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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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Posted by prestonhedges

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.

Thanks for telling me what I should be thinking, Alex.

Posted by DukesT3

Can I saw a dude in half??!

NO!?

fuck this game.

Posted by MacEG

GIVE US BACK REAL ALEX.

Also, great review.

Posted by Terranova

Great review Alex i totally agree with all that you said in it, journey is an awesome experience that's what your paying for and it's an experience unlike any other i have had in my 30+ years of gaming, it's so simple and feels so right even more so when another person joins you, as cliched as it may sound it really is a journey of sorts.

Posted by DiZdain

This is an excellent review for an unbelievably great game. I cannot recommend this game more; it simply isn't an experience that deserves to be missed.

Posted by MachoFantastico

Played through it... breathtaking and beautiful.

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Posted by Nettacki

Sounds like Dear Esther, but less pretentious. Me likey. And I LOVED Flower BTW.

Posted by slyspider

Just finished it a few min ago... Holy shit. Might take Persona 3's slot as favorite game of all time. The multiplayer is freaking awesome

Posted by enYallione

The review makes me think of The Path. Is there any justified comparisons between these two games?

Posted by damswedon

@Tidel said:

My first playthrough was remarkable, but my fifth playthrough was transcendent.

I can appreciate people looking at this game as a '2 hour' experience, but the online -- and all the hidden things -- keeps me coming back again and again. Last night I met another traveler and we had this instant play-chemistry -- we spent the entire game together, and we barely ever touched the ground. We just... flew. It was really beautiful.

Great review, Alex, and great, great game.

Your reason for why you want to play it over and over again is the same reason why I will never play it again. My first playthrough was, as corny as this sounds, kinda magical and I never want to try and get that experience again.

Posted by Tidel

@damswedon: I almost didn't, for the same reason, but I just loved the world and the vibe and the mechanics so much. I loved the feel of surfing on sand dunes, and I wanted more. And when I was drawn back in by those things, each time (seven, now) has had something different to say to me -- I've gone from novice to guide, which is cool. I never went in looking for the same experience, which I think is key. I just felt like there was more for me there.

Posted by Carlos1408

I'm gonna have to check this out when I get back home for easter.

Posted by bodine1231

I never thought I'd see the day when a video game would make me tear up,but this one did. EASILY in my all time Top 5.

Posted by Rolento

Easily my favorite review of yours, Alex, great job.

And the game is outstanding. I keep forcing myself to not marathon it all in a single sitting.

Edited by EthanielRain

@Grognard66 said:

Looks good, but I'll wait until it drops to $7.50 as part of a future PS+ promotion. $15 for less than 2 hours of gameplay is not a good value proposition.

Funny how so many people went ballistic when XBLA games gradually increased from $5-10 to $10-15 for 5-10 hour games and are now perfectly fine with $15 for less than 2 hours. I guess we've all been conditioned to accept paying more to get less.

Chicken is cheap, but sometimes you gotta treat yourself and buy a nice steak. Journey is a Michelin 3-star Wagyu :O)

Edited by Glottery

Hoooly shite. What an amazing game this was/is. I've played some great looking games on PS3, but on the visual-side, this one beats them *easily*. A magical experience, if one might use such a cliched expression. I'm also with Jeff 'bout what he said in the latest podcast. I ventured with the same person (or so I assumed at least, after finishing the game, I seemed to have met five people in total, but I'd like to think it was the same guy!) for a good while and then I lost him at a certain part. First time a "disconnect" of another person has felt that bad!

Think I might start my second playthrough tomorrow night.

Posted by WinterSnowblind

There's really not much you can say about the game, without ruining the experience for others..

But wow, what an incredible game.

Posted by aceofspudz

It was amazing.

Posted by ViktorWithAK

Wow, I just finished my first play through and it was amazing, I had a great partner and we stuck together the entire time. My GOTY so far.

Posted by dvorak

This game is an experience unto itself. Played through the whole thing with a total stranger, and it truly was one of the greatest moments in my gaming life. I cared so much about my fellow traveler, and I never said a word to him, or knew his name until the end.

Truly something special.

Posted by JackSukeru

I just played it, it was pretty frikkin' magical. I spent every moment, except the very beginning, with a companion.

Posted by asmo29a

I'm somewhat surprised by so many people saying the played through almost the entire thing with a single companion. I thought I met three or four different dudes on my first journey and got presented with eight different PSN names at the end, so I figured it changed companions at every area transition or something. Because I never really got seperated from a companion with maybe one exception.

Posted by StealthRaptor

I wish that Jenova Chen made every game.

Posted by KinjiroSSD
Posted by Scodiac

I had an amazing time with this game. Loved it.

Posted by Boopie

very good interesting game but not 5 star worthy while it plays with your emotions it seems like so many other "evocative" games to be chasing the emotions Panzer Dragoon 1 and 2 created on the Saturn without breaking new ground and the co-op is meaningless 15 dollars is too much for what it offers perhaps seven dollars tops wait for the sale

Posted by vinster345

Excellently written review and for those that are finding this incredible experience with the game, I'm glad it's really being enjoyed by them.

Sadly, it's not a game for me and wish I had the time back again. It all felt a bit emperor's new clothes and I'm sure I will be told that I don't "get it", and those people will be right.

Posted by Noct

Good review as usual from Alex, but he made an error in there....

" 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."

That is just completely untrue. I'm thinking there's a tree falling in the woods thing going on here, because if you are there to see it, they in fact LITERALLY "drop in out of thin air"; I just saw it last night myself.

I was walking over a dune, and a dude quite literally popped into existance standing next to me. I'm not suggesting it was chaotic or wierd or anything, but this idea that they are just "there" is not true, it's a perception.

Regardless though, outstdnaing game; one of the best I've ever played frankly.

Posted by emem

I finished it about an hour ago and I totally agree with the review.  
 
The way the sand looks in some of the levels... it's hard to believe a game can look so beautiful on a console. I would kill a racc... let's say "chicken" with my bear hands in order to get a 1080p version.

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Posted by thehuntsmen5434

Just finished it 20 minutes ago. Man......... no words. Simply extraordinary, I never thought such a simple game could convey so much emotion through so little. Its something movies can't even achieve because your a part of the experience, everything you go through, YOU do. Not a character in a screen play.

Brilliant

Edited by Kohe321

One of the best written and accurate reviews I've ever read. Alex is a seriously good writer!