Yarny is the perhaps the cutest game protagonist we’ve had since Media Molecule’s Sackboy made his debut in LittleBigPlanet. However, unlike the hand-stitched Sony mascot, Yarny seems somewhat more grounded in a way, no doubt due to his earthly surroundings. Where other two-dimensional platformers like LittleBigPlanet, Rayman, and Super Mario have always gunned for vibrant, over-the-top settings, populated by all kinds of wacky creations, the backdrops we see Yarny journey across are a lot closer to home.
In fact, the opening moments of Unravel depict a scene almost everyone can relate to: a kindly old woman reminiscing on photographs of her family. As dust particles drift in the late afternoon sun, she climbs the stairs, carrying a basket in the crook of her arm. However, as she reaches the top, a ball of red yarn comes tumbling down, bouncing from step to step until it comes to rest beneath the sitting room table. At that moment our protagonist magically springs to life as the thread coils itself into a tiny humanoid form.
It’s hardly the most elaborate of origin stories, yet one that fits the overriding themes of the game perfectly. Unravel is all about discovery and exploring your surrounding environment as Yarny slowly begins to learn of our own world, almost as if he were an alien lifeform. Very early on, the game forms a bond between the player and Yarny that could easily be described as parental. You’re effectively seeing this character take his first steps, interacting with almost every tangible element in his periphery. With pangs of shock, delight, and pain, Unravel drags players through a surprising spectrum of emotions. That’s quite the achievement considering how you’ll never hear a peep from Yarny throughout his entire adventure.
Part of what makes Unravel such a joy to play is its simple yet clever platforming mechanics. Although imbued with the mandatory ability to jump small distances, Yarny will often have need of his secret weapon: a woolen grappling hook that double up as a lasso. Throughout each of the game’s cleverly designed stages are a series of grapple points as well as small objects that can be moved and manipulated. With the simple tap of a button you can swing across gaps, sometimes chaining these manoeuvres together in a way that resembles Spider-Man.
Likewise, Yarny can latch onto grapple points and objects, creating a tow rope of sorts to pull open doors or reposition certain elements within their environment to progress. Tying his yarn between two points allows him to make a bridge to drag objects up, or to elastically fling Yarny up into the sky. Every now and then, especially in later levels, you’ll be forced to combine this patchwork of tricks in order to advance. Although some of these puzzles require a moment to think, they are never too challenging – everything you need to come up with a solution is always within the player’s view.
Gameplay has a great sense of tangibility while encouraging experimentation at the same time. One aspect players might take issue with here is a lack of procedural complexity. Although we never expected Unravel to fall into that Metroidvania brand of platformer, the absence of more advanced mechanics did play on our minds once or twice. That said, the game makes great use of what systems it already has in place, something which is emphasised in its use of collectibles. Although a chore to find in most games, Unravel has a tendency to place them out of reach, often nudging players into thinking up smart solutions.
What many will be drawn to most, however, is Unravel’s stunning presentation. With Yarny being such a small protagonist, this has a huge impact on the amount of detail etched into otherwise everyday objects. From plant pots and thistles to flaking paint and cracks in the pavement, ColdWood has been obsessive in its approach to authenticity. It also helps to galvanise the game’s underlying contrast between the powers of man and nature. In stopping to absorb your surroundings, you’ll detect a benign sense of entropy through the game’s overgrown and abandoned environments.
Unravel isn’t just about sleepy backdrops peppered with a drowsy haze of particles though. In fact, its most powerful moments are when Yarny comes face to face with the many small animals ensconced within their natural habitats. Their bloated size infuses them with a heightened sense of detail only matched in realism by the way they move. Equally as fitting as the game’s sublime visuals is the way it sounds, bolstered by folk-inspired music that manages to capture every emotional beat.
In many ways, Unravel comes as a surprise. For one, EA isn’t exactly your go-to publisher when it comes to smaller, riskier projects such as this. Then there’s the developer, ColdWood Interactive, itself. Based in Umeå, Sweden – which explains a lot about Unravel’s artistic influences – the team has worked on titles such as PlayStation Move Fitness and The Fight which, although serviceable, haven’t bag them many accolades.
With smart gameplay, gorgeous graphics, and a brilliant story to tell, it looks as though Unravel could be ColdWood’s first breakout hit and a deserving one at that.
Version tested: PlayStation 4