A golden desert opens up for a mysterious hooded figure in red. A large mountain shines in the distance. Your journey begins, and you know exactly where to go. This is pretty much how the entirety of Journey plays out. It’s a brief trek compared to other games, but every second is bliss. Every detail in this mysterious world is tweaked to perfection. You’ll always know where to go, how to get there, and you won’t encounter a single hiccup along the way. I’m not referring to the game’s difficulty, rather its technically sound design. The amount of love and hard work that went into each segment is evident from the first play through. ThatGameCompany is the same team responsible for other critically acclaimed games like Flower and Flow. Those two games feel like practice runs when compared to this engaging desert romp. It truly feels like ThatGameCompany have achieved what they had set out to do with their previous two minimalistic games.
Journey moves so fluidly from start to finish that it allows the game to get out of its own way, and in turn, is free to focus on introducing the player to a truly visceral experience. There’s a lot to love in this one. In fact, and I say this with zero exaggeration, Journey may be one of the best videogames I’ve ever played. It’s certainly the most emotionally invested I’ve ever been in a game since Shadow of the Colossus or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Journey can be finished in roughly two to three hours, but don’t let the short playtime deter you. Every minute is spent with one of the slickest, most perfectly paced videogames… probably, ever. Journey is meant to be ingested in one sitting and I couldn’t imagine playing it any other way. There are a whole host of beautiful moments throughout, and it would be a shame for anyone to experience them all broken apart from one another.
The controls are simple. So simple in fact, that I’m willing to bet that just about anybody can pick it up and play (even your 80 year old grandmother). The left joystick moves your little red wanderer, X makes you jump, and Circle lets out a forcefield/communication/interaction ability. That’s right. One button accomplishes three different things, and they’re all important (more on that later). There’s no HUD of any kind. No map, no health bar, nothing but the world around you. It’s the kind of minimal design that somehow adds to the experience by taking away so much. Journey really feels like a new kind of game. It’s still choc full of traditional gaming elements, but they’re introduced and experienced so differently, so organically, that Journey feels like the first step forward for the medium in quite a while.
The music and art direction are top notch. Like everything else in Journey, the music has been specifically crafted for each and every segment in the most effective way possible. Like any good movie, Journey’s soundtrack works when it needs to, and bows out when it would only get in the way. Most games offer players either full control over the in-game camera, or they operate in fully fixed, pre-determined camera movement (or lack there of). The camera in Journey is a bit of a hybrid. You can either move the camera around with the right joystick or via tilting the Six Axis controller. Both work quite well, but what I found interesting is how the game very politely took over when something big was happening. The game only took control when it needed to show me something I would want to see. A lot of the game’s environments are fairly open, and considering you’ll always be moving forward, there really isn’t much need to fuss with the camera at all. Just one less technical thing to get out of the way. One less potential frustration standing between you and the story that’s been trimmed down and perfected.
The story is simple, evocative, and full of soul. A trait that only about 2% of games these days possess. This is really where the game shines. Journey is vague when it comes to helping you figure out exactly why you’re heading for the big, shiny mountain on the horizon. But by the time you reach the game’s end, you’ll feel as if you’ve completed something substantial. There’s such a rich and fulfilling atmosphere throughout the entire trek, and bits of story are so sparse, that part of the satisfaction will undoubtedly come from having put the story together in your head. Hints, and story morsels are dropped at just the right times, and when events finally reach their conclusion, you’ll have a pretty good idea why it is you’re doing what you’re doing. A huge part of the experience for me was the game’s “multiplayer”. It’s an elegant addition to the game that surprisingly enough, adds a significant emotional investment into the experience. Roughly twenty minutes into playing Journey, I came across another wanderer. He/she was identical to me, but we couldn’t speak to each other. There’s only one form of communication between players in Journey, and it’s the circle button (one of its three purposes). Both myself and the other player quickly discovered that we could use the circle button to conduct a rudimentary form of Morse Code with each other. Before we knew it, we were both working together and solving puzzles using only a long pulse or short chirping sound-wave to let each other know where the other was, (in the more open environments) and how to breeze past certain obstacles. It was unlike any multiplayer system I’ve experienced before. After a short while, I felt a genuine attachment to this mystery player. At any point during the game, we could’ve parted ways, but we never did. After meeting 20 minutes in, we worked together for the rest of the game.
There was a brilliant moment that I’ve never experienced in a game before and probably never will again. It was something simple, but pulled at my heartstrings nonetheless, and it was completely organic. My mystery cohort and I could tell we were approaching the end of the game. I was having trouble figuring out how to get past an obstacle, but when I finally figured out what to do, I had noticed that he/she had already gone ahead without me. I was actually a little heart-broken. We had spent the past hour and a half communicating through little chirps, and traversing miles of sand, yet there I was abandoned, right at the end of the game. I couldn’t believe it. But as I finished ascending the cliff that was giving me trouble, the other player was at the top waiting for me to arrive, and greeted me with two playful chirps, before continuing up the path. The other player easily could have continued onward, but they didn’t. They wanted to finish the game with me, at the same time. And we did. Journey is surreal, beautiful, engaging, and creative. There are infinite superlatives I could throw at it, and for the most part they’d all be accurate. Instead, I’ll just tell you to buy it. Journey is without a doubt, a trip worth taking, and has earned a spot in my heart as one of the best games I’ve ever played.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5