Please note: this review contains what some may define as spoilers. For the full Journey experience and to get the most out of your first playthrough, we recommend you go into the game without any prior knowledge or expectations.
Alone, Journey’s cloaked, expressionless character stands confused, isolated, amidst a huge desert. In the distance a mountain-top looms, its peak cleft, outlined by an otherworldly bright illumination. Through a brief series of simple, unobtrusive illustrations the game’s controls are passed on like a baton – they are simple, without fuss, and there’s no on-screen clutter to spoil the effect of the dazzling sandscape before you.
And so it begins, your epic trek towards the mountain. From the first spec of sand to the last flake of snow, developers thatgamecompany have managed to get more emotion and more life into a video game than anything else in recent memory; and the striking confidence that the game exudes drags you along for the ride without once letting you go, until the credits roll by two or three hours later.[drop]Divided up into three acts, Journey takes what you think you might know about the game from the beta and various previews and turns it all around with an adroit deftness that few will see coming: the first third of the game introduces the various elements with an open approach to the level design, the second takes a much darker, refined and channeled tack and the final section changes everything.
Elements and mechanics come and go, but crucially nothing ever threatens to outstay its welcome.
Your character, initially devoid of much of his forthcoming agility, quickly becomes able to harness strange floating elements around him, granting the ability to jump and absorb, to heal and construct, to illuminate and open. Each area of the game contains a number of white glyphs that enhance such skills, and locating and collecting all of these might extend the game’s length, if such a seemingly trivial notion is important to the player.
Though everything about the game is foreign and alien, Journey, through the developers skill and no doubt months and months of refinement, manages to still be inviting and welcoming – even when the tale takes a much more sinister turn. It is, in short, a staggering achievement in storytelling, similar in notion to that of Flower, but much wider in scope.
What shines the most though, and becomes something that makes infinitely more sense once you’ve completed the game, is the way that other players, also lost in the world, appear within your game. Interactions involve little but a simple ‘call’ noise on the surface and a co-operative recharge of your ability to jump and fly, but there’s a delicious sense of togetherness and a certain amount of joyful abandon when you encounter another human amongst the sand, anonymous and unknown as they appear and remain.
Indeed, Journey’s ‘multiplayer’ has the uncanny knack of being able to portray a kind of freefall, reckless sensation that wouldn’t normally be present when another player is accompanied by a list of stats, tags and identification. You never know who you’re jumping with, dancing with, singing to. And it works beautifully – spending the duration of the game with a fellow Journeyer is an unrivaled, charming, serene experience.
There are no real puzzles in Journey’s main thread, the game designed so clearly as to prevent sticking points and backtracking, with the exposition funneled towards the end to keep up the pace. But the allure of some slightly vague trophies prompt a little experimentation, and the hidden glyphs and other aspects of the game are more easily discovered with a friend. Those that found Flower to be a a game worth exploring will connect with Journey more than most, and there’s a touching bit of fan service in there too.
The plot details themselves, though, are left purposefully open to a little dash of personal interpretation. Cut-scenes are subtle, developments are highlighted in the background and only on repeated runs does everything click into place with the kind of emerging resonance that brings a lump to your throat.
Thatgamecompany do this better than most, but it’s fair to say that after playing Journey everything else seems a little basic, wooden and – dare we suggest – patronising.[drop2]Visually, the game gradually switches from vast landscapes and distant horizons to close up, dark mechanised structures without flinching, always remaining consistently bewildering – and occasionally terrifying. The audio, too, gentle wind sweeps playing off against a rousing, building orchestral score deserves much merit – played in Dolby Surround as the game prompts is essential, but a good pair of surround headphones perhaps even more so.
Journey is a game where switches are never something you simply stand on; where darkness and emptiness can feel like an underwater cavern; where friends made of nothing but squares of cloth can mean everything. It’s a towering achievement, with the game constantly forming and rising upon itself and the player to an obvious but always seemingly out of reach crescendo, that distant mountain just another turn, step, climb and leap away.
And then, ultimately, there’s a single, solitary moment of silence: the game’s defining few seconds; the bit that affects the most – the culmination of minutes of desperate, hopeless struggle. Never before has a game illustrated such tragic fragility with such humanity and character – Journey might live up to its name on many levels, but on the deepest, most personal level possible thatgamecompany manage to transcend all expectations.
- An amazing experience from start to finish
- Wonderful graphics and sound
- Even better online
Allegory and metaphors in games of this ilk are mostly, intentionally or not, subjective, but Journey for me is simple and defined without any ambiguity: we all have a simple beginning and a simpler end and are – as the nondescript, universal cloak the character wears throughout demonstrate – all created equal. It’s who we meet and what we do along the way with those people that matters above anything else.
And standing alone, in silence, can be heartbreaking.