My review schedule was quite full when this much-anticipated project from thatgamecompany was released on PlayStation Network, and the other night was the first chance I had to get to it. I was a huge fan of Flow, I loved Flower, and I've been looking forward to Journey ever since I knew about it. While I was playing, several people asked what my opinion was, and I knew that there was absolutely no way I could even begin to address the topic over Twitter. Hence, this entry.
My thoughts on the game follow, but please be aware that much of what I am about to say could be considered a spoiler, and I do think that anyone intending to play the game should come to absolutely fresh. If you haven't already been through Journey, do not read this blog post.
Seriously, spoiler warning.
So, first things first, the game is absolutely beautiful from a visual perspective. The colors, the level of detail, the abstract and stylized characters… just stunning. The soundtrack is equally amazing, and this is coming from someone who usually doesn't pay much attention to music in games. Presentation-wise, this game is absolutely at the top of its class.
As for the rest? Well, I'm a bit mixed.
Prior to starting, everyone on Twitter was telling me that I should make sure that my PS3 was connected in order to take advantage of the online "co-op" feature. That's exactly what I did, although to be honest after going through the game once, I wish I had unplugged my console and gone through it solo first.
When my first "partner" appeared, they didn't seem at all interested in interacting with me and proceeded to complete all of the objectives in the current area. I was still learning the game and not sure exactly what was going on, so to have this person do everything in the level while I was still taking everything in was disappointing. Effectively, I entered the area, this person did everything while I had no say in the matter, and then I simply walked to the next part of the game.
In the next part, I couldn't tell if my partner was the same or a different (I had a total of five over the course of play) but they forged ahead without me and somehow managed to activate a flock of flying scarf creatures and made a beeline for the end of the area. None of the scarf creatures held back with me, so I was stuck walking across the dunes while I could see this person in the distance floating and jumping, moving swiftly ahead.
To be perfectly frank, I was getting disappointed by this time. Not only was my sense of discovery taken away by this person (or persons) who performed all the activities without me and left me to trudge from point A to point B, there wasn't anything left for me to do.
Journey doesn't have many activities to start with, so to have the few that exist taken out of my hands left a bad taste in my mouth. Prior to playing the game, I heard people talking about feelings of camaraderie or making some sort of connection with the partners have appeared, but I didn't find that to be my experience at all. Instead, I think I resented the fact that this beautiful landscape was being shared with people who had no interest in partaking of it with me, and for a game of this sort, I'd say that the first experience is always going to be the strongest impression.
The only time any of the partners in the game meant anything to me was when I reached the snowy area near the end. Brendan Keogh has said that perhaps the forced togetherness in that section is more a result of shared misery rather than genuine companionship, and I'm inclined to agree. However, by the developers giving a reason for the players to stick together, I felt as though that particular implementation of the "partnership" was the most effective in the entire game. (I wish there'd been more of it, really!)
Unfortunately, I felt as though this snowy area went on for far too long. Prior to that, each level has a strong flow and seemed keen on generating a particular emotion or response, but the snow was just an endless slog that felt like it went on for eternity. Perhaps I got lost, or maybe it was simply meant to be that long, but rather than feeling as if I was struggling against something, my attention started to wander and I grew frustrated at the endless white. I can't help but feel that if it was shorter, it would have more properly conveyed a sense of being a final push, rather than coming off as too much walking in too much white.
While I enjoyed much of the tone and visual of Journey, after having finished, I have to say that I left feeling a little hollow and unsatisfied. It was both shorter and less interactive than I had been hoping for, and I didn't have the fortune of teaming up with people who were interested in cultivating a shared experience.
With no disrespect to the developers, I have to admit that for much of the time I felt as though I was simply pressing up on the control stick without much happening—both Flow and Flower did more to engage me as a player, whereas in Journey I felt like much more of an observer. I certainly wouldn't have wanted a combat engine or a ton of labyrinthine puzzles included, but when the game asks the player to participate, it comes alive and it's a beautiful thing. Dodging the scary flying monsters in the underworld was tense, and jumping from platform to platform was truly enjoyable. I just craved… more.
In any event, getting back to the multiplayer… I give great respect to thatgamecompany for doing something completely different with it, much like what From did in Demon's Souls. I would love to see more experimentation with integrating players into nonstandard multiplayer modes, but the other side of that is that when it's as open and free form as it is in Journey, it's a gamble. No one can guarantee how other players will participate, and my guess is that I had the misfortune of falling in with a series of Trophy hunters who probably already completed the game several times. Having that type of a partner for my very first experience was a sour one, and like I said earlier, had I known that would've happened, I would have disconnected my PS3 from the Internet and gone ahead solo.
Oh, and that ending? Hated it. I kept waiting for the land to come alive, or something significant to happen, yet the only thing that comes of Journey's journey is that you get booted back to the starting place? Maybe there was something Zen or meditative meant there, but it didn't click with me and I felt as though nothing happened, nothing changed, nothing was achieved. So these little red nomads are dedicated towards making their way to the mountain over and over and over again? For what? Maybe some are satisfied with this resolution, but it missed the mark for me.
Don't get me wrong—overall, I love the fact that Journey is even a thing—that it was made and released on a major console, and that it got tons of press and attention. It's painfully beautiful in many ways and when the nomad is flying and jumping and skating down rivers of sand, I had a smile on my face. Experimentation of this sort is only ever a good thing, and I want to see more and more of it. In terms of my personal experience with Journey, I'm glad that I played it and I was happy to support it, but it left me feeling untouched and unsatisfied.