down the hidden secrets, up there with the best of Nintendo’s work on the Mario franchise.
It’ll menace ya
And then Journey brings you back down to Earth. If you’ve played thatgamecompany’s Fl0wer, the story arc here shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. It’s much subtler, though, more refined. Fl0wer also gave you a pastel-coloured wonderland, then hit you with the mean ol’ forces of darkness ruining everything. But while both games have you taking the freedom of the opening levels for granted, Journey starts you off in a ruined world, so you know things aren’t exactly sweetness and light. When things get menacing it feels like an actual threat, not just a narrative contrivance. There’s no blood, and you can’t die as such, but the violence here is more genuinely shocking than that of most horror games.
Which brings us to the multiplayer. Again, on paper, it doesn’t look like much. Other players slip in and out of your game seamlessly, there’s no matchmaking, and no chat of any kind. You can’t even see who they were until you’ve finished. Yet Journey makes the presence of another traveller seem like a vital part of the game.
One button lets you interact with various parts of the world, from activating machinery to charging up your scarf, but if you tap it you let out a random musical note that harmonises with the score. When two of you do this, singing to each other feels astonishingly emotional, whether you’re doing it for the giggles, whooping with glee while you hurtle down a slope, or huddling terrified in a dark corner while something hunts for you outside.
And there are other benefits. Singing points out where you are, calling the other player to a collectible (you can’t steal them from each other, so there’s no griefing) or showing them the way you need to go. But the brilliant final level marries just having a laugh with making the game markedly easier to fantastic effect.
The impressive part is not merely realising how this works; it’s how you can see it working. So few other games make co-operating an emotional as well as practical reward that it feels like a revelation here. Without the other player, you’re visibly slower, more vulnerable, less empowered. Stick close together and you’re faster, able to react to danger more quickly, and much less handicapped. Having someone else watch your back rarely feels like such an unspoken bond in virtually any other game.
Journey won’t be for everyone, and with good reason. For all the rhapsodising about what it feels like to play, even the most wide-eyed player would have to admit that, yes, this is a fairly simple third-person platformer that’s over in less time than it takes to watch your average movie. There’s a definite feeling of closure, but at the same time you want more, and not entirely in a good way. The Trophies should keep some people going, but the whole thing feels painfully slight, with minor graphical glitches, invisible walls blocking off much of the earlier levels, and only the final stage really making use of the multiplayer mechanics.
Even a game like ICO, with which Journey shares some similarities, lasted three or four times longer. Many of the innovations and subtle details here feel like they’re waiting for a bigger project to make full use of them.
If you need a very clear, unambiguous reason to save the world or kill the Big Bad, Journey probably isn’t for you. Ditto if you want to be graded on how well you did, or if you view multiplayer as a chance to show off.
But this is much more of a game than an interactive gallery like Dear Esther’s slow trudge from A to B. Journey is a gorgeous, captivating world you get to hang out in for a little while, to really feel you’ve accomplished something while you were there. It’s a cruelly short road trip, but a meaningful one, and the brief running time doesn’t stop it from being a truly epic.
Journey is far too short, and not very challenging or complex, but the stunning production values and subtly brilliant design decisions make it much more than the sum of its parts.
Journey, by thatgamecompany and Sony Computer Entertainment, will be released for PS3 on 14/03/12.