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Journey Review

5
  • PS3N

Journey stands as a prime example of the truly remarkable things that can be done via this medium.

When we talk about beauty in video games, more often than not we’re discussing it purely in the aesthetic sense. We’re talking about a game’s graphics, how pretty its art style is, and the like. Or maybe we’re discussing the soundtrack, referencing the aural beauty of a game’s music. This is more often the case than not simply because when we think of video games, we aren’t often able to point to more than a handful of experiences that truly affected us beyond the surface level emotions inherent to gaming: namely those of basic joy, humor, and all too often, frustration.

Who are you? And why are you in this desert? Journey never bothers to answer these questions, but you won't feel cheated for that fact.

Journey, the latest game from indie development studio thatgamecompany, is certainly a game that offers up aesthetic beauty, both in its visuals and score. But where it truly shines is in the experience of playing it. In Journey, the mere acts of jumping, running, and sliding around a painstakingly crafted world are enough to invoke strong emotional responses from the player. Every element, every mechanic, every single little thing works in seemingly effortless concert to deliver a game that is experientially beautiful from surface to core.

Maybe that won’t be an altogether surprising thing to learn for those who have previously delved into the worlds imagined by thatgamecompany and its creative lead, Jenova Chen. In games like flOw and flower, Chen and crew have previously shown us gameplay concepts that blend traditional game mechanics with headier, less immediately tangible ideas of what a game environment can be. In that regard, Journey feels very much like a culmination of the studio’s previous work. It feels like the end result of many lessons learned, trials overcome, and ideas fully explored. It is confident in its design, and unwavering in its ambiguity. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

In Journey, you play as a nameless, nearly faceless creature of indeterminate origin. You’re decked in a robe that could be perceived as religious garb (or could just as easily just be a nicely decorated robe.) There is no real preamble to explain your character, where they came from, or why they find themselves standing in the middle of a vast, lonely desert. Nor do you get a particular explanation for why you are compelled to venture toward a distant mountain, with a peak that glows in a way that practically beckons you forward. All these details are left to the player’s imagination, perception, and interpretation.

All you do know is that you want to move forward, through that desert and toward that mountain. Initially, all you can do is walk. Soon, you’ll discover a cluster of reddish fabrics that look similar to the scarf that’s draped around your character’s neck. These fabrics turn out to be the fuel for your sole major ability in Journey. They give your character the power to leap and float through the air for limited periods of time. There is a sentient quality to these little swaths of cloth, especially later on as...well, I won’t spoil it for you.

That’s the tricky thing about trying to describe a game like Journey to someone. So much of its wondrous appeal comes from simply not knowing what to expect. Going in with less specific details is ideal, as knowing how your journey evolves over time before you’ve even taken it would rob that first time through of much of its awe-inspiring beauty. It is enough to simply say that the world around you evolves into more than just a desert. The terrain grows, both in scope and treacherousness as time goes on. Each “level” of Journey is comparatively unique, offering up something the player hasn’t yet seen before. Taking in that ever-evolving world without too much foreknowledge is not merely recommended; it’s necessary.

You have no direct say in Journey's multiplayer element, and trust me when I say that's for the best.

And yet, once you have finished it, the desire to go back and play again and again is there. Is the experience lessened by having already done it once before? Absolutely not. If anything, it’s heightened by the awareness of what’s to come, and the anticipation of seeing it all over again. The first time through, it’s crucial to be unsullied by too much information, but for subsequent plays, it won’t even matter.

It’s not that Journey varies itself up, or really changes at all from play to play. And yet there is one key difference, one unpredictable factor that never comes up the same way twice: multiplayer.

Yes, Journey has cooperative multiplayer, but not in the traditional sense we’ve come to expect from games in recent years. There is no matchmaking screen, no friend invite functionality, or even voice chat. Hell, you don’t even get a say in when the multiplayer becomes a factor. So long as your PlayStation 3 is online, at some point within the game, a second player, drawn randomly from the pool of other players making that very same journey, will simply appear alongside you. No, they don’t just drop in out of thin air. It’s more like you’ll turn a corner, and suddenly they’ll be standing there. Or you’ll jump off a ledge, and they’ll be waiting for you at the bottom. It’s a completely seamless transition.

But what does having two players actually do for the game? Mechanically, very little. There are no cooperative abilities to speak of, and no real communication between players to speak of. The sole mechanical benefit for working in tandem is that by standing close to one another, you can recharge each other’s jump ability to the fullest. As for communication, the sole way to get the other player’s attention is to use the “sing” ability, a single button press that causes your character to let out a solitary note. Normally this mechanic is used to charge up de-energized cloth pieces around the world, but when another player is around, it becomes a kind of de facto Morse code.

How you and your new-found companion choose to roll is entirely on each of you. You can stick together and experience the journey’s end arm-in-arm (or, in this case, I suppose scarf-in-scarf is more accurate), or you may split off at some point. The first time I played through Journey, my companion left nearly as soon as they had arrived, which allowed me to finish the game on my own. The second time, I made it a point to stick by my new friend, and they seemingly did the same.

It’s difficult to describe what, exactly, it is that makes the act of playing through Journey with another traveler so much better, but it really is. There is something deeply cathartic and moving about pushing through the late game’s obstacles together, looking out for one another as you climb, slide, and float past what pitfalls await you. Without giving much detail, I’ll simply say that there is a single shot at the very end of the game (one that you control) that is an emotionally joyous experience when you come to it on your own. And yet, when I got to that same place with my compatriot, that joy became something transcendental and overwhelming. They say the greatest journeys are those shared with others; this Journey would appear to prove that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a bit more to Journey's world than just a big desert.

Perhaps some of you reading this might just shake your head at everything I’ve described thus far, mostly because I’ve described the game in largely superlative terms without really addressing the mechanics of the game itself, save but to say they are simple. Allow me to add that they are also effective, if that makes you feel any better. The greater point, however, is that you won’t really have to think of them. There aren’t many moments in Journey where you feel yourself concentrating on hitting the X button at a very specific time, or bemoaning the lack of jump energy currently at your disposal. Thoughts like that don’t enter your head because the core design simply doesn’t require them to.

You’re never so far from an energy boost that you’ll have to backtrack just to navigate an obstacle. You’re never “lost,” exactly, because the game is incredibly adept at showing you where you ought to be going, while allowing for a bit of exploration and discovery on your own. I don’t even recall dying at any point while playing Journey, though it is implied that you can. The easy accusation here, then, is that Journey is an incredibly easy game. That’s true, though perhaps an overly-simplified explanation.

Journey doesn’t hold your hand. It doesn’t tell you how you’re expected to play it, and that’s good. There’s no HUD to speak of. What little information you do need to know about how much damage you have left to take, and how much jump ability remains is right there on your character's scarf. It's part of the natural world you've entered, with no distracting HUD elements to ruin the immersion. What few bits of reality do seep their way into Journey are, quite frankly, unwelcome. Namely the initial controller tutorial, which seems almost carelessly tossed into a game world otherwise unsoiled by button prompts, life meters, and whatever else. Everything Journey does is entirely in service of keeping you specifically focused on your experience. It goes out of its way to ensure that the only thing you’re thinking about is the world that surrounds you, and that you, the player, are equally surrounded by it.

And it does a hell of a job, too. The visual art alone in Journey is enough to captivate those that play it. Its character and architectural art is of that gorgeous pseudo-religious style that’s informed everything from the modern day Legend of Zelda games to the works of Team Ico, and yet it remains distinctive and singular. It’s mesmerizing stuff, made even better by breathtaking lighting effects and a sound design that’s equal parts enrapturing and utterly unobtrustive. The score by composer Austin Wintory plays so perfectly into the emotional beats of the game world that it feels as much a part of the world as the ground you’re standing on. But again, it's these aesthetic elements working in tandem with Journey's design that truly sucks you into the game. Every single moment of Journey feels painstakingly crafted. There aren't bugs, glitches, or wonky physics issues to worry about. If you can find a polygon out of place in Journey, it's most likely because you went searching for it.

As ruined worlds go, Journey's is simply awesome.

If there is a remaining quibble anyone might have, it will be Journey’s length, though I assure you this is an unnecessary nitpick. Yes, Journey is a fairly short game, clocking in at around two hours of total playtime. The thing of it is, if you’re going to think of Journey with the old idea of “dollar value divided by number of hours equals quality of experience” in mind, then you’re going about this all wrong. Journey is not a single serving game. It’s not meant to be played once and then abandoned. And while yes, the mechanics of it are quite simple, there is no reason you should even be thinking about those sorts of things while playing. If you’re even still aware that you’re holding a controller more than 15 minutes in, Journey may just not be for you.

Who is Journey for, then? It is for those that are able to lose themselves in the experience. That is perhaps a vague, nebulous recommendation, but that’s similarly the grand sum of Journey. It’s not a game you can easily pigeonhole into a specific genre or niche. There isn't an easy "if you like this, then you'll definitely like this" kind of comparison to be made. Perhaps the blandest description I can give for it is that it is a game made more to be felt and appreciated rather than simply consumed, as we so often tend to do with new games nowadays. Journey may be a game predicated on familiar mechanics and concepts, but what it does with them is something that borders on revelatory.

Alex Navarro on Google+
132 Comments
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Edited by notdavid

5 stars? Nifty. I've been hoping this would be good. Everything that I've seen reminds me of my favorite part of Shadow of the Colossus. The feeling of being a tiny dude in a giant world.

Posted by DelroyLindo

looks awesome

Posted by RenMcKormack

Journey 2 with the rock sucks

Posted by KamasamaK

Can't wait to play this.

Posted by Krummey

Skipped to the last paragraph. I really don't want to know anything about this game until I play it tonight with my wife.

Posted by abdo

Gotta get it

Posted by Anwar

Still psplus exclusive, why don't you want my money goddamnit? I think I can buy it tomorrow.

Posted by FreakAche

How many machine guns are in this game?

Posted by JacDG

Completely agree with Alex for once, this game is incredible, have to play through it again sooner or later, best gaming experience of this generation (not saying best game), to me at least.

Posted by OmegaPirate

God DAMMIT come on EU store update!

Posted by Tennmuerti

This makes me sad that consoles are still lagging behind when it comes to digital distribution.
PSN won't process my card properly, even tho all digital distribution services on the PC like Steam, Origin, D2D do so just fine.
Hell i had to create a new account just to get connected to PSN store, because apperently for the country i'm currently in there is no PSN strore, even tho the PSN itself is working and i can play online. What a mess.
I want to play this godamit ><

Posted by SomeJerk

Please note that if you are the kind of person who thinks a game is over when you've finished it, you are not going to like this game.

Posted by Dtat

Very good review. Well done Alex.

Edited by dvorak

I thought Flower was totally stupid and flOw isn't even really a game, but Journey is probably one of the most enjoyable moments I've ever had with a game. I'm not a guy who gives a shit about the whole Games Are Art rhetoric, but if you are, here's the A1 Example of how they can be.

This really is without hyperbole one of the most genius implementations of game design ever. Without even mentioning how the music and sound is combined into the game play. It truly was a near transcendental experience, to borrow from Alex.

Posted by MisterMouse

Man I have been waiting to see how this game was going to be received.

Edited by bricewgilbert

Could easily be one of my favorite games ever. Right after completing it I certainly felt that way.

Posted by Milkman

So excited that this is finally out for us common folk. As a Flower lover and defender, I can not wait to play it.

Posted by weegieanawrench

Superlatives notwithstanding, that was quite a read, Alex! I want this game, too bad I don't own a PS3.

Posted by MarkWahlberg

This is one of those times I really get frustrated by console exclusivity. I want to have emotional adventures as a footless man-thing too!

Posted by gla55jAw

Loved it. Played through in 1 sitting, after I finished I played some more. I think I'll play again tonight. Great review Alex.

Posted by Mystyr_E

Pre-ordered mine on Friday, now gotta wait for store to update

Posted by Shaanyboi

God damnit, this is one of the prime reasons I want a PS3, but this late in the generation, why bother?

Posted by big_jon

This review is OP.

Posted by Panpipe

Perfectly summed up my feelings Alex!

Posted by TheYear20XX

When it comes to games as art, this game says "don't stop believin'."

Posted by ptc

360 version please!

Posted by Ventilaator

Anyone else CTRL+F the word "experience" to see how many times it was used in this review? Journey's EPR ("Experience" per review) is mindboggling.

Posted by csl316

In Alex we trust.

Posted by Alex

@Ventilaator: Heh, believe me. I went hunting for better words every chance I got. Sadly came up mostly empty.

Staff Online
Posted by dekkadekkadekka

But what does Vinny think?

Posted by mrsmiley

I'l admit, this the only game so far that has made me want to get a PS3. Maybe that sounds silly, but up until now (uncharted series included), not much has interested me the way this game has.

Posted by Nevi

I got it early on EU PS+, I started it up last night and figured I try it out for twenty minutes, and ended up playing a full journey for three hours. I was grinning from ear to ear for most of that.

Posted by dirk_beefhammer
Posted by Zamir
Posted by HarlechQuinn

So far I would say that Journey was the most satisfying gaming experience I had so far this year! The multiplayer is awesome... In my first run through I "lost" my companion in the last level, which made me feel really sad somehow as we traveld through most of the levels together, I even waited for 15 minutes at the level exit for him/her desperately "singing"...

Today I finished the game with a companion and received a friend request afterwards, just because of the shared experience...

So as much as enjoy the occasional griefing or coop in other games, nothing came close to the Journey experience, this multiplayer left a fuzzy warm feeling inside this old cynical's heart... which is a good thing I guess...

Posted by BoG

I'm not going to read this. I'm trying not to think about this game. I'm trying to go in with zero expectations. Of course, I expect it to be the best game since Braid. But if I think about it too much, I might be let down. HURRY UP SONY UPDATE THE STORE I NEED THIS GAME THX.

Posted by Grissefar

@Alex said:

@Ventilaator: Heh, believe me. I went hunting for better words every chance I got. Sadly came up mostly empty.

Perhaps you have a secret desire to have an "experience" - if you know what I mean.

Posted by Etnos

Game of the Year(s) material for me.

Edited by Fontelroy

This game has supplanted portal as my current favorite, maybe there's something to a short, cheap game made up of entirely no filler?

Posted by Gaff

@Shaanyboi: To be fair... You could probably pick one up really cheap nowadays.

Posted by BenderUnit22

Great review, Alex. Pretty much sums up everything I went through. Played the game 5 times start to finish and it's still magical. I hope it sells well, looking forward to many more travelers.

Posted by Cazamalos

great review but i really don't need a review of Joruney

Flower sold me on all the future releases of thatgamecompany

Posted by UbeRNooB24

cool game. like how its about a pilgrimage of sorts.

Posted by Animasta

I have a valid nitpick

no PC version D:

Posted by Linkster7

Great review Alex.

Posted by CJduke

I pre-ordered, waiting for PSN to update so I can finally play! It looks amazing!

Posted by dirtyharry

still cleaning the fluids off of my desk from the first half of this review.

Posted by Manlyzar

great review, this game is truly incredible

Posted by jonny_mung

@dekkadekkadekka said:

But what does Vinny think?

Vinny likes it barren

Posted by supermonkey122

I approve of this review.

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