Review: Journey (PSN)
Format: PlayStation Network Download (589 MB)
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Original MSRP: $14.99
ESRB Rating: E
Journey is exclusive to the PlayStation Network.
** I went to great lengths to make this review COMPLETELY SPOILER FREE, even the screenshots don’t give anything away. I feel very strongly that Journey is something that needs to be experienced firsthand so I made sure this could be read long before you play. **
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 258 of the podcast.
Journey, thatgamecompany’s third foray onto the PlayStation Network, arrives with high expectations and renewed interest in the “Games as Art” debate. It reaches back to age old archetypes in telling a story that feels ancient and vaguely familiar, yet fresh and new. It’s modern day folklore wrapped in a two and a half to three hour experience with no dialogue. Wonder, loneliness, fear, desperation, frustration, exultation, and joy are just a taste of what I went through. It’s one of those things that simply has to be experienced by yourself, alone in a room with no distractions.
After playing through to completion several times, I sat and thought about what I’d experienced and how I could capture that in a written review, especially without giving too much away. It’s a difficult thing to do because you really have to discover the world for yourself and find your own way through it. I will tell you that the landscapes are more varied than the desolate desert we’ve seen. You’re making your way through a fully formed world with an ancient history and along the way, if you look hard enough, you’ll find glimpses of it. It won’t all make sense, though some of it comes together at the end of your journey as pieces fall into place, while some more comes to light on subsequent playthroughs.
Journey is an experience that rewards exploration. My first time through, I thought Trophy notifications were suppressed so the reality of the world you were in wouldn’t be shattered. I thought it was a brilliant idea… until I got to the end, heard the familiar ‘ding’ and got a Trophy. It was then that I realized I’d barely scratched the surface of Journey. Going through again, I knew the basics of what needed to be done, but there was so much more to explore and even more surprises in store for me. Two and a half hours sounds short in today’s world of 90+ hours of adventure in a game, but Journey is a much more rewarding experience and worth multiple trips.
You start in a desert, a creature made of cloth. You’re given the bare minimum of instruction and very little in the way of control. You can move, make noise and eventually, float for short periods of time. No voice-overs, no text (beyond ‘Press’ and ‘Hold’ in the early controller visuals), no heads up display and no real instruction. Everything is conveyed through camera angles and brief cutscenes at the end of each area. Like a child, you have to feel your way through the world, exploring the limits of your abilities. Most of the time, I found myself tapping away at the sound button, jabbering on in varying tones, amusing myself much like an infant. Those noises are necessary as you move from area to area and you’ll be surprised at what you can do with such a limited skill set.
Beautifully crafted cartoon-like vistas mixed with shimmering light and heat effects in the desert scenes give Journey its memorable look. The loneliness of the desert is captured in sweeping dunes and buried structures. Moving through the sand, leaves a visible trail. Sand flows like water in some areas and you’ll be able to ride the wake across vast distances, sliding down dunes and more. The strength of your voice can even create a small shock wave and ripple effect in the sand around you showing off a good physics engine underneath it all.
Particle effects of sand and such getting kicked up are used sparingly but effectively. Light and dark play beautifully off of each other in dimly lit areas and vast caverns. The sense of scale works very well as the camera pulls back to highlight important things and zooms back in behind your character again. Expect more variety than what you’ve seen, especially as you get deeper into the game. The vistas that open up to you and the landscapes that you have to traverse each have an effect on your character’s look and abilities, especially near the end. It’s really like moving through a lovely series of paintings.
The soundtrack in Journey is beautifully haunting. Play this game alone in a dark room with headphones on. The orchestral score is often dominated by a lonely cello echoing your experiences. The music will swell to a boisterous, even fun pitch at times where it’s needed and it makes the experience much more emotionally satisfying.
Ambient sounds are important as well and even critical at times. You’ll hear the wind slowly getting stronger before you feel it’s effects. The simple sound of sliding through sand adds perfectly to what you’re seeing on screen. The background noise of the natural world is more prevalent than you’d think and it really helps bring the world to life in unexpected ways.
The sounds you can make yourself are a variety of musical notes and they’re pivotal to moving forward in your experience. Depending on how hard you press the Circle button you can make short quiet notes to loud calls. In a game with no dialogue, text or heads up displays, audio becomes crucial in establishing moods and cues along with the visuals. It’s a vital piece of the experience which is why I really recommend headphones here.
So how do you keep the emotional experience of Journey pure while adding in some kind of multiplayer? If you’re thatgamecompany, perfectly of course. The first time the game loads, an online license agreement comes up that you’ll need to agree to, after that, everything is seamless and hidden from view. If you’re online, other players may appear along the way. Come over a sand dune and you’ll see another cloth person. No user id’s, no matchmaking, no voice chat. You can choose to interact with them or move on and leave them behind. Maybe they’re just moving around an area and playing, maybe they’re stuck and unsure what to do. Using your sounds, you may try to communicate with them in a rudimentary way. It brings a child-like innocence to the proceedings when you have such a small set of tools at your disposal and no way of knowing who you might meet.
It’s entirely up to you whether to interact with anyone you see along the way. You might stay with them for a while or bypass them completely. It’s incredibly refreshing compared to the usual distractions of online play and it’s exactly what this experience needed. Your first time through I might recommend playing offline to really feel the weight of the experience, but if you get stuck, or lonely, or you just want to share the experience with a companion, connect to the PlayStation Network and enjoy the ride.
After playing through Journey several times, I can tell you that this is an experience that, as a gamer, you don’t want to miss. It’s shorter then I expected, but the adventure you undertake, the joy of discovery, the hardships and the trials you face are all worth several trips. Unless you really take the time to thoroughly explore each area, there will always be something else to discover.
As far as “Games as Art” goes, that debate will probably rage on for some time to come, but to me, Journey is exactly that, an exquisite work of art and an experience that will stay with you long after you put the controller down.