Whilst browsing the Internet, the other day, it came to my attention that Journey (the video game, not the eighties rock group) had just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Sounds like the ideal time then for me to post a belated review of what I think of it. Developed for Sony by Thatgamecompany, whose unorthodox approach to video game design has previously included titles were you manipulate microorganisms and flower petals, Journey was a title that received numerous nominations in game of the year polls back during the tail end of 2012. Given the praise lavished upon it by gaming journalists, far and wide, I couldn’t resist picking it up during a shopping spree of PSN downloadable titles a few months ago.
When the game boots up players assume control of a robed bipedal figure who finds himself in the middle of a scorching desert. The character’s hood masks his face, aside from his glowing eyes, giving him an appearance which reminds me a little of the black mages from the Final Fantasy series or that annoying Orko from the old He-man cartoons. Anyway, after ascending the sandy dune in front of you, your goal becomes clear. Gazing up into the distance you become transfixed on a pillar of light shooting up from a far-flung mountaintop. Like a moth drawn to a flame you cannot resist heading towards the beam shooting up from the alp’s summit.
In terms of controls, Journey’s mechanics are fairly straightforward. The only remotely advanced feature is the ability to control the camera by tilting the PS3’s Sixaxis control pad in the desired direction. It’s a rare example of a developer taking advantage of the controller’s motion controls, although to be honest I much preferred using the right hand stick to adjust the camera viewpoint. I always favor traditional control schemes over motion controls as I find them to be far more responsive. As in most games the left analogue stick controls your character’s movement and tapping the x button makes you jump.
Holding down the x button also allows our budding traveller to take to the skies for a brief period of time. How long your flight powers last for are dependent on the length of your scarf, which can be extended by locating hidden glyphs that are scattered around the desert, ruins and icy wasteland you’ll be trekking across. Aside from Superman like acrobatics through the air and less spectacular walking you’ll also have to explore your surroundings to overcome obstacles preventing you from reaching your end goal. Early examples include activating switches that uproot a bridge buried under the sand and chirping at textile creatures who will propel you up to inaccessible areas.
For anyone venturing on Thatgamecompany’s journey I would strongly encourage that they do so with the multiplayer option enabled. Journey’s two-hour solitary trip can get lonely so having a companion tag along really enhances the experience. Although I was absorbed by the game’s beauty at the start and became emotionally invested in the traveller’s plight, as he fought against the snowy elements near the end, I did get a little bored around the halfway mark. Had it not been for the joyful distraction of a fellow player I probably would have marked the game lower than the four star rating I am giving it.
The way the multiplayer component works is that the server zones in a random player, who is in the same region as yourself, into your game. This may disappoint those of you who want to play with friends, but it’s ultimately a design decision that I respect as it prevents the game’s immersion from being shattered. The identity of the players you cross paths with remains anonymous until the end credits roll, at which point you are presented with a list of gamer tags corresponding to the fellow Journey players who you met. The mystery of who your companion is, is something I appreciate as it makes you ponder who they really are. Is it a single mom, an unemployed punk rock fan or a famous actor? Who knows. Their background is ultimately irrelevant as you bond over the common interest of playing a video game.
Given the game’s artistic approach it’s just as well that communication is restricted along with a player’s handle. I cannot think of anything worse than having an emotional moment tarnished by someone’s goofy name (e.g LOLilikeCATz) or having a companion chime in with inane text speak. Just imagine how much more pleasant a game like Call of Duty would be if they implemented similar restrictions to their online play. We would be mercifully spared of squeaky voiced ten year olds who swear.
Poorly written characters mar some games so it is interesting to see how more fleshed out things feel when the only people you encounter are fellow human beings. Over the course of my journey I met several players who would chirp out encouragement, using the circle button, before we parted ways as I headed off toward my destination whilst they stayed back exploring the surrounding area. Eventually I bumped into a kind soul who stayed by my side until the very end. He waited for me to catch up whenever I faltered in leaping across a chasm, recharged my scarf and encouraged me to follow him to find hidden glyphs I would have otherwise missed. My buddy even managed to draw a smiley face on the snow, which was rather cute. Even though Journey has many memorable moments, it’s those brief flashes of kinship that linger in the mind once the game has been turned off.
Presentation wise Journey is simply stunning. There’s a lot of attention to detail such as how your cape wafts in the wind, grains of sand roll down hills or your character noticeably struggles to climb up steep slopes. The art style is beautiful as you can see just by doing a quick Google image search. The picturesque screenshots you will find, showcasing the expansive environments, are so good that they would not look out of place if enlarged and hung on the wall as a painting. Thatgamecompany’s titles are renowned for their sound design and Journey keeps up the tradition with a score that really influences how you feel at any given moment. I’m not the best choice for judging tunes, as my cheesy J-Pop heavy iPod library will testify to, but given that Austin Wintory’s auditory work was nominated for a Grammy and won a BAFTA I think it’s safe to say that the soundtrack is awesome.
So in case you haven’t guessed already, I strongly recommend Journey. It’s worth experiencing as it’s quite unlike anything you will have played before. In the debate of whether video games are art or not it is difficult to counter the pro camp when Journey is cited as an example. That said I wouldn’t say it is a perfect game. The reasoning for that is that Journey barely does enough to be considered a game. All you really do is walk onward to the ending. I cannot help but think that the project would have worked just as well if it had been a musical cartoon, akin to the family classic The Snowman.
The game lacks many of the conventions you associate with interactive entertainment. There’s no high score to beat, enemies to trounce and even the story is open to interpretation. I personally feel the brief flashbacks and dialogue-less cut scenes make things appear deeper than what they really are, but that hasn’t stopped fans from speculating about what it all means.
Journey is meant to be played in one sitting so it doesn’t last beyond a couple of hours, which is disheartening given the asking price. As a reward, replaying the game multiple times makes the design of your scarf become more elaborate. If you are able to collect all of the hidden glyphs you are also given an albino colored robe for your efforts. That makes up for the short story, but to be honest it’s not the type of game most people will want to revisit frequently. Of course dissecting faults in the game, when you reach the ending, is missing the point given the emotional roller coaster you feel whilst playing through it. The journey after all is more important than the destination.