Three and a half years, one console generation and one remaster later, how does one review Journey?
Journey: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [Reviewed]
Developer: Thatgamecompany, Tricky Pixels (PS4 Remaster)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: 14 March 2012 (Original), 21 July 2015 (Remaster)
Price: £19.99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
No, really, I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ve played it back in 2013, I think, on a friend’s PlayStation 3. I know it was met with critical acclaim when it came out, pretty much universally. Even if you haven’t played it, you’ve heard about it, read about it, at least know of it. And in that case, how does one review Journey?
I – In which we try to find how how one reviews Journey
One could start by very dryly listing some facts about the game’s history. That it was developed by Thatgamecompany, that it’s a PSN Exclusive, that it came out in the spring of 2012 and that it featured some anonymous multiplayer elements. One could follow this up by talking about the premise of the game. How in Journey you play as a nameless robed figure and you start out in the middle of the desert. You are quickly made familiar with the controls: left stick to move, right stick to look, the circle button emits a short chirp, or you can hold it down longer to release a musical blast.
There is also a jump button, but jumping is a limited resource in this game. And with knowledge of these few techniques you start walking up a beautifully rendered dune in the desert, your steps increasingly laboring as your approach the crest. With conquering it comes a satisfying release, the high ground allowing you to get your bearings while the music picks up as you see a mountain dominating the horizon, its summit cloven and emanating light. The game tells you nothing, but it’s obvious beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’ve found your destination. Welcome to Journey.
Your descent from the dune is far less ponderous, as a certain degree of slope allows you to gracefully slide through the desert, disturbing its tranquil sands. You soon come across a mysterious red fabric inscribed with glowing glyphs, much like your robe and scarf. Touching the fabric recharges your glyphs and they can be expended to jump and glide through the air for a short period of time. Scattered throughout the land you’ll find this fabric in various shapes and forms: small fluttering squares that hurl you high into the air, vertical strands that allow you to float weightlessly in their vicinity, old hardened strips caked with sand that you can revitalize by touching or singing and even a sort of sentient fauna made entirely from cloth. There are also floating glyphs that upon collection lengthen your scarf, allowing you to jump higher and glide further.
In talking about the world of Journey one could mention how much beauty and mystery is to be found in what is essentially a dying land. The ruins of a forgotten civilization take up most of the game world. They tell their story wordlessly through the environment as well as through cutscenes and hieroglyphics detailing the birth, rise and fall of the civilization that built everything. To say more would be to do the game a disservice, as the best way to learn about the story of Journey is to experience it first hand.
I won’t talk about the environments too much, because of how closely they’re tied into the narrative, but I’ll just say that they’re sufficiently varied in theme, tone, mood and nature of puzzles to keep the atmosphere fresh for the entirety of the playthrough. If I’m allowed the slightest pretension I’d like to add that the four main areas of the game, in my interpretation, are representative each of one of the four seasons, starting with a scorching summer, carrying through a shifting autumn, a gloomy winter and an uplifting spring. That’s all I’ll let myself say on the matter. I think I’ve sufficiently proven my artistic cred.
Whether sliding through the desert sands and ruins in the sunset’s warm glow, slowly exploring the underground of forgotten castles, or making one’s way up a difficult mountainside, there’s something in Journey for most people to enjoy.
II – In which one may find the sights and sounds of the desert
One could talk about how Journey‘s art style was stunningly gorgeous even back in 2013 in 720p resolution. The remastered version brings it to 1080p with just a bit more crisp added to the shaders and particle effects but leaves the bulk of the models largely unchanged proving that stylized graphics age far better than whatever we would consider high fidelity today and garbage one year from now. More than anything it’s the cloth physics, courtesy of PhyreEngine and the masterful use of lighting that respectively give the game its personality and shine (pun not intended).
The sound effects, aside from the chirps the robed figure utters, are discreet and allow the music to take center stage. I won’t beat around the bush: Journey has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a video game. It consists mostly of strings and flutes and features veteran cellist Tina Guo, ultimately resulting in an amazing performance. The music is perfectly blended into the gaming sequences, appropriately alternating between calm and alert, ranging from whimsical to foreboding, from hopeless to uplifting.
One could remark that while even offline, Journey is an unforgettable experience unto its own, the anonymous multiplayer completely transforms it. Random players with similar progress to your own can be dropped into your game. There is no communication between players other than the chirp button, but spending enough time playing with the same person it’s entirely probable that you’ll devise a rudimentary code of sorts eventually. It’s also directly beneficial to both players to stick together, as staying close to one another recharges their scarves. During my first playthrough I had the fortune of meeting another person early on who stuck with me for the majority of the game.
I could tell by the far more intricate patterns on my companion’s robe that they were a seasoned traveler that were not on their first journey through the desert sands. They showed me secrets, demonstrated gliding techniques and acted as my guide as we pushed ever onward. During the last few areas of the game, however, they missed a jump and plummeted down. With little hesitation, I jumped right after to see if they were alright. It turned out we had fallen back to the beginning of the area and we had to cross it all over again. My companion chirped excitedly, presumably glad that they had someone to share the trek with and I was glad in turn that if and when I reached the mountain summit I would not be by myself.
Journey is full of stories like this one and while one may make the argument that at roughly two hours of playtime it’s too short (and far be it from me to contradict you on that), these stories give the game some replay value. I’ve played it all the way through three times now and I intend to do it again some day. Eventually I’ll get my fancy robes and act as a guide, and maybe someone will have a story to tell about me.
That’s all I have. I suppose that while one may say and talk about all the things I’ve written here and give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from the game, I think I’m still not quite sure how one reviews Journey.