No, Not the Band: Journey – The Review

Our Rating
out of 5.0

This  game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.

Thatgamecompany’s latest high-production digital release is a low-key puzzle/platformer that takes you wordlessly through a beautiful and desolate world.  Journey opens up immediately, placing you in the role of a red-robed traveller  as soon as you hit the start button.  From there, you find yourself wandering the desert, seeking out a distant, ever-present mountain, and probably enlightenment.

I do mean wordless.  The two brief tutorials are shown in a quick overlay of the controller.  After that, you’re guided by the level design.  However, there are some issues with being led by the level design; the earliest levels are so open, that it becomes easy to get lost behind a dune or a wall.  The quickest way to figure out where you need to go is look for the mountain.  It emits light and is always in the background. In terms of a more classic, 2D platformer, the mountain is essentially your rights; you just have to keep traveling towards it.

Another return to the legacy of older platformers is two-button gameplay.  There’s the jump button, which you can hold to fly for a few moments, and the chime button, which makes your vaguely humanoid character sing and produce a little aura.  The chime is the tool by which you interact with the world.  You solve the puzzles, unlock power-ups, and disturb loose piles of sand all with your single-syllable song.

Journey is played by a solitary figure in a red robe with glowing eyes, and no other discernible features to speak of. It can say one word with its chiming, a four-symbol-ed glyph that you and every other player has. They’re specific and relatively unique to each player, and only change after completing your current playthrough.

As you begin your first game, the only ornamentation you have is some golden trim along the bottom of your cloak.  A short walk past the first dune, the player comes across another four-part rune, hovering in a small whirlwind of cloth scraps that are conspicuously the same colors as your cloak.  As you approach it, light from the independent glyph starts pouring into the traveller, and does so faster if you chime.  Suddenly, you’re given a little scarf, and the means to fly!  A quick hop and a few seconds of flight, though, and the inscriptions on your neckwear have evaporated away.  Walking once more amidst the cloth tornado, the scraps will light up and whip around you, and the scarf will fill up again with the cryptic symbols of Journey’s world.

This is the extent of the tutorial.  The rest of the game can be navigated now by not only the mountain, but where the familiar strips of cloth appear.  The switches that comprise Journey’s very simple puzzles are represented by cloth. Earlier on, they’re huge tapestries, flapping visibly across very open levels. Later, though, you’ll have to look around a couple of corners when the levels begin to close in and incorporate architecture from the late civilization that built them. The floating glyphs that allow you to extend your scarf follow the same basic convention, pointed at and dangled openly at first, then discreetly tucked away later. The glyphs, however, not being absolutely necessary to proceed, sometimes require a little effort to find.

The mutual effect of light on the traveller and objects is a subtle arrow pointing to the game’s very abstract story.  The entire story is delivered without a single piece of actual dialogue or textual exposition, so the player has to pay attention to the visual cues in and outside of the cutscenes.  The scenes themselves are easy enough to interpret. Giant, white-clad versions of the main character visit in visions at the end of a level, teaching the player through hieroglyphic presentations. Teaching what, exactly, may not be clear at first, but the magical light of the world is a central idea.  Similar stories can be found occasionally on walls, but more often, the truth of what the giants are telling you can be personally observed through gameplay: you and virtually everything on this planet is connected by this magical light.

If your PS3 is connected to the internet, there’s a good chance you’ll spot another traveller.  It will only ever be one other person, but it changes the way the game is played significantly.  Chiming doesn’t just infuse objects, it also restores power to another player’s scarf. In a stretch without whirling bits of cloth, a companion becomes invaluable.  You don’t have to use one big chime, either.  Multiplayer is the most fun when you and your friend rapidly hit the chime button in order to have an adorable, melodic conversation.  Replenishing flight power becomes a useful by-product of communication.  However, the reality of Journey’s world is at its most apparent when you’re standing close together.  Without chiming, saying or doing anything, you and your fellow traveller are re-energizing each other.

You see this effect on inanimate objects too.  You don’t have to chime to get a few scraps of flight power; you only really have to stand close to a floating rune to increase your scarf length, and tapestries begin to reform within a certain radius of the player-character.  This is one of the integral points that the game is quietly trying to impress.  Coupled with what the giants showed you, it starts to feel like maybe the traveller isn’t just using light, but, in some capacity, is made of it.

The overt elements in Journey are found in its presentation.  Austin Wintory composed a soundtrack for a fifteen-dollar game that probably should have been in a film. Without speaking roles, a lot of the emotion had to be delivered somehow, and Wintory succeeds flawlessly with a very eastern-flavoured score.  Graphically, the player is treated to a world rendered with meticulous care.   As the traveller progresses toward the mountain, the cinematic feeling of the game isn’t hindered by lengthy cutscenes either.  Quick vignettes do exist, but are sparse and cryptic, and the game in general focuses on  getting the player moving.  Outside of the visions, the player has full control of the character, even when the camera pans out or holds at a certain angle, to better exhibit the gorgeous scenery for the players.  I found myself marvelling over simple things like how good sand looked.  In scenes with nonstop movement, everything looked fluid and graceful, and when the snow storm blotted out the sight of the mountain, wind cracking and tearing at the traveller’s robe, it was a visceral, ominous weight.  Even the tracks in the snow and the particulate-level glyphs are beautiful in their detail. Thatgamecompany’s direction, coupled with excellent graphics, made Journey a visual, audible, and emotional success.

The problems the game has are few, but notable.  As a platformer, the goal is to get across the obstacles and to the end without falling, per se.  There are no extra lives in Journey, because there’s no need for them, since you can’t actually die.  You just have to go forward.  You can be hit by monsters, but avoiding them is such a non-issue that you would have to try to get hit a number of times before it becomes a problem.  There are no real pits either, making the term platformer a bit of a misnomer.  Danger is virtually negligible, which in turn undermines a sense of challenge.

The puzzles aren’t challenging either. Obstacles are presented openly, so finding a solution is often just a matter of looking around for a switch.  Even if you can’t find a switch, the only hurdles are in front of you, and the game makes sure you’ll get to the end, so at worst you’ll spend a couple minutes chiming at everything you see to find the solution.  The parts of the game that are hidden, which is to say trophy-awarding achievements, can be done with a moderate amount of effort.

Replay value is low, though.  A slow, deliberate run will take two or so hours.  That means, including some extensive trophy-hunting, the game can be played through, in its entirety, in a day.  Getting all the basic embroidery on the first run, grabbing all the scarf-enhancing runes on the next, and sniffing out the more obscure tasks and story-related tidbits can be accomplished in a single, if dedicated, sitting. Every run of Journey follows the same paths, so once you’ve found everything, the game ends up not being varied enough to play for much longer.

Journey is a great game.  The creative mastery that went into it is not in doubt.  The enjoyment isn’t in the methodical excavation of its trophies, but in a thoughtful reflection of the trek itself.  It’s intriguing, emotional, and subtly spiritual – and it’s worth playing a few times on the sole basis of its presentation.

For its strengths and flaws, Journey has earned a 4.25

Our Rating
out of 5.0

About This Post

May 5, 2012 - 8:00 am