August 24, 2017

That's A Wrap: Journey

warning: may contain spoilers

There's a game that's been on my radar for many years now; it's received much praise as well as criticism, some calling it a masterpiece while my internet bro Player 1 calls it "push up, the game". That didn't stop him finally conceding to make it a game of the month for the Cartridge Club, though, and I figure that makes this as a good a time as any to finally check out Journey.

Journey is a 2012 interactive something-like-a-platformer game made by indie studio, Thatgamecompany, and published exclusively by and for the Playstation 3 (it was later ported to PS4, I played the PS3 version). The physical copy of the game - which has been collecting dust on my shelf for some time now - hosts the aforementioned as the lead in a three-game lineup, including flOw and Flower, which I also checked out! As the name suggests, the game is centered around one's (or many, for that matter) journey across the land, towards a looming, lit up mountain peak in the distance. Take this time to insert your own "it's not the destination..." joke here.
As I touched on before, I have the physical version of the game, which pairs it with flOw and Flower on the same disc, but this turned out to be my very first confusing, pointless experience with the game. You really do not need the disc, it does nothing but call upon installers to download the game(s) to your system. It took me a few minutes to sort it out since the disc has two apps - one of which gains you access to special content such as developer commentary, concept art and the soundtrack, and the other contains the installers. Once installed, a third app is added to your XMB which contains the actual game. What a head ache... just buy it digitally.
My next thought upon booting up the game was "God, I hate sixaxis..." Sixaxis is not really mandatory for the play but it does remain enabled and affects your camera while you wander. This is not good for someone like me, who's lazy and wants to play the game at six in the morning while laying in bed.
Of course, the next and most obvious of Journey's first impression package is the art. By far the game's strongest suit, the art is simplistic but not lacking; coherent and possibly Egyptian inspired. There is a clear "ancient" theme in some of the game's art which uses symbols or hieroglyphs among other aged means of communication. It adds the right amount of interest to a game which features no dialogue or explanation, and appeals to my younger self who enjoyed studying history a lot.
In all, the Journey experience reminds me very much of watching an art film, relying heavily on art to convey... well pretty much everything. It's a unique feeling that not everyone will "get", and frankly I find I need to be in the mood for. This affects Journey's universality, says I, for better or worse.

Accompanying the game's profound art is a rather fitting soundtrack installation. The music is quite ambient, and seems to follow the player's actions, which means it can be quite exciting or very dragged out and boring, depending on what you're doing. Regardless, it very much suits the "film vibe" of the game. I particularly enjoyed the accompaniment during what may be the only stressful part of the game, while you're running for your life scarf... the soundtrack was particularly not helpful in that moment (that's a good thing).
The sound effects were largely unnoticeable, which I guess is kind of a good thing. I'm not sure how much SFX you really need when the character is walking through sand or snow for most of the game, but I did notice a couple of missed opportunities, such as stairs.
Ultimately, Journey's graphics and audio go hand-in-hand and support a game that desperately needed to score high in these categories in order for the whole thing to work. It worked.

So in Journey, you take the role of a jawa who's trying to get to the top of a mountain. You rescue and employ flying carpets, carpet jellyfish, carpet whales and other carpet beings along the way. They help you fly n' shit. Along the way you discover ruined lands and other jawas also trying to figure out what the fuck is going on, until you find a petrified wedge of cheese to pray to and have a vision.
Okay, obviously the artistic nature of the game means there's little in the way of a defined plot and characters. This is good and bad, depending on your tolerance for "artsy fartsy" license. The game allows you to interpret everything as you see fit. I got a very emotional "remembering the past" vibe from the game, but someone on drugs might get something completely different. Or not on drugs... whatever. Party pooper. The point is, there's little purpose in me telling you what this game is, 'cause much like a Picasso, it's going to read different to every person. Really all you have to work with is your little robed character, the big, white robed character (a.k.a. cheese god) in your visions, and the others you bump into if you're signed into PSN while you play. You begin in a sandy desert and make your way to a brutal, snow engulfed mountain peak, witnessing what is probably the remnants of war beneath your pointy little feet.

Because the game is more like an interactive art film, there really isn't much in the way of gameplay. Like P1 said, "press up". You can explore if you want to prolong your expedition, and find all there is to be found, but as the game progressed I found myself less and less interested in the side quests and just wanted to get through the levels and whatever puzzle aspects they offered. I think that's saying something, considering the game is already so short, I still got to the point where I just wanted it to be over.
As I mentioned before, you're going to be traversing different terrains, walking, running, flying, pseudo-swimming through the levels with naught but your left stick and your jump/fly button, which falls upon X. Your ability to do so depends on the power (length) of your scarf, which is granted to you - in its most primitive form - in the first level. You can add to your scarf by participating in the side quests which include collecting symbols and uncovering ancient murals found in the levels. You can also call upon the help your carpet friends for a boost, but you may have to free them first; interacting with anything cloth-like (including other people's scarves!) recharges your scarf's power, which you will watch deplete in light as you use your single ability.
Refreshingly, the levels are not very long, which lends to the short length of the game, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few moments of eye rolling redundancy in some levels. You begin every level at the previous level's gate, and end after discovering the triangular totem which you can meditate at.

One thing there isn't any of in Journey is combat. The closest thing you'll experience is a level or two in which some large, spooky, mechanical serpents patrol with their spotlight, cyclops eyes. You do not want to have a run in with these bad boys.
There are also no real menus, apart from the one you'll find when you pause the game - which is kind of cool, actually: instead of a still screen, you're instead shown mobile pieces of art from the level - which is a small stack that offers you the ability to warp to chapter select (which I think is only available if you've beat the game once), camera options, resume and the ability to connect to PSN if you aren't already.

I'd argue that controls are the last in this potential trifecta of things Journey needed to nail in order to be awesome. And I would say they did not nail controls, really. They weren't awful, but I found anything other than walking on somewhat solid ground to be a real pain to manage sometimes, and the game calls for some fine-tuned controls at moments. As always, I hate snow and love the sand.
As per usual, the left stick controls your little jawa, the right moves the camera which is alternatively controlled by the controller's sixaxis. X calls upon your magic scarf, usually to fly, and you can use circle to "sing" and call out to your carpet friends or interact with the few other ancient things in the levels, like the murals or the cheese wedge at the end. That's pretty much it!

So about those other jawas... where do they come from? Well, apparently Journey has an online
component which allows you to play with others via PSN. You can encounter your fellow journeymen in any level that you both happen to be in, and you can assist each other in conquering the already easy tasks if you like. Once you beat the game, the IDs of your fellow cohorts are listed after the credits. I ran into one fella (it actually said more like 4, but I don't really believe it) in the very last level of the game, which turned out to be the best one to have a friend for since the frozen nature of the landscape makes it basically impossible to use your scarf...

...yeah. But with a pal to bump into, you get a few seconds of relief.

There is a single mode of difficulty in Journey, and it is not difficult at all. The trickiest parts of the game are fighting against strong winds, hiding from weird rock serpents and trying not to fall off a bridge because your fly ability is whack.
The game shouldn't take you more than 2 hours to complete.

It is what it is, and not everyone is going to like it. But for what it is, the only improvements I could suggest are tighter controls, and perhaps more... challenge. Like, puzzles or something.

I'd recommend Journey to people who love art and/or don't love games. I've noticed a surge of these types of games in recent years - more like interactive stories than actual classic video games, and this is the first I've seen of those to embody an art film. I don't think it's a bad thing, and I won't even say I won't play them ('cause, uh... here we are) but I do acknowledge that they aren't for everyone. Many people will get very bored with Journey, very quickly. Patience is a virtue, and as we know, patience is not my forte. In the end, I think I found myself more annoyed than satisfied. A lot of the later levels have a lot of pointless walking which slows the game and hurts your thumb. The ending was lackluster and ambiguous as well. I'm glad I finally got a crack at Journey, but I'm not terribly motivated to play it again any time soon.
Edit: okay, it's been a few days since I beat Journey, and I'm finding the damn thing is growing on me. I keep thinking about certain levels and want to go back check it out again. The likelihood of me conquering the game cover-to-cover again is small, but I do enjoy some levels enough to play them again. That seems odd to me, I would have thought Journey's success would teeter on one experiencing the whole thing, but I guess I've already done that once so... I don't know. All I can say is it's growing on me. Also there's something to be said for running into a fellow player. Upon replay I encountered one fella who just insisted on following me around and sometimes copying me, but it actually added a new compelling element to the game and I discovered a few new things as a result. There's a very curious sense of accomplishment when you run into someone who's willing to stick with you for the sake of the journey.

But if you wanna play it... it's not hard to find. Journey can be found on the Playstation Store on PS3 and PS4, though I'd recommend waiting for a sale, of which there have been many. You can also get the Collector's Edition which features flOw and flower just like the physical release, which when last I checked, was also abundant at your local Gamestop.

As for Flower and flOw... virtually the same game, just different settings, and even less interactive than Journey. In Flower - which also boasts some beautiful art - you play a petal charged will blooming other flowers in a field, while in flOw, you're a weird, jewelry-like amoeba that swims around and eats little paramecium to grow bigger. The trouble with both games is that they're controlled entirely by sixaxis... I've grown old and unable to function without my thumbsticks. Alas, they're not for me, but if you're in need of a simple, calming game, and you don't hate sixaxis as much as me, these are a soothing couple to chill out with.

  • You can only fly if your scarf is lit up.
  • Do NOT fall off something. Like the bridge in the last level... you end up having to start from the beginning.
  • Those random, flying, shadow of the colossus, cyclops, metal serpent things can and will eat you. They spit you back out though, just with less scarf, That's annoying.

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