Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bonus ACE OF VIDEO GAMES: Journey!

I sat down to begin this review a few different times, each time coming up with a blank. I've never had a harder time describing what a video game is than with Journey. There's the simple description - Journey is a game about controlling a red robed creature as they quest towards a bright light in a distant mountain. But to describe this game as just that simple narrative belies the incredible depth That Game Company has managed to put together into one of the most interesting and beautiful games I've ever played.

That Game Company's previous work was another Playstation Network downloadable title, Flower. That game became something of a sleeper hit due to its incredible ability to relax the player. Journey is no different. The first word that comes to mind when playing it is "zen." The title of the game, I imagine, comes from the old saying, "It's not the destination, it is the journey." The end of this game, I can say without giving too many spoilers, is not the goal at all. It is the joy of discovery, and the beauty of the landscape you find yourself in, that gives the game its particular magic.

A single playthrough of Journey can be done in less than two hours. Your red-robed hero will make it to the mountaintop with a minimum of fuss or frustration. Any small puzzle work you find is quickly solved, and you will never find yourself standing back to scratch your head or check Gamefaqs. It is not, by typical modern standards, a difficult game. And unlike modern games, Journey never holds your hand or points you in the right direction. Beyond a very small button tutorial early on, you are never told what to do or where to go. Every problem placed in front of you can be solved with one of the three tools available to you. That journey, discovering what each tool does and how and where to use it, it one of the best experiences I've had in video games. It hearkens back to the days of the Super Nintendo, where finding a problem's solution meant learning the tools and discovering the answer, not waiting for a button prompt to point you in the direction the developers meant you to go.

In many ways, the game is reminiscent of the end of the first Portal. The discovery that a previously closed world was now open to you, and it was up to you to discover what to do was a magical experience in gaming. Journey gives you that experience of discovery from the moment you press start.

If it seems like this review is vague, that's a smidge intentional. The ability to discover what the world has to offer, and how you might explore it, is such a wonderful experience that I hestitate to mention any aspect of the gameplay. But I will point out one feature of the game - the multiplayer. Early on in the game, I came across another red robed creature, exactly like mine. As I walked near it, it sang to me, and then moved away. I followed, and the creature led to me one of the game's secrets, hidden away near by. Then the creature stayed with me, helping me through puzzles and to dodge enemies. I lost them soon after, but I found another. It was only when the game ended that the credits revealed that I had found other PSN users, playing the same game. When you run into a new player, there is no way to communicate other than the limited gameplay mechanics, and no need to do anything but ignore one another. What this creates, strangely, is the compulsion to help. You can reach the end by yourself, and even discover all the secrets alone. But this lonely, beautiful world causes players to want to stick together, to guide each other to new places and new discoveries. It's an experience unlike any other multiplayer I've ever seen. Cooperation is never suggested or encouraged, and somehow that makes it all the more desireable.

Fourteen dollars for a two hour game seems insanely steep. I scoffed at it even as I bought the game. But I cannot recommend the world of Journey highly enough. I wanted to replay my quest for the mountain and the light as soon as I finished playing it, and I know you will, too.

Journey is available as a download on the Playstation Network, for 14.99.

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