“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
From the moment the title reached my screen I knew I was in trouble. How can you do a game such as Journey true justice? A game so sophisticated, so emotional and so well crafted that it left me as speechless as my own protagonist? I can’t, in fact I doubt anyone can. I’ll try and cover the basics but in the end the only message you need to to take from this review is you must play it. That’s it. In fact if you were to skip the rest of this review in its entirety to go and download it I would not only offer no complaint but I would actually agree with you. Words, dear readers, are not enough. But if you’re still here then I suppose I can give it a shot.
Truth be told this is my second time of writing this review. On the first attempt I covered the game, quite well if I do say so myself, but not the actual journey itself. Let me put this into perspective; apart from essential life maintenance, like work and other such inconveniences, writing this review has been the first time I’ve actually chosen to stop playing Journey. It’s incredible, no matter how many times I begin anew I find myself drawn to it like a moth to the flame. Each time I soar through the chapters the expansive vistas of sand, rock and snow seem as fresh to me as they had on the original play through.
What’s it about all about then? Well you are the traveller, an enigmatic protagonist of no gender or voice, who awakens alone in the epicentre of a large desert. In the horizon lies a mountain, and at its summit a brilliant tower of light calls to you. I think the best word to describe my experience with Journey is emotional. I was a living, breathing entity in the midst of my own parable. A plot of biblical heritage unfolding at my will as I moved from vast deserts to ruined temples and beyond. It was around the time I found my way to a terminally decaying bridge on my second play through that my girlfriend stumbled in to make sure I was still breathing. Rather than give me the look, guys will know what I’m on about, she instead looked at my television with wonder and asked if it was two player, like so many spectators do. It wasn’t, sort of, but I pushed my controller into her hands and let her have a go.
Jade has never completed a game, that I’m aware of anyway. In her spare time she enjoys a World of Warcraft obsession and routine sessions of Zumba on the Wii, hilarious spectator material by the way, yet she moved through Journey without a word of confusion. I discovered that the simple controls, with only several basic functions, make Journey accessible to any gamer physically able to wield a six axis. Not once did Jade falter, continuing to control the PS3 long after I thought she would have given up and never turning to say a word other than the occasional ‘wow’ or ‘can you make me a cup of tea please?’
Two cups later, and she’d finished. Visibly moved by her accomplishment and eager for a second turn until I banished her from the room, like a boss, and took control of the console once more. So now you have an idea of what this game can do I advise you don’t share it unless you’re prepared to play role of the spectator. You will also be prohibited from talking, or at least I was, for the duration of the play through. So what about the game itself? What makes it so accessible that even the most casual of gamer cannot resist a turn? Well let’s break it down and maybe you will work it out.
The controls, as noted, are very simple. One button controls the jump, or fly, action while another button controls the only means of communication in the game, a soft ping. Analogues control movement and camera position and tilting the six axis will adjust the view. Simple, very simple. The only additional points to note is a scarf. Yes a scarf, of varying length dependant on your devotion to exploration. The Traveller has the gift of flight, as mentioned, but only when it has the energy to do so. You collect energy from swarms of mythical fabric, or other creatures, and it’s stored in your scarf, which grows when you collect special symbols scattered across the game. Your abilities are limited, meaning you have to use what energy you collect efficiently to avoid drawn out searches for energy. Yet this is another positive, as it makes those rare moments when free flight is available all the more enjoyable.
The game itself is misleadingly open, with the earlier stages more like very large corridors of sand than an open world. While linear, as all journeys are, the game will never feel restricted and there are plenty of secrets and rewards to be unearthed for those who like to explore their games. These large vistas serve as the games star quality, the emotional resonance they push onto the player is magnificent. But I’m trying to keep spoilers to the absolute minimum so I’ll just sum it up with this; you’re going to enjoy them.
The plot is one of personal interpretation. There is never a single word spoken, and never a single secret outright told. The details are in the journey itself, painted on walls and shared through sporadic cut scenes. I dare not shed too much light on it, as it’s as much about personal interpretation as it is about discovery. The only common plot points gamers will draw are that their characters are one of the few remaining members of a civilisation and their salvation, of sorts, rests on the summit of a mountain far off in the distance. So you start walking, and uncover a lot of things along the way.
Any journey is improved with good company, and this journey is no different. Without invitation or fanfare you will often stray into the path of other travellers. This strangers may help, hinder or ignore you as you both simultaneously transverse the difficult terrains and best the same puzzles. The most warming moments come when you stumble across a game willing to assist you, and you work in tandem to scour the environments in search of rewards. These other players are completely anonymous, and you will never speak to or identify your companion. Yet this anonymity breeds a new aspect of interaction, where your only form of communication is a series of soft cries. It’s strange, but even as aliens these players behave more human than any other game I have experienced.
Musically I have no qualms in telling you that Journey is a musically masterpiece. Even if you have only a little idea as to what is going on in the the cut scenes the musical cues will often pull on the right heart strings, leaving you as sombre one moment as it will jovial in another. Only on rare occasions can an orchestra be so emotionally inflicting in a video game, adding more evidence that Journey adds further weight to the games as art debate.
If you are reading this then you have obviously ignored my earlier advice, shame on you, but thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings. If there are any complaints to be shared it would be the simple fact that it had to end only two hours after it began. I can only describe so much before I begin to take away the awe value of this truly remarkable game. Its something you can’t simulate, and you would have been far better off purchasing it on a whim without any critical expectations. To truly appreciate this marvel, you will just have to experience it yourself.