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Review: Unravel


Jonathan Higgins

Developer: Coldwood Interactive

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Release Date: February 9th, 2016

ESRB: E for Everyone

 

This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game

 

 

Somewhere between a lofty description of an older lady dusting off a photo album... and the “Memories” that Facebook and other Social Media websites actively push on you... are the almost-tangible feelings that nostalgia brings forth from within. Some memories are happy; some are quite the opposite. Just a tiny slice of scenery could be enough to awaken older times. Awakenings often lead to epiphanies -- perhaps looking at a memory with a different set of eyes yields a message about how much you“ve grown. I think that“s what Unravel -- courtesy Coldwood Interactive and EA -- is trying to communicate.

 

I“ve a lot to say about the six hours or so I spent journeying through about a dozen old photos brought to life. I“ll get to mechanics, physics, and the tough stuff a little later on. First and foremost, I want to mention how Coldwood has presented this game. You see the protagonist Yarny in every major-market 'Thing' EA has published since E3 last year. They“re very much attempting to make Yarny a “mascot” of sorts... to push this experience on families, small children, significant others, what have you. Unlike A Boy and His Blob, however, Unravel“s bells and whistles will only appeal to a specific type of person. Most of the people it“s trying to reach will find the whole journey fun to watch, but often too cumbersome to play. It“s not as accommodating as it could be, when you get right down to it.

 

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Holy Toledo, is it a pleasure to look at and listen to, though! The story of Unravel is communicated in many ways, but it“s predominantly through visual cues. The game“s hub world is an actual house that Yarny can explore. The portals to levels -- literal photos left on tables or hung on walls, like the “world in a painting” mechanic first presented in Super Mario 64 -- offer just a title and a snapshot of what Yarny“s trials will be... and perhaps what memories you“ll see.

 

As Yarny moves across the world inside the photo to grab little yarn trinkets at the end to put on a grandmother“s journal, you“ll often see brief scenes formed in the clouds or the background, meant to tell a story. I think the emotion the game is trying to carry will be much better understood if the player actually takes the time to read the words revealed in the journal after you complete each level, but... there are certainly enough visual cues and bits without dialogue to carry meaning all on their own.

 

That“s just it: Yarny is being marketed as this cute mascot platforming character -- but I think the significance of the journey will only appeal to folks who eat up nostalgia. If you“re the kind of person who enjoys putting sepia filters on your Instragram photos and the like, I think you“ll enjoy the package Unravel is offering more than most.

 

Ultimately, though: absolutely nothing about this game fails on an audio or visual level. Every bit of polish this game has is in its presentation -- almost to its detriment, when it occasionally takes a direction into the obtuse like... showing Yarny violently torn to shreds if it gets mangled in a blade, or sparks pulsing throughout if its electrocuted. The soundtrack isn“t particularly varied, but... it“s certainly consistent. If you like strings and soft melodies, I think your ears will be pleased. Truly, Coldwood“s efforts -- when it comes to putting nostalgia in a box and marketing a cute character on an incredible journey -- are what will be remembered most.

 

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It“s just too bad so much about what makes that journey work overstays its welcome. Yarny isn“t just made from a thread, it's bound by it. As you go through a level, you can hold a button and press another to pull yourself, via your yarn trail, back where you started. You“ll unravel as you push forward to reach the next needle to give yourself more yarn -- and you can“t progress forward if there“s not enough of you. So, if you“ve spent several minutes meticulously solving a yarn-based platforming puzzle by tying one too many knots to grapple from and throw yourself around... only to be so close to the checkpoint you can spit on it, but not quite far enough to reach it -- you“ll need to backtrack and try again in a different way. My goodness: explaining how the puzzles can be solved almost sounds just as cumbersome as actually playing a level.

 

Unravel is chiefly concerned with realistic objects and physics. Tie yourself around a rock to pull it towards a wall, so you can jump on the rock to the next part of the level. Grab the rock on your way, because you“ll be needing it again to sit on a teeter-tottering pipe that can pull you upwards. Wrap yourself around the pipe a few times so you can get just high enough to reach a point to grapple yourself from.

 

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The latter levels of the game do not suffer the fatigue that the first few do. But Unravel is definitely up there with a game like LA-MULANA in its cruelty. You“ll need to be obsessive and precise to gather the hidden collectibles in each level. Some of them take easily thirty minutes, just to get from Point A to Point B. Just watching footage of the game will leave folks not used to puzzle-platformers feeling like they need to be a PhD candidate just to jump in and play. The puzzles themselves are often simple once you“ve spent some time learning how to execute them properly, but getting to that point felt like more trouble than it was worth.

 

Still, the game“s tight physics don“t feel broken. Unravel is a remarkably polished experience on the outside, that“s certainly put together enough on the inside, too. It“s how the game has been put together that will turn away many. Levels feel just a little bit too long. Some individual parts of levels were just a little too frustrating… not because something felt broken, but because the difficulty involved with simply…facing a tin can a certain way so you could duck underneath it and not be eaten by crows... felt way too involved and meticulous to be fun, to me.

 

The presentation, while remarkable on its own merit, will feel alien to folks who“d rather be told what“s going on versus just shown. Yarny absolutely appeals to everyone. But the world of Unravel, and the metaphorical threads that hold it together, will only appeal to folks looking for the specific aspects it caters to in the genre. It“s not the type of puzzle-platformer that“s “universally fun.” It“s the type that will appeal to folks who want something that feels meticulous and highly involved.

 

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Pros:

 

+ The beauty is in the details. Unravel's visuals will captivate almost anyone. Yarny is animated and lifelike, and so is the home he was made in.

+ With an added story in the journal and collectibles to be found: if you enjoy Unravel's puzzles, there are plenty of reasons to go back

Cons:

 

- Most levels overstay their welcome, often feeling inflated or unnecessarily cumbersome.

- This tedious type of puzzle-platforming that is extremely reliant on perfect physics execution will appeal to only a few, not many.

 


Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)

Good

 

Unravel is a brilliantly marketed and presented game. But its message and mechanics will only speak to a handful of people versus everyone.

 

Disclosure: This game was reviewed using a downloadable code purchased by the author.

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