I have never been much for downloadable games.  Even after I got my new PS3 (one of the slim ones with a bigger hard drive) to replace my old, warn out unit, I wasn’t much for downloading games from the Playstation Network.  The odd Final Fantasy port aside, most of the titles on the Network just didn’t appeal to me, or didn’t seem like lengthy-enough gaming experiences to warrant the 15-20 bucks they cost.  That is, until thatgamecompany released their PSN-exclusive Journey.  Having followed the progress of the game’s development ever since its original announcement way-back-when, I waited in eager anticipation for its release.  I can safely say that I have not been disappointed.


In thatgamecompany’s Journey, players are tasked with controlling a lone wanderer on his (her? [its?]) trip across a desert as vast and empty as it is beautiful and mysterious.  The destination?  An enormous mountain looming in the distance, its peak crowned with and radiating light.  And that is as much introduction as the game really gives you.  From that point forward, the entire narrative of the story takes place largely in the head of the player.  There is no in-game text, and even player names take the form of pixelated patterns, rather than PSN IDs (PSN IDs of players you encounter in your journey are displayed at the end of a successful playthrough).  There are no voiceovers.  From the first moment to the last, the game is entirely open to player interpretation.  It’s just you and music and sand – but in this game, that’s really all you need.



The graphics in Journey are beautiful.  I should make it clear that no screenshot can really do the game justice.  In the game’s best moments, the animations of character model and particles of sand work together to create a world that is ridiculously fun to look at.  Everything just flows together in a way that is difficult to describe in words.  In one segment of the game, you find your character “surfing” down a steep, sandy slope.  After a few seconds of this fast-paced frolic, your character passes into a tunnel of sorts, the camera takes a side-view perspective, and suddenly the sun is shining brightly on the sand in a way that makes it look like water.  It literally looks as if your character is surfing on a river of liquid gold.  I laughed out loud when I saw it, it was so spectacular.


In addition to your character, there are several “creatures” to be found in the game, most of which seem intent on helping you reach your goal.  I put the word creatures in quotation marks, because it is not immediately apparent whether or not these things are alive, but they all behave as if they are possessed of some intelligence.  Whether it’s a fluttering, serpentine ribbon-creature whose vocalizations resemble whale-song, or a massive magic-carpet-dragon (you’ll see what I mean) on whose back you can walk and who will fly you around places, the creatures in this desert are beautiful to behold, especially in the way they actively react to your presence.


And while it must be said that the graphics don’t look particularly “realistic,” this is in no way a detriment to the game.  The presentation just seems so, for lack of a better word “artistic,” that you never feel as if you’re being slighted in the graphics department.  Whatever odd graphical issues you may encounter (for instance, the characters don’t have bodies inside their robes) really just seem like part of the game, part of the style of the art.



Perhaps my favorite part of the game, though, is the music.  The moment I finished the title, I hopped online to see if I could buy (or pirate [lol, jk]) the game’s soundtrack.  To my great disappointment, the soundtrack is not currently available, but thatgamecompany has stated they plan to release it something soon.  It’s just so brilliantly composed.  The music, every bit of it, is highly evocative, and perfect for each individual scene or stage in the game.  I’m by no means an expert when it comes to music (what do you want?  My undergrad was in English!), but I can say that I can’t imagine how this soundtrack could be improved.  This game with this soundtrack – it’s like if you took emotions and made them sing.  Every moment is perfectly scored in a way that evokes just the right feelings.  Feelings of loneliness, of triumph, and of empty despair – it’s all there.


The game explains rather quickly the simple control scheme, and sets you on your way.  Within the first five minutes of the game, even an inexperienced player should be able to understand the controls as well as a seasoned veteran, so there’s not much of a learning curve.  However, while the controls are simple, there is a level of strategy in the game that might not be immediately apparent on a first playthrough.  There is a scene, for instance, where your character encounters massive mechanical dragon-like creatures who will attack and tear the character’s scarf (but it’s a magical scarf that allolws you to jump higher and to fly and stuff – just go with it).  However, if the dragon can’t catch you in his magical death-ray, then he can’t attack you.  So the trick is in not being seen.  It sounds simple, but it’s something that may not occur to every player right away.



Journey should be prized for its brilliant art direction and gorgeous soundtrack, but make no mistake – this is not even a comparable gaming experience to other big-budget titles.  It’s a simple, straight-forward (literally) title that doesn’t try to be much more than a beautiful exploration of the ideas the game presents.  This is a game that explores themes of solitude vs. community; of discovery and rediscovery; of loss, of life, and of death.  And it explores those themes really well.  But it doesn’t try to do much more than that, and that’s one of the things I love about it.  Trophies encourage multiple playthroughs, and there are several references to other thatgamecompany titles hidden throughout the game.  I had a great time finding them all, though none is particularly well-hidden.  If you spend even a few minutes looking, you’re sure to find each of them.


I definitely encourage you to give this game more than one go.  As per the official GI review, I suggest playing it once entirely alone, and again with Internet enabled – the two experiences really are genuinely different in a way that will likely be apparent as you cross the vast expanse of the desert.  The sense of loneliness is much stronger if you’re playing alone (duh), especially in areas like the frozen mountainside.  Players who have completed the title know what I’m talking about. The ability to skip to later levels after the first completion is a nice addition if there’s a trophy you want that isn’t available until later.


All in all, Journey is legitimately one of the best titles this year, and I might even go so far as to say one of the best games I’ve played in general.  I give it 5 Magic-Carpet-Dragons out of 5.