Journey – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Santa Monica Studio
Release Date (NA): July 21st, 2015
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
For those of you out there that own a PlayStation 4, you know the feeling when the turn of the month comes around for PlayStation Plus to unveil its tidy collection of the month’s free games. Imagine my surprise and joy when Journey, the 2012 indie hit fell straight into my lap last September, only for me to remember that I had already purchased the game months prior.
Well, damn. But that doesn’t mean I can’t metaphorically pop the old download back into my console and give it another whirl, right? Right. Here’s to a review full of adventure, discovery, and wonder!
Journey was originally released in March of 2012 for the PlayStation 3, developed by thatgamecompany (actual name), known for other indie titles such as Flower. Taking control of a mysterious and enigmatic character wearing a crimson-colored cloak, the player is nudged into a beautiful, yet desolate world, exploring its nooks to uncover the secrets set before them.
The opening few moments of Journey are compelling enough to write paragraphs and paragraphs on them. Ascending a sandy dune eclipsed by the twilight glow of a sun-kissed sky, the player is treated to a vista of the world that lay before them: a tall mountain with an ethereal light rests across the vast expanse of a sparkling desert, beckoning the player forward to uncover its secrets. Things start off slowly; the player is first encouraged to play around with the movement mechanics, sliding down the sand dunes and hopping around with genuine awe and wonder.
Things carry on from there, as the player is introduced to a bit of backstory through cinematic cut scenes. The player proceeds onward through the desolate ruins of the desert land that surround them, discovering awesome magical powers along the way that encourage them to further explore.
The world, itself, is absolutely gorgeous. Sandy dunes and decrepit ancient structures are framed in a glowing twilight (and it looks even better with the PS4 remaster) with great particle effects and shading to create a world that seems to hum with a magical energy.
On top of that, the creators imbued Journey with a film director’s sensibility, resting the camera in natural positions that look really powerful and epic, usually kicking the main character slightly off-center of the screen or adopting a tilt that accentuates the scale of the surroundings. This attitude reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, which would hang the camera off-center from the main character while galloping along a field, and I think it’s safe to say Journey has achieved an experience on par with that game in terms of filmic epicness. That said, the game is often a little too eager to wrest the camera controls away from the player in order to show them really innocuous and obvious things. I’m pretty sure we’re at the point now where gamers get it, ya know? We don’t need to be told obvious shit; we’re pretty good at figuring things out.
Traversing the broken down cities and temples requires quite a bit of jumping and platforming. The platforming found in Journey is relatively simple. The player can jump, soar with their magic cape, and hover. That’s about it. I would argue that Journey isn’t really about the action or the platforming, so this is pretty much a non-issue. That said, the mechanics that are there do feel good, giving the player a nice, lightweight feeling.
When it comes to Journey, however, the developers are a lot more patient, willing to withhold spectacular moments of gameplay and platforming from the player until just the right moment, driving home even more their significance and hair-raising exhilaration.
And this is largely a factor of the game’s pacing. Journey is not an extremely fast-paced game. There is no sprint button or anything like that; the main character moves around at a fixed speed, and progression to the next area is often blocked off until the player explores the immediate area enough to discover its secrets. There are practically no enemies to contend with, and absolutely no combat whatsoever. I think there’s something magical there; the developers weren’t afraid of boring the player with a little bit of lightweight gameplay, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to hit those high octane moments through a careful attention to pacing and atmosphere, withholding those moments of pure gratification to let the suspense build and build until…pure gaming bliss.
Aside from the occasional button prompt, Journey is entirely non-linguistic, and anyone who read my review of The Witness knows that I love me some non-linguistic gameplay. So what do I mean by this? Well, the name is pretty self-explanatory: Journey manages to convey all of its story, gameplay, and puzzles without talking at or to the player, either verbally or in writing.
Quite a few games these days are extremely willing to interrupt gameplay with instructional popups that explain things such as setting, situation, backstory, even how to beat puzzles, and so on. Think of how annoying it is when games frequently wrestle control away from you in order to deliver some sort of heavy-handed cut scene or dialogue box to try to teach you a plot point or mechanic that you might have already learned, beating at that dead horse over and over again. It’s over-done, boring, and lazy. What’s way more interesting are games that challenge themselves to scaffold the player through gameplay and clever level design, crafting experiences and puzzles that are just within reach of the player’s grasp, requiring maybe one small additional bit of insight from the player or changing the experience in one significant way so that the player feels like they’re learning something about the game world and about themselves.
And in Journey, this is done entirely without the use of spoken or written language. The game’s creative use of visuals and level design alone are able to begin forming a dialogue within the player about the mysterious nature of the world that they’re exploring. In this way, the player is able to live the experience that is Journey, rather than have things told to them. Granted, Journey does commit a couple of errors in this vein, such as cut scenes that tell a blasé visual story about a past civilization, and a war, etc. etc., as well as the aforementioned camera-wrestling when it wants to show you that hey, that thing you did activated something! While I’m slightly disappointed and annoyed by these moments, the non-linguistic gameplay is still a huge relief.
There is actually an online component to Journey, believe it or not. In all honesty, it got me by surprise when I first experienced it, though I had heard of it before; every now and then the player will be paired up with a nameless other player that will help them along their journey, facilitating and improving upon the adventure experience, going a long way toward making the player feel a little less lonely in the world. Now, this isn’t to say that Journey is a hard game to beat without collaboration; it’s just cool to have. The developers also included a small form of communication: tapping the circle button will produce a small “blip” sound. This form of communication may seem extremely rudimentary, but through a co-action of imagination the players are actually able to derive quite a bit of meaning out of the boops and bips that emanate from their characters.
I’m extremely happy that the online component was put in there, and I can say with certainty that it significantly changed my experience of the game, encouraging me to be a more curious player while giving me someone to perform for. In this way, the developers ensure that the player is more willing to play the part of the wandering explorer while also mitigating the difficulty for those who aren’t particularly good at video games.Journey‘s soundtrack is really awesome, too. A live orchestral score informs the solemn mood of the player’s surroundings, with a keen attention to shifts in gameplay and scenarios, helping each new experience to feel that much more epic. I mentioned Shadow of the Colossus earlier, and the soundtrack is yet another feature that Journey shares with it.
Journey is a short adventure game jam-packed with awe and wonder. Originally made for the PS3, it looks great with the PS4 remaster, featuring amazing vistas and scenery that entice the player ever forward into an abandoned world. But that isn’t to say that Journey is without life; the game world breathes vibrancy in the beauty of its surroundings, the strange creatures and online players you meet along the way, as well as the carefully-crafted moments of exhilaration that really pull the player into a journey of their own. There are, of course, a couple of things that seem a little less well-crafted, such as the lacking backstory and uninteresting cut scenes, as well as the game’s zealous camera hogging. But, all said and done, there is a sort of magic to this game that lies beneath the surface, making it obvious why Journey has remained acclaimed all these years.
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