Videogames as an art form has been a controversial topic for many years, and the introduction of the term notgames in combination with a more self-centric understanding of indies haven’t helped either to make this more transparent to the masses. But with Thatgamecompany’s Journey: Collector’s Edition which includes flOw, Flower and of course Journey with many other extras, it might just be the right step forwards for the industry to get the recognition it deserves.
There isn’t much of a story here, and gameplay is very simple. Collecting enough light orbs to grow one’s organism for the next evolution and trying to eat up or rather assimilate the next one sounds rather dull, but it’s strangely compelling and requires quite a bit of strategy. This means that trying to absorb a life form which is too big results in some parts of one’s current evolutionary form is lost and one can also be thrown back into a former stage.
The level structure is divided into different stages with the next one slightly visible in the background. Switching between these layers is made possible by going through red or blue portals. Except for the bigger life forms one can take, the levels are indistinguishable, making for some repetitive gameplay. But in a way, this adds to the flow one finds him or herself in very soon. It’s more of a letting-go feeling than struggling for a goal. Although if one manages to collect enough life forms, one can reach the final stage and later choose different ones at the start of the next game. So there’s definitely a way of progression in the game, even if it often feels like an endless game with no story.
Fluid animations and ethereal ambient music create the illusion of diving into an aquarium of various life forms bathed in blue lights. It’s also remarkable how each contact with another small or big life form creates some kind of visual and auditory firework. With no cutscenes or dialogues, there is not much else to say other than that the presentation evokes a feeling of tranquillity which is rare in gaming. The only downside is that the controls need some getting used to and it happens all so easily to steer the life form in an unwanted direction or perform turns which are rather unexpected, which can be especially annoying when trying to absorb bigger forms.
Still, despite all the monotony in the game, flOw is a title which perfectly captures the essence of zen gaming, putting the player in a state in which he or she can lose themselves and forget about the surroundings, specific goals and dismiss narratives which are so prominent in modern gaming.
There’s a stronger sense of progression in both story and gameplay. It might not seem like much, but bringing nature back to the city and covering the land with beautiful flowers is as powerful as it can be. There’s also a more convincing feeling of accomplishment after completing each level, compared to flOw, and the level design is also much more varied and rewards the player with each step he or she takes.
The gameplay seems simple at first, and collecting petals is the road to success, but there are also some puzzle elements. While flOw didn’t give much room for experimentation, this game’s levels are structured like small puzzles and require a bit of exploration and the awareness of one’s surroundings. For example, only after collecting petals from certain areas can one unlock new areas. The way how one moves around is also a puzzle in itself, as the game often invites the player to find a certain route or path to take in order to reach higher areas.
Unfortunately, with the added third dimension, control issues can make the experience a bit frustratring. It’s certainly an elevating feeling flying around with just one button pressed and the six-axis controller doing the rest of the work, but when the movement is so fast, it’s often difficult to perform accurate turns. Even worse are moments when one is caught in an area where many obstacles have to be circumnavigated, something becoming increasingly annoying in the city stages later in the game. It’s here where the camera movement and sensitive controls almost break the game. Fortunately, there is still enough of that satisfying feeling to turn the dark industrial world into a landscape of flower beauty.
The wonderful HD graphics which showcase the power of the PS3 also add to the immersive feeling of flying through a world of colors, and the soundtrack with its varied tunes also makes up a big part of the unique atmosphere of the game. Words are simply not enough to describe this experience, and each new level offers enough surprises visually and aurally that one forgets that this is just a game. Again the symbiosis between what is seen and heard on screen is directly influenced by the player’s interactions, a perfect symmetry between them few games are able to achieve.
Flower is more of a game than flOw is in regard to its level structure and goals. But it’s also so much more of an expression of happiness which breaks through sadness of the modern world. If this sounds too much of an interpretation, play it for yourself and see if there is any other game which can deliver the same strong experience and be accessible to gamers and nongamers alike at the same time.
The title summarizes the gameplay accurately and the sensations the player feels perfectly. With no dialogues or cutscenes, only loading screens with some sort of tapestry/mural telling the story, it’s a unique narrative approach which goes against the preconception that one needs strong characters and an intricate plot to evoke feelings in players. This is a game in which the goal is less important than the path one takes to get there, sometimes alone and sometimes with strangers.
The game is not only sparse with its exposition, but also with the hints of how the player progresses. If this sounds as if one runs around with no clue whatsoever, in theory that’s true, but this is also where the fascination comes from. Discovering how one activates mechanisms to build a bridge out of the air or from derelict stone pillars is one of the many light puzzles. But reaching certain platforms with jumping and gliding techniques is also a puzzle in and of itself. These abilities are triggered by the power one accumulates by collecting certain flying cloth pieces (or at least that’s what they look like).
If one really doesn’t know where to go next, one can also try to find other players who invade the game. Unlike the frustrating battle-heavy Demon Souls in which one can also die from these encounters, social interaction is always peaceful, and the sense to meet someone after a long passage of silence is another memorable moment in the game. One can try to communicate with sounds the characters make, but what they’re saying is open for interpretation or one’s own imagination, making this a multiplayer/co-op experience unlike any other.
The atmosphere of being in another world is adequately conveyed by the graphics which are simply breathtaking. Walking or gliding through sand dunes with the sun glittering on the surface is something to behold. The colorful worlds of the classic Outcast spring to mind, but their graphical quality is diminished in the light of the glorious HD here. Witnessing and going against all odds in a snow storm is just as awe-inspiring as discovering forgotten temples after which the sunlight at the end of them is not only a graphical gimmick but adds to a feeling of happiness. These potent moments are also highlighted by the music by Austin Wintory which is more varied than in his flOw score.
The gameplay is certainly not perfect and it suffers from camera control issues, like in Flower. Despite the absence of death, there are some awkward stealth parts and annoying platforming elements which break the flow of the game, but these are few niggles in an otherwise perfect example of how gaming can bring something truly unique and memorable to the player he or she can’t find or experience in any other medium. Journey is not a game, it’s not a notgame, it’s a must-play-game-must-experience-feeling which is hard to describe but easy to love and cherish. Something truly memorable and significant in the landscape of modern gaming everyone should try at least once.
3 more games in 24 hours to make and play
In addition to these three main titles, there are also three mini-games which were created during an event called 24hr Game Jam. These are rough around the edges but provide quite a bit of fun. It would be unfair to rate them with individual scores, but a few things can be said about the overall quality and their uniqueness or differences.
The only downside to this offer is that the menu system of the Journey: Collector’s Edition disc isn’t that user-friendly. First, they can’t be played directly but have to be started on the main PS3 games library list. Secondly, the manual/hints cannot be read in-game, so looking up controls, strategies or general gameplay advice means quitting the current game and going back to the disc menu, a strange oversight, considering the general love which went into the package.
Nostril Shot puts the player into the role of an anime-styled female warrior who fights against waves of enemies to finally defeat the titular big boss. Unfortunately, this is the weakest one of the games, which is mainly because of its repetitiveness and odd score system. Dying only means losing a star level which adds to the final score. Playing it alone is pretty pointless, and even if one decides to go at it with a friend (or more players), the chaotic battles with multiple enemies on screens gets boring with only a bit of mindless fun. It doesn’t help that transforming into a super-girl is the only way to clear the screen fast enough without being overrun, while picking up power-ups is more a game of luck than strategy.
Duke War!! is the least accessible game of the compilation and offers a weird mix of RTS battling and resorce gathering. The graphics with their doodle characters need some getting used to and the constant babbling voices are a bit irrating as well, but after some time, the former gives it a certain innocent charm, while the latter makes for some funny moments with crude humor. The goal of the game is to earn more gold than the opponent. This is done by wandering around one screen with a king who can recruit followers from randomly generating and always regenerating huts. Having enough followers, one can then either decide to build towers or upgrade the peasants to warriors. If this sounds simple enough, it’s a bit more complicated with the switching of battle/followers-collecting and resource/defending modes. Only by using the latter can peasants chop down trees in the vicinity of the built towers. It’s certainly an interesting and fun concept with more players, but the time it takes to finally collect some trees/gold is too long and it’s often not clear enough how one can move things along faster.
Gravediggers is graphically the most minimalist, but it’s also the most fun multiplayer experience. The goal is to kill zombies, collect their heads and bring them to a church for points. The environment is destructible, so one can shoot his or her way through it and double-jump to higher ground if necessary. This sounds pretty straightforward and simple, but there’s a twist which adds enormously to the fun carnage: die and be resurrected as a zombie who can chew the other player(s) to death. However, it’s not possible in this form to score points. To make matters worse or more fun, one has to collect one’s own head in order to be alive again. Add in a couple of devastating bonus weapons like shotguns or grenades, and this becomes an addictive and time-consuming multiplayer mayhem which together with a great catchy soundtrack is an amazingly different game one wouldn’t expect thatgamecompany to be associated with, considering their zen gaming heritage.
A definitive art edition and a collector’s dream
Journey: Collector’s Edition is more than just a great presentation of an amazing gaming experience. The game itself is without a doubt one of the most immersive and unique titles the company has put out and stands on its own in comparison to other indie games. It’s certainly not for everyone with its unusual minimalistic storytelling approach and multiplayer/solo mix, but it should be played at least once in a lifetime.
Thatgamecompany’s former games flOw and Flowerare pretty different in terms of quality and gameplay, and while the former lacks variety and ambition, the latter is again another example of how gaming and art can be combined to create something truly beautiful and enjoyable for everyone without the proliferation of violence and emphasis on fast reflexes.
The inclusion of the three bonus games is not only a nice extra, but they’re interesting experiments with some very fun gameplay (to varying degree). But what’s even more recommendable is how many extras for the main games can be found on the disc: soundtracks (which can then be listened to as MP3s), artworks, commentaries, making-ofs, etc. add to a better understanding of each individual title and a offer very good value for money.
Having a reversible cover is also a nice touch, and if every PSN game would get the same treatment and this for a fair price, Sony would definitely win in the retail market and bring more indie games to the collectors among gamers who still love to have a physical copy with lots of bonus material on their shelves.
Overall rating: 9.5/10
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