Thatgamecompany has made quite a reputation for themselves over the past few years. Their “download only” PSN titles Flow and Flower have taken the gaming world by storm and have garnered much praise from both gamers and critics alike. Journey, their most recent endeavor, is undoubtedly their greatest work yet, and one of the most poignant experiences you will find this generation.
Journey has a simple premise. The player takes control of a cloaked wanderer, venturing towards a mountain in the distance, which conveniently allows them to regain their bearings when exploring the vast, post-apocalyptic expanse. The player wanders through sand dunes, tunnels, and snow passes, littered with the ornate structures of a civilization long extinct. The architecture that remains intact is reminiscent of Middle Eastern, Indian, and oriental cultures, with enough of its own fingerprint to make it feel authentically “other worldly.”
The game will astound you with its flowing atmosphere and environments that, while being practically bereft of life, produce a truly organic presence. The works of Thatgamecompany evoke an unmistakable charm and grace, standing as art pieces before video games, in a traditional sense. Journey’s devotion to this formula is clear, but it does seem to fall into slightly more traditional gaming genres. This gives it a greater accessibility than the previous games, and, in many ways, allows it to take the immersion and presentation beyond the level that an experimental puzzle game can deliver.
The gameplay is simple. Like most “third person” adventure games, one analog stick is used to move while the other controls the camera. The “X” button allows the player to take flight, and the “O” button gives off a resonating chirp, which is the wanderer’s sole tool for interacting with the environment and other players. These two buttons are all one needs to traverse the vast landscapes of this world and solve its charming puzzles.
Most of the puzzles revolve around finding ways to charge one’s flight ability, with hopes of reaching daunting locations. As the player progresses through the game, they will be able to increase the length of the ribbon that trails behind them. This ribbon/scarf, serves the purpose of a “power gauge,” as there is HUD on the screen. When white, shining runes fill the scarf, they can be consumed for the purpose of flying. It is charged by touching other loose ribbons or creatures, which are commonly found throughout the trek. By finding and unlocking such creatures, the player can use them to reach higher and further locations.
There are few hazards, as there is no way to die in the game. However, there are enemies near the end of the game that must be avoided, or else they will inflict massive damage to the player’s scarf. This damage is permanent, so it actually adds far more suspense and tension than just getting sent back to a checkpoint.
Journey features the most unique and fresh multiplayer integration I have seen since Demon’s Souls. Throughout the quest, one will occasionally bump into other players, which creates a brilliant contrast with the accustomed desolation. All players are anonymous, the only defining feature being the symbol they are granted at the beginning of the game. The only form of communication between players is the reverberating chirp, which also functions to charge one another’s scarves. The online integration is seamless. Players stumble across each other in a very natural and believable manner. Players can choose to help each other out or go their own separate ways. The co-op aspect adds spice to the game and makes every playthrough different. Its simplicity, anonymity, and ambiguous nature makes it one of the most magical and intimate multiplayer experiences in recent memory.
Journey is a game that capitalizes on minimalism in terms of gameplay and story. However, this is also intertwined with its grandiose artistic vision. Combined, these two elements create an evocative, epic, engrossing experience that is not only easy to pick up and play, but also seamless, well-paced, and straight to the point. Not since Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus have I seen a game accomplish this feat so brilliantly. Complimented by the utterly stunning musical score, Journey is a euphoric, emotional powerhouse. It will surely be remembered for years to come, like SOTC, as a testament to why video games are an art form, a single word refutation of any point to the contrary.
Journey is currently a paragon in “download only” titles. Downloadable titles usually strive hard just to meet a level of content and quality matching their watered down price range and format, which is why some of the most successful games have been simple and “old school.” Successful PSN titles include sidescrollers like Limbo, 4 player “arcade beat em up” games like Scott pilgrim Vs the World, scrolling shooters like Pixeljunk, or simple multiplayer FPS games like Gotham City Imposters. It takes an enormous amount of ambition and vision for a “download only” developer to tackle a project like Journey. It is a game that, if longer, could easily be released in retail stores, to the same level of acclaim.
Some might criticize its length, being only 2-3 hours, depending on the level exploration. However, it seems perfectly appropriate given the price ($15). Other downloadable games like Infamous: Festival of Blood or Alan Wake’s American Nightmare do, indeed, offer more lengthy campaigns, but it’s safe to say that Journey has a clear advantage of “quality over quantity.” Many segments in the game could have easily been extended, through the common tactics of repeating level design. Each environment in Journey is short and sweet, never running their course and becoming stale. So, as an experience, it flows perfectly. Its length will surely be made up for by multiple playthroughs, as there are many secrets to uncover and new experiences to be had with fellow wanderers.
It is interesting that a few sites such as Edge magazine have harshly criticized this game for its supposed lack of content, and yet glowingly praised Halo ODST, a game notable for its 3-4 hour campaign and $60 price tag upon release. Perhaps they would have enjoyed Journey more if it entailed running around and shooting aliens, rather than, as the reviewer put it, “boring” things like atmosphere and nuanced gameplay.
Given the sheer sophistication, polish, scope, and emotional resonance that this game provides, while working under serious limitations, it seems unthinkable to give it anything other than a 10/10. It is as close to perfect as a downloadable game can get. It is easily the best “download only” game on PSN or any other console, for that matter. It is also one of the best games to be released so far this year. At only 15$, any gamer who neglects to pick it up is doing themselves a great disservice.