I have a hard-and-fast rule not to read other people's reviews of games I'll be covering myself. Yet, when the embargo for thatgamecompany's Journey was lifted, it was impossible to overlook the dozens of glowing reviews that spawned simultaneously in Google Reader, and it's been impossible, in the weeks since, to ignore the effusive praise for the game on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Even accepting that I was primed for disappointment when I finally sat down to try out Journey for myself, it was surprising all the same. This? This is the game that sent a thousand sweaty-palmed reviewers scrambling for their thesauruses? It could blow away in a gentle breeze.
This isn't to suggest that playing Journey is unpleasant, only that it feels so insubstantial as to give the impression that it might evaporate off your TV screen at any moment. When the game begins, you find yourself controlling a cloaked figure in the desert. On the horizon is a mountain, possibly a volcano, with a red light piercing the heavens from its peak. Clearly, you are meant to go there.
HOT TIP Just keep heading toward that mountain. Really, that's it.
So you start walking. You shuffle up one side of a dune, and slide down another. The desert sands give way to underground caverns and to snowy mountains. It's all very pretty, slow, and meditative, and the brief challenges that arise aren't really intended to slow you down. You'll take cover when strong winds threaten to blow you off course, or hide under outcroppings when a flying dragon seems to threaten you. The intended effect is ethereal and dreamlike, which it is, but it's also — not to put too fine a point on it — fucking boring.
There are some gameplay mechanics as old as games themselves. Your traveler must jump over and across things, and when Journey decides to test your skills, it'll do something like make you try to land on a relatively small space. Thanks to floaty, imprecise controls, it's harder than it should be.
Not that it's a major issue. Journey is meant to be played in a single sitting, which should be an easy task even for novice players. That's including the section of the snow level where you can fall off a cliff and end up back at the beginning, which I would have been happy to chalk up to my own incompetence, until the next two people I talked to about the game said that the same thing had happened to them. Three makes a pattern.
Journey has an appealing multiplayer component, wherein strangers seamlessly drop in and out of your game. You can cooperate, or ignore one another, and the best part is that you don't have to hear anything the other person is saying, because there's no voice chat. Hallelujah. But given the limited range of interactions, not to mention the boneheadness of your average player, it's hard to say what the advantage is over a computer-controlled companion. I will say this: if you're the stranger who loyally followed me over the edge of that frozen cliff, I apologize.
Ultimately, it seems as though Journey is intended as a metaphor more than it is a game, and to this end it takes a couple of hours to accomplish something Jason Rohrer did much better in five minutes in Passage (and Journey costs $15 more, to boot). Nothing is better than when a game designer smuggles some potent subtext inside the hull of a well-crafted game. It's not so great when they forget to include the game.