There has been some well-deserved success for developers Thatgamecompany over the last few years. Currently in a contract with Sony Computer Entertainment to release three downloadable games, their initial title Flow received a fair amount of praise, but it was with the release of their second title, Flower, that took them to new heights within the industry. The relaxing and intimate nature of the title ensured they were recognised for making quality games that didn’t force the player into conflicting scenarios, allowing them to go at their own pace. When the "are games art?" discussion is in full flow, these are the developers that are usually at the forefront of the "yes" argument, mainly due to their philosophy of creating experiences that aim to evoke specific emotions in the player.
In their next downloadable title for the Playstation Network, Journey, Jenova Chen and co. have moved far away from the countryside and cityscapes of their previous creation and have explored the vast (and mostly empty) sandy expanses of desert. I was lucky enough to get hold of the beta preview and dived right in to see if the style and relaxing nature of their previous releases was still present in Thatgamecompany's upcoming release.
The cinematic opening set the tone for my playthrough; there is no audio dialogue, no text to read, just our robed Jawa-like main character and the desert. The game gently introduces the controls after the initial cutscene, the first action being the camera which is controlled by the Sixaxis. As with Flower, I felt the use of the motion control sensor was well implemented, although those of you who scoff at the very thought of any movement outside of the use of your own digits when gaming should fear not; the left stick can still control the camera if you so wish.
As the section progresses, further controls are introduced such as the “call” button which has two uses. The first is to interact with various objects throughout the game, from ribbons to monuments which activate cutscenes throughout the game (although this can also be done by simply walking on or next to the objects in question.) Its second use is more to its namesake, working as a communication tool, but more on that later.
When using the call button around the floating ribbons found on your travels, you will gain an additional ability which allows the main character to jump. By pressing X I was able to soar into the sky, with both the visual and practical payoffs a pleasant experience. With careful use of the ability I was able to complete puzzles and reach areas which contained special pieces of ribbon that further enhanced the abilities at my disposal. It gives the feeling of a minimal approach to the controls overall, but paired up with the equally minimal audio cues it gave these simple abilities a charm that I found enchanting each time they were used, something Thatgamecompany have proven to be experts at in the past.
There was even one point where I was using the call button to add to the background music, making the virtuoso in me quite happy.
As mentioned before, there is a lack of text or audio dialogue in Journey, but this does not mean that there is no narrative to speak of. Through the use of small cutscenes (some of which take place during the discovery of certain points, and others upon the completion of puzzles) the narrative is implied through simple artistic direction. While some of story was fairly straight forward to interpret, there were other parts that had me confused, but chances are it will all become clear over time with the full release.
Of course, the real star of the show is the world itself, and more specifically the copious amounts of sand. When moving the character the sand reacts under foot, creating trails from your moments. This is even more evident when going down steep slopes as the main character almost seems to surf the sand on their way down. It feels effortless yet mesmerising, and I may have actually climbed back up a few dunes with the intent of surfing my way back down again. There are sections where falling sand, mimicking that of a waterfall, provides a small sandstorm which not only adds to the backdrop, but hinders your progress when trying to walk through it. This did cause some slowdown when I got close up to these sandfalls, but it did not prove to be game-breaking in any way.
What struck me first about my climb over the first sand dune was the scale of the levels, but I found myself being impressed as I went through the two and a half levels of the beta as the size of the areas which were to be explored continued to grow in size. While only a small selection of puzzles were on offer, the fact that I felt both the confined spaces and the lager areas had been well constructed has me eager to see what else is in store for the full release.
After the second are was completed I discovered another hooded figure similar to my own waiting in the distance, which was my first encounter with another player. There is a twist to this however; I had no idea who the other player was. No PSN name was on display, and no voice chat was on hand to help us. This is where the call button once again comes in to play. As well as activating items, the call button can be used as a communication tool. While I expect a standard set of calls and responses will become a standard among the community during the release, it was up to me and my mystery partner to figure it out for ourselves, and it led to some interested moments of rapid call use, but the interesting part of it all was how it didn’t seem to interrupt or overwhelm the experience, it just seemed to fit in to action like everything else.
It was during this section with my anonymous companion that I explored one of the larger areas of the game. Chasing after what looked like a flying ribbon-based serpent, we traversed across a huge stretch of desert that dwarfed our characters, and really put the size of the experience in context. Thankfully, the other player had clearly done this preview before, and was able to guide me not only to my destination, but to the location of several pieces of special cloth that were dotted around the level.
The interesting part in all of this is that I didn’t need a second player to go through it all. It was perfectly possibly to complete everything on my own, but a second player helped to speed things up, and the company in the lonely expanses of sand will no doubt be welcome during an extended play session. It was not long after we completed another section that we came across a dark and stormy ruin, the view of which engulfed the screen during a cutscene. This was followed by a fade to black, and ended the beta playthrough.
There’s a good chance that if you enjoyed Flower you will find Journey to be a must-have purchase on the PSN store, because it stays in familiar territory; non-conflict gameplay that allows you to go at your own pace. Whereas Thatgamecompany's previous title gave a sense of freedom, Journey gives a sense of loneliness as you explore a vast and desolate land, even with another player present. If the rest of the title continues to build on this theme, I fully expect it to be yet another grand experience from Jenova Chen and co. when it releases later this year.