It's not often you sit down to a game with no expectations and walk away from it a couple hours later without knowing the "story", yet having experienced a compelling narrative. Another in the series of highly-atmospheric games from thatgamecompany, Journey does a great job of immersing the player in an alien world and culture, allowing him to interpret the cues into a narrative of his own imagination.
thatgamecompany kept to limited-palette color schemes throughout the game, using primarily brown hues in the desert areas and for most of the routine effects. When shifting to areas intended to have an element of tension, gray stone and blue and green emissive materials were used to good effect.
Not complicated in geometry, the simple style of the art direction with sweeping curves and gentle gradients kept the atmospheric, soothing feel to the game until the aforementioned suspenseful sequences, when harder-edged dark shapes change Journey's tone.
The particle effects, fluid simulation of the sand, specular highlights off the sand, and other effects greatly add to the atmosphere of the game, at times creating some stunning vistas.
Primarily, music is what falls into this category. While there were some sound effects, primarily audio cues fell into the category of stingers. As with previous games from the developer, the score is beautiful and moving, composed by Austin Wintory.
Journey combines platforming elements and sequences very reminiscent of snowboarding games, linked together with slogs through drifting sand. There are puzzles, but I use the word lightly. Problem-solving is generally limited to following the game's design language and activating bridge elements to continue on your way. There are secrets scattered throughout the levels that casual exploration will locate.
What was interesting, however, was the handful of times that secrets were discovered by working with the mysterious double to your character. But there were also times that this mysterious doppelganger would activate bridges before I could, lead me off into some random direction, or just plain behave erratically.
POSSIBLE MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
So, here's the thing. I was prepared to write this off as wonky AI code, but as the game finished, I was struck by one of the closing screens. It was a list of other players I had encountered on my pilgrimage.
The way that the game handles multiplayer is so seamless that I wasn't aware that I was experiencing the world with another player. Playing alongside the mirror of your character grants you more energy to survive the world's hostile climate and solve puzzles. You can musically "communicate" with it by a single button press, and it becomes nearly conversational... in reality, it was, and I didn't know it until after the fact. I read an article after finishing that described the experience so well, it is worth sharing. "Journey's Multiplayer is Useless and That's Alright"
It was an entirely different solution to social gaming and multiplayer, one that genuinely made you think after completing the game. My congratulations to thatgamecompany for the brilliant sleight of hand.
Journey is a brilliant game, but not without a few annoyances I should note.
Buying the game. I don't play a lot of Playstation Store games. The experience of having to go through Gamestop to purchase a code to input a code was painful. I can't hold that against the game itself, but if you've never dealt with it before, be aware.
There were a couple times that I traveled through a section of the game (I had to stop partway through before reaching the next save point) where a timing puzzle requires you to move from cover to cover during gaps in a blizzard. Something got stuck on my second playthrough, and the snow wouldn't stop. I had to exit to the dash and relaunch twice before it worked correctly. Which brings me to...
Menu. Or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, during the bug debacle, I discovered there were no game-centric menu choices to speak of. In particular, no way to save/load, but especially no "Restart from last checkpoint." It's frustrating enough to find a major bug in a title this short, but having to exit the game to get around it multiple times is especially painful.
Always difficult to evaluate on "Art/Concept" games, at $15 US, on the cost-per-hour-of-gameplay scale, Journey ranks lower than watching a movie at a theater (for a single playthrough), which is a category that games usually demolish films in. Most console games currently give you around ten hours of gameplay at a minimum. That being said, it is a very beautiful game both for audio and video, and a unique gameplay experience. It's also a game that I think you could easily have people watch as spectators and get just as much out of the experience, also making it a good discussion piece for design meetings.
Journey delivers what it says on the tin. It truly is an experience of exploration, with the quality levels we've come to expect from this studio. Quibbles with menu options and bugs are minor and don't detract too greatly. In all, it is an enjoyable cinematic experience, and a good way to spend a couple hours with the lights dimmed and the surround sound turned up.
Be sure to check out some of Jenova Chen's images from the game's development.