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Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Release Date: Out Now
Everywhere you look, there is nothing... Nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. What is this place? Why am I here? These are just a few of the questions you begin to wonder at the outset of Journey, thatgamecompany's latest and arguably greatest game yet. Draped in mysterious garb, your wanderer has nowhere to go...except to the top of a nearby sand dune to examine some foreign gravestones sticking out of the sand.
What you find upon reaching the top is your destination, and at the very least, the culmination of your character's existence: a large, ominous mountain off in the distance. For some inexplicable reason, your character is drawn to the mountain; and so off you go toward it, on an adventure like no other, and what you go through on that journey is guaranteed to be the single most unique thing you'll experience so far this year.
Journey's gameplay is quite unlike any other game out there nowadays. The objective is to reach the mountain seen off in the distance in the intro, but this game was built around randomly meeting other online players in your journey and working with them to ultimately find the way to your destination at the top of the mountain.
The catch? There's no way for you to communicate verbally with the other player(s), except for your character's ability to "sing" or emit a small pulse of sorts that can either be used as a signal for getting the attention of other players, or if you hold on to the button longer, a larger spherical pulse will be emitted that can bring to life certain inanimate objects that will help guide you on your quest.
In addition, you'll also have the ability to fly temporarily (it's more of a ranged jump of sorts at first). This unique ability is tied to the wanderer's long scarf, and the duration of your flight is determined by the luminosity of the scarf; once it runs out, so does your flight, but it can be recharged by touching various strands of floating fabric scattered about and even lengthened by gathering different symbols around the desert. This is the extent of the actual input and commands in the game; there's no fighting enemies or anything of the sort. All of the commands at your disposal are used in conjunction with helping you get to the final destination.
As far as working with other players go, the game doesn't force you to work together, but you'll be better off doing so especially on your first playthrough. It isn't so much that the game is tough (quite the opposite, actually) but rather that sharing the adventure with someone else creates an emotional bond that makes the journey all the more powerful. In my experience, I encountered just one other person early on, but as we traveled together and shared the experience together, I found myself waiting for him if I was slightly ahead and he had fallen behind (and vice-versa). We helped each other through different obstacles, and guided one another when we were lost and didn't know where to go.
In fact, it wasn't apparent to me how far we had actually come from when we first met until I stopped and looked around the different settings. In this respect, Journey has some truly incredible settings that stand out thanks to the brilliant art direction. Using pseudo cell-shading graphics, the game recreates a living painting almost. Each section throws you into a different environment than the last, going from a the wide expanse of the desert and its wind-swept sand dunes to sand surfing through a lost city (the sand glistening in the dusk as you ride across it being one of the most visually beautiful parts of the game, I might add) and into a vast underground civilization, and finally into the harsh and bitter cold of the mountain and beyond.
At its heart, Journey does have a narrative to tell, and it's told mostly through picturesque glyphs that you'll be shown throughout the experience, showing the backstory of why everything is the way it is and what the game is all about, though the interpretation of everything is left up to the player for the most part. Nothing is ever spelled out, only shown to you; however, the actual journey itself is determined by the player. While the path to the mountain is predetermined and linear, how you proceed through and the circumstances of your journey remains different every time you play through the game. You write the story of your journey, in essence.
And that brings us to arguably one of the most important aspects of the game: the music. Composed by Austin Wintory, Journey's music brings to life the desolateness of the desert and the adventure of the trek itself. Especially notable is the last leg of the game, in which there are some truly touching and beautiful themes; Wintory's compositions have already received critical acclaim, and for good reason too. It wouldn't be farfetched to say that Journey's music is an integral part of what makes the experience so great; when blended with the sublime art style, the emotional and symbolic undertones of the narrative, and the emotional bond you create with your partner(s) along the journey, it almost all blends together to create an experience that couldn't be achieved without each individual element.
Needless to say, there were some powerful moments later on in the game as my companion and I faced trials together and trekked on. Then, something happened in the very last leg of the game- my companion disappeared. When I realized that we had lost track of each other, I spent a good 5 minutes roaming around, jumping from surface to surface, looking down below into the depths of the mountain to see if I could see him, but I couldn't. He was gone, and I felt a genuine sense of loss upon realizing it. From that point on, I continued on alone, toward the peak where the wanderer would finally attain what he was looking for; his life fulfilled, and through it all, complete.
For all intents and purposes, I will never fully be able to explain why Journey is as amazing as it is. It's something that needs to be played to be believed. The whole experience lasts only two to three hours, but the journey it takes you on is one of the most remarkable things I've ever experienced in two decades of having playing video games. It's not quite a game and not quite a movie either, but more like interactive art at its best. Journey brings new meaning to the ongoing debate over whether games can be considered art. Could Journey be the first real game to make that distinction? I invite you to find out for yourself.
+ An incredible 2-3 hour experience
+ Awesome visuals that invoke a the feel of a painting
+ Musical score is incredible and ties into the experience extremely well
- Little actual gameplay; it's more of an experience than an actual game
Overall: 9.5 (out of 10)
Very few games redefine what video games are and can be, and the fact that people are questioning whether Journey is art speaks volumes to its intensity and uniqueness as an experience. Regardless of whether it appeals to you or not, this is something that everyone needs to play at least once.
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