Interactive Art, Redefined.
It’s hard to encapsulate the wide array of emotions I felt with thatgamecompany’s newest downloadable treat, Journey, without giving away too much. I’ll stay away from spoiling anything, but if you haven’t played Journey at this point you should stop reading and go experience it for yourself right this instant. Trust me, it’s worth every bit of your time and money.
On the topic of time and money, Journey is short. Very short. Two hours tops, short. For $15, some might be a bit hesitant, but that stat shouldn't deter you. Instead of approaching this as a game, think of Journey as an interactive animated film, as there isn’t much here in terms of gameplay. If anything, it’s a cooperative exploration experience. This is, after all, a journey. Not a shooter, not an RPG, not a strategy game; a journey.
You’re immediately presented with your goal at the start of your virtual pilgrimage: the mighty mountain way off in the distance, silhouetted by the bustling sands of the surrounding desert. As you stand atop that first sandy dune and peer out towards your destination, it’s hard to avoid being taken by an immediate sense of intrigue – probably because there’s a massive beam of light shooting from its peak. From then on, you basically point your character in that general direction and start trudging through the excellently animated sands, hopping, flying, chirping, and sliding as you go.
If you’re signed into Playstation Network, a step that’s highly recommended, you’ll encounter a similarly outfitted stranger roaming through the sands, probably looking just as confused as you are. You’ll have no way of knowing who this person is and no way of communication outside of the in-game means. While some people might find it annoying that they can’t pair up with a friend via online matchmaking, the aspect of the unknown it’s entirely appropriate to the game’s larger thematic structure. Though this anonymity can cause some problems, particularly if your partner is pretty dim-witted or preoccupied, you can always leave them behind and move to the next area. The game will automatically sync you with someone else after a few lonely moments.
I was fortunately blessed with pretty mindful partners, even though one dropped out halfway through. Regardless of his departure, I still felt an immediate connection with my pilgrimage buddy. Though we could barely communicate, we both knew that we had each other’s backs, no matter what. We were ready to take on whatever dangers lay ahead in the barren wastes. When the going gets tough – trust me, it’s pretty rough out there – I felt an incredible sense of duty to my partner. For all I knew, it could have been some whiney 12-year-old on the other end who spends his time being homophobic in Call of Duty matches, but that didn’t matter here. We had one goal in mind, and we had each other, and that was it.
The game isn’t challenging in the least, so if your partner happens to drop out at any point, you can still go on alone and beat the game – it just lacks a big element of the experience. Having a partner really adds a whole new level of engagement. Since the platforming, though pretty, isn’t all that challenging, it’s always nice to have that second person to race against, help out, or communicate with, basic as it is.
The gameplay mechanics throughout your and your buddy’s epic journey mainly consist of moving, jumping, and chirping. Thankfully, all these elements are well crafted, making your trip through the unknown a smooth and graceful experience.
Jumping is limited to the length of your scarf, the power-level of which is signified by a glowing white outline that gets closer to you as it drains. You’ll come across similarly colored glyphs in the wild that, once absorbed, increase the measure of your scarf and subsequently the duration of your jumps. After a while, you’ll essentially have the power of flight, something that’s especially beautiful when executed correctly. You’ll twist, turn, flip, and dance through the winds and, if you’re anything like me, stare in awe of the absolute grace your character moves with.
By tapping circle on the controller, your character will emit a little sound, with a white circle and symbol appearing above the character’s head, as well. Repeatedly tapping the button will give off different tone variations of the same sound, while holding the chirp button will charge up for a big chirp-blast with a much larger area of effect. It’s a bit strange at first, but incredibly useful at directing each other in certain situations or calling out if you happen to get lost. If you time your mega-chirps right, you can recharge each other mid-air to propel yourselves even further. Perpetually flying around with my partner had me wishing there was some kind of high-five button, but I guess I’ll live without it.
The world of Journey is wonderfully crafted, both technically and artistically. Certain backdrops and preset framing functions often had me question whether I was watching a cut scene or not; imagine my surprise when I found out I was not. Everything from the puffy clouds, to the mountain, to the sun reflecting off the shimmering sand at dusk, the decayed architecture, the flowing fabrics and bright blue skies are simply sublime. The environments you’re given to explore are some of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen, and the way your character interacts with the world and its inhabitants is similarly gorgeous. The game may be short, but the back-to-back-to-back-to-back breathtaking moments aptly make up for its brevity.
“Breathtaking” is also a pretty fitting descriptor for Journey’s soundtrack and dynamic sound design. Big, beautiful, sweeping orchestral scores pepper the experience, punctuating the game’s major developments with pinpoint precision. The amount of care that went into having the visuals match up with the accompanying tunes is evident, and I couldn’t be happier about it. By the final moments, the visual elements made sweet, sweet love with the audio, causing me to weep in its pure glory. Literally. I had tears in my eyes at the conclusion of my quest, ushering in a moment of absolute catharsis that left me nearly paralyzed on the couch. It was perhaps one of the most emotional moments I’ve had in gaming since the prelude to the final challenge in Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus. If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.
Journey is something that shouldn’t be missed, no matter who you are, gamer or not. Seriously, stop reading this and go buy it if you haven’t already. Even after going into this game with monumentally high expectations, I can happily report that Journey is definitely deserving of all its praise, and artistic gaming now has a new gold standard. Well done. Bloody good job.