I’m going to try to keep this spoiler free, but obviously that’s going to be difficult. You should probably avoid the comments section until you have played the game. Any plot discussion will be hidden with invisible text.
Going into Journey, I wasn’t exactly a fan of Thatgamecompany. For one thing, I hate their name. It’s not the fact that they call themselves THAT Game Company. Even though that sounds like something gaming snobs say when scoffing about a larger developer. I once heard someone say “Mirror’s Edge? I don’t play anything by that game company.” No, the name sucks because it has that “we’re too cool and/or quirky to put spaces between words” asshole vibe to it. “Pssh, spaces. Whatever. That’s such a conformist thing.”
But more important towards my firm dislike for them was their previous titles, Flow and Flower. I know both games are critically acclaimed, but I though they were boring, pretentious, self-indulgent pieces of shit. And you know what? I don’t think most people found them entertaining. I think they got a free pass because they could ride the “art house” label. If you actually admit to being bored stiff by them, that puts you firmly in bed with what’s left of Roger Ebert and the rest of the so-called “anti-gaming-as-art” crowd, or something like that.
Well, I was bored stiff by Flow and Flower, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I didn’t get what they were pitching, I didn’t get why people liked them. According to Thatgamecompany, when they begin developing a title they start by choosing which emotion they wish to invoke in a player. I’m not sure what emotion I was supposed to get out of Flow. Is confusion an emotion? How about self-mutilation? Is that an emotion? Because that was about the only thing I could have done while playing Flow that would have stimulated anything other than apathy in me. And as for Flower, the only emotion I felt towards it was anger that I had dropped ten bucks on it. I mean what the fuck, seriously? You use the crappy PlayStation 3 tilt-motion-thingie to clumsily aim some petals at bulbs and bring life back to the world. What the fuck kind of hippie bullshit is that? It’s not that I don’t think gaming can be based around an abstract concept, but it has to make at least some effort to be fun. Flower was just not fun.
Having spewed all that, there was something undeniably different about Journey. You could feel it even before the game was released. Maybe it was because Journey looked like it could be a Team Ico game. Now that it’s becoming obvious that Last Guardian is some sort of elaborate hoax, this is as close as we might get to another entry in that series. And unlike Flower or Flow, the character in Journey looks human, so we might actually be able to relate to it. Plus it still has a minimalist story and no dialog, so the art house crowd can still get all snooty over it.
Journey got released this week if you’re a cool PlayStation Plus subscriber, like me. Was it worth the wait? The hype? The $15 without any PS+ discount? Yes, yes, and hang on, and why is my underwear so damp?
Journey gives players no indication of what exactly the plot is. You’re placed alone in a desert, with only some flags on a hill to kind of steer you towards where you should be walking. Eventually, it’s made clear that you should be traveling towards a mountain that is visible in distance. Soon into the game, you get a piece of cloth that extends the scarf the protagonist wears. The longer scarf, the more you are able to fly for short amounts of time. You can’t die in Journey, and there is no time limit, so you’re free to explore. I have to say, normally I am the type to hunt every nook and cranny. That wasn’t the case in Journey. It wasn’t because I was bored, but because I was compelled to move on. The story is revealed in snippets between each “stage” and I was totally enthralled with it.
Okay, here’s the story discussion. I’ve spoilerized it. Just highlight it with your mouse.
Allegedly, the story is left up to interpretation. I really don’t see how. It seems pretty cut and dry early on to me: the dude (or dudette, as it could be either/or) is dead, and is progressing through the afterlife. This isn’t something like Shadow of the Colossus (or All the Bad Parts if you’re one of those types that wants me to stick to XBLIGs) where there’s a lot of open-ended questions. I suppose I could come up with one or two more cerebral, artsy-fartsy explanations, although it would feel weird to do so without putting on a beret and using a cigarette holder. I suppose the dude could be an embodiment of human civilization itself. The cut scenes show a progression in technology, which suggests that a significant amount of time has passed throughout the entity’s existence. But I still lean towards the “he’s dead” theory. Perhaps the dude died early in human civilization, and before its soul is reincarnated (which is how the game ends), a significant amount of time passes. And now I feel a little snobbish. Back to the game.
Despite all the mean things I’m about to say, Journey is a truly fantastic game. It might be the best PlayStation Network title ever. It really does feel like an emotionally driven experience, and although it only takes between 2 to 4 hours to complete, depending on how much fucking about you do, the conclusion is beautiful and satisfying. But the game is hardly flawless. My biggest gripe is the continued hard-on the guys at Thatgamecompany have for using the Sixaxis. There is nothing that couldn’t be done without it, and in Journey it’s especially unnecessary. All it does is control the camera. Mind you, the right analog stick, which was put there in the first place just to move the camera in games, also does that. I think my “Thatgamecompany is full of assholes” theory is spot on, because you can’t turn off the Sixaxis camera control, even though it’s provably useless. And don’t think it doesn’t get in the way. If you pause the game, but then put the controller down in a way that sets off the motion controls, it un-pauses the game. That could (and did for me) make a difference in some of the later stages. So yea, Thatgamecompany is full of more assholes than a Proctology text-book.
Other issues include the fact that you’re utterly dependent on your ability to fly, yet in some areas of the game, the art style renders depth-perception difficult to get the hang of, resulting in some frustrating missed jumps. Also, despite how much fun it is, it’s still a three-hour game with limited replay value and thus I feel $15 is pretty overpriced.
I also want to point out that I thought the game’s concept for online multiplayer was a dumb idea. Basically, you’re paired up with some random person to play the game with. There’s no method of communication with this person, aside from doing a chirpy call. Microphones are disabled, there’s no texting, no shortcuts, or anything to talk to the person with. You can’t even see the name of the person. To anyone who hasn’t followed the game since it was announced, you wouldn’t even know you’re actually playing with a real person. In fact, it actually surprised many people on my Twitter when they learned it wasn’t an NPC. It’s another move that is artsy for the sake of being artsy.
Shockingly, it does work. Sometimes. Not a whole lot. Quite frankly, not very often. The first time I played Journey with networking turned on, I didn’t even realize I had been paired up with someone. They just sort of snuck up behind me, startling me. But then we actually did work together and did a good job, at least for a little while. When we encountered a stage that had an element of stealth to it, things fell apart. Having played the level before, I knew what to expect and tried to give my partner a heads up. Unfortunately, with only one form of chirping as an option, even slamming the thing as fast as I could wasn’t enough to communicate “shit in this level can fuck you up” to my new buddy. Thus he charged in and got his cock turned inside out. There were several other moments of this type of frustration, almost to the point that I’m not sure the whole thing is worth it.
Even if you are marooned on an island with someone of an entirely differently culture, you can communicate on some level other than whistling. In a video game where you can’t use facial expressions, gestures, other forms of body language, things really are too limited in most of the game’s situations. That so many people are unaware you’re playing with a real person actually isn’t all that surprising. It’s almost as if someone from Thatgamecompany saw the horrible online component for Demon’s Souls and said “you know what? This would be better if it had mimes instead! Mimes with no functioning limbs. Make it so!” When it works, it is unquestionably something special. But those moments are few and far between.
You know what? Despite all that muck I just dredged up, Journey is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Yes, ever played. It does strike an emotional chord with the player. You feel a connection with your on-screen avatar, and legitimate concern for their ultimate fate. The world created seems barren, and yet you get a feeling that it is living being, a character in and of itself. Intimate objects have that same quality, although in the case of the scarf pieces, it is anything but subtle. Perhaps Journey is too manipulative in getting players to draw the conclusion that the developers had in mind. But even if that’s true, it’s not as if they’re the only ones guilty of that in one of these “minimalist” games. Look at Shadow of the Colossus. As you progress in that, your hero’s body becomes warped and monstrous, his voice deepens, and I swear your horse seems to approach you with increasing apprehension (although I’ve had people argue otherwise on that). Journey never takes it that far.
Do I recommend Journey? Yes. For my money, it’s the best game PlayStation Network has put out, and actually it might just be the best overall exclusive on the entire system. What limited time it gives you is breathtaking from start to finish, and ending sequence actually made me cry. Me. The chick who has caused three confirmed panic attacks in developers just by mentioning that I had started to review their games. Have I gone soft? Let me answer that by saying this: the next one of you mother fuckers that makes a “Don’t Stop Believing” joke in reference to this game is getting stabbed in the fucking heart.
$14.99 are your judge, Journey, and executioner in the making of this review.
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