You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our April issue, which is on sale March 14, features reviews, along with Post Script articles, on all the most important games including Mass Effect 3, Alan Wake's American Nightmare and Syndicate.
Journey is an experience that – like Dan Pinchbeck’s ghost story, Dear Esther – pushes at the boundaries of what you consider to be a game. There’s an objective of sorts: a mountain looms over the horizon whenever your shawl-covered wanderer is outside. But bar the odd collectible, there are few distractions from this pilgrimage, little in the way of mechanics to learn, and only the most cursory of puzzles to solve. Journey doesn’t really want to be played. It certainly doesn’t want to be mastered. It wants to be experienced. And, most importantly, it wants to be shared.
Dropped in a desert littered with the relics of a lost civilisation, your armless character can interact with the world around them by one simple means: a shout that’s activated by holding down the circle button. Shouts can activate dormant features of the wastes, such as fluttering ribbons that emerge from weathered, wind-worn cages. In turn, these ribbons will power up your character’s jump, allowing you to float from structure to structure and across the sands.
Like Flower, then, Journey sees you return a life of sorts to a land long dead, but this is a less abstract game than thatgamecompany’s previous title. There’s story in these sands, the broad strokes of which are provided by the silent cutscenes that end each chapter, while the details can be found in the levels themselves if you know what to look for. And this stronger sense of narrative has been tied to a three-act structure that may repeat Flower’s emotional arc beat for beat, but does so with an occasionally startling power.
Journey is a short game, but no two of its sequences are alike. Weaving giant cloth bridges across a ruin-strewn plain; sliding haphazardly across sparkling, sugary pink sands; frolicking with a pack of dolphin-like magic carpets – all of this happens within the first half-hour. The events that happen beyond this point are best experienced unspoilt by prior knowledge, so we won’t reference them here, but do keep an eye out for a spectacular sequence that takes place during a burnt-orange sunset. It’s one of many spellbinding sights in a beautiful game, whose cartoonish, faintly eastern art style is frequently coupled with imaginative level design to astounding effect.
And while the business of actually controlling your wayfarer lacks the purity of Flower’s motion inputs, it does keep the gently empowering sense of reward. Getting the hang of the floating jump can result in wonderful displays of airborne grace, but there’s no real fail state, so you can fumble the odd leap. There is a way, however, to easily keep your pilgrim’s jump powered up and ready, and that’s to make a friend.
Being cut free from lobbies, or even something as deliberate as Dark Souls’ summons, makes linking up with another player feel like an act of random magical happenstance – you might hear their shouts before you see them, or they could rush upon you all of a sudden. This desert isn’t the bustling metropolis of an MMOG, it’s barren and empty, and Journey ensures you’ll never see more than one other traveller at a time.
Having a partner is functionally useless (shouting may power up one another’s jumps, but you can get everywhere alone) and yet it is utterly central to Journey’s appeal. This is a game of discovery, and its power is amplified immeasurably by having those discoveries shared. Without any way to communicate other than that shout, breaking character is impossible, which makes Journey a rare example of an online game in which the presence of other players makes for a more absorbing, more atmospheric experience. And there’s a bittersweet touch to the co-op, too, absent when you journey alone. Without the safety net of usernames and invites, your online interactions take on a fleeting poignancy. When a new-found traveller falls behind you’ll wait, and when you lose sight of them you’ll panic, because the price of losing track of them is never meeting up again (although your shouts are accompanied by symbols that assist, slightly, with identification). Later journeys might see you take the role of kindly teacher, nudging your wide-eyed new recruit along the right path, but you’ll only get one chance to discover Journey, so make sure it’s shared.
The flaws, such as they are, are niggling. The presence of collectible glyphs and hidden tapestries add a faint collect ’em all mentality to a game that’s better without them – Journey’s environments feel like they’re designed to pass by in a dreamlike haze, not to be scoured for content. And some players will bemoan its relative brevity, coupled with the lack of incentive the game gives them to return. The problem with building a game around the magic of discovery is that it’s a one-time enchantment.
But Journey’s real issue, if it has one, goes much deeper than that. It’s a resolutely linear game in which your range of interactions is minimal. For some, that will make it a pretty but hollow novelty; boring, perhaps. But for those who play games to explore strange lands, see beautiful sights and to immerse themselves – for however brief a time – in a new world, Journey is perfect. And what’s more, they’ll find someone like them to share it with.