One of the most captivating PS3 titles shown at E3 last year was this little game called Journey. While most games are out to grab you with slick graphics, amazing special effects, and an epic soundtrack, Journey promised a more cerebral Zen-like experience, not unlike the 2009 hit, Flower, also by thatgamecompany.
Journey is exactly that; a journey of exploration and self-discovery, open to the interpretation of the gamer and anyone else who happens to be in the room sharing the experience. Trying to explain this game is much like giving away the meaning of life, or perhaps in this case…the afterlife. Your personal experience begins with a lone androgynous robed figure rising from the sand at the base of a hill. A ghostly image of your SIXAXIS appears indicating the few controls required for the rest of your 2-4 hour journey. While the SIXAXIS can be used to move your camera, the right analog-stick works just as good, if not better. All that's left is jumping/flying and chirping/pulsing with the face buttons. As you crest this first dune you see a massive orange desert stretching out before you leading to the hazy horizon with a giant mountain rising up to the clouds complete with a glowing split peak.
There are no rules, no instructions and no real objectives in Journey, at least not by conventional gameplay standards. You are free to explore the rising and falling dunes, slipping up hills and surfing down others and venturing inside any stone ruins you encounter. If you stray too far off course a harsh wind will send you tumbling back into the main area. Almost immediately you will acquire a scarf that is able to absorb bits of magical fabric and is used to allow you to jump and eventually fly. You will also encounter these glowing orbs that will increase the size of your scarf allowing for greater jumps and extended flights.
While there is no score in Journey, the size of one’s scarf clearly indicates your progress in the game, although until you meet your first anonymous companion you have no real way of judging your success. There is no traditional online co-op but the game is “online aware” so if you are playing and hooked into the Internet Journey will occasional pair you up with another random player who is also in your immediate area. You won’t know their name and you can’t chat other than to emit these pulsing chirps, almost like a sonar beacon. And while nothing really requires the presence of two people, Journey is somehow more magical when shared…even with a stranger. Players who stick next to each can energize each other’s scarf, or even exchange body heat in the colder levels. Players can solve level-changing puzzles and since there is no real score, you won’t miss out by not doing something yourself, and anything critical like those scarf-extending orbs will stick around for everyone to get.
Puzzles are more about discovery. Often you will find these stone statues that flank a blank section of the wall. If you emit your pulse a hieroglyphic will material hinting at a bit of the story. At the end of each area you will light up similar stone statues before kneeling next to an altar to meditate and open the exit into the next chapter. Between chapters you’ll be treated to a mysterious un-voiced cutscene with more cryptic drawings and when the game is over those drawings come together to create a visual representation of your entire Journey in a rather emotional reveal.
There is no real combat in Journey but that’s not to say there is no danger. Later in the game you will encounter these huge flying creatures that look like oriental dragon skeletons. They emit their own search beam and if you are caught in their line of sight they will zap you, seriously reducing the size of your scarf. It’s easy enough to avoid one of these creatures, but when they start showing up in pairs you have to get sneaky to make it through undetected and unscathed.
The presentation for Journey is simple elegance, often reminding me of the HD version of Ico, only much better. The graphics are outstanding despite their simple nature and monochromatic themes. Each area picks a palette and exploits every possible shade of yellow, orange, red, blue, or purple in that area, keeping each chapter distinct yet uniquely linked. There is haze on the horizon but only for effect as the framerate is flawlessly smooth. The physics of you trudging through powdery sand rivals anything similar, even surpassing that of Nathan Drake on his recent trek through the desert.
And all of these amazing visuals are only accented by an enchanted soundtrack that blends the pure environmental sounds of wind, the hollow echoes of ancient temples, the chirping “whale song” of flying fabric manta rays that answer back your own musical chimes, or the chirping banter of two strangers who meet between the dunes. The score is a blend of magical discovery, the occasional themes of danger or mystery, but most of all, a fantastical wonderment of the unknown. The final theme as you begin your heavenly ascension is some of the best music I’ve heard in any game to date.
So what is Journey really about? While Flower told the rather obvious tale of nature taking control back from civilization, Journey, or at least my interpretation of it, is one’s journey from the moment of death to your ascendance to heaven. You start in what is obviously a graveyard, clothed in what looks like a burial shroud, and your goal is to go “into the light”. And when you do finally make it to the end…well, no spoilers here but let’s just say the final moments of this game are quite “heavenly”.
Journey is quite short, clocking in at 2-4 hours, which makes it perfect for playing over and over whenever the mood strikes. I’m guessing it will take at least 3-4 trips through the desert to earn all the trophies in this game. Another nice feature is that all the people you encountered during your travels will have their profile names displayed in the closing credits, so you can go look them up, send them a friend request, and chat about your journey if you want, even if you don’t know which person they were or where they appeared in your game.
Journey transcends conventional gaming and becomes more of an interactive experience designed to evoke (not force) emotional responses through subtle imagery, sublime music, and the perfect balance of adventure and discovery. It is easily one of the best games I’ve played this year and one of the top 5 PSN titles of all time. Download it now and prepare to embark on your own journey of self-discovery. Who knows...that cloaked figure chirping at you might just be me...