Platform: PlayStation 3
Review Date: 6/8/15
I usually like weird, artsy, contemplative games like "Journey", but its strong religious subtext and abstract metaphors left me frustrated and lost. Granted, it takes at least three complete play-throughs to start fully appreciating what the game has to offer, but by then the mechanics have become tedious and the thrill of discovery is gone. "Journey" is essentially a game about life, death, and rebirth. You start out as a faceless entity wrapped in a cloak, traveling across a barren desert towards a beacon that shines from a distant mountain. Along the way, you come across the ruins of an extinct civilization, and catch glimpses of its history. Some of its great war machines still exist, and pose a threat later in the game. Once you complete your journey to the mountain, you are reincarnated and sent back to the beginning. This allows you to continue exploring the landscape and collecting items you might have missed during previous journeys.
You can finish the game in a couple of hours depending on how focused you are, so replaying the game isn't much of a burden. In fact, the game encourages you to play multiple times and offers incentives like chapter selection and costume upgrades. The game is touted as being a profound emotional and spiritual experience, but my response was lukewarm at best, which is highly unusual for me. Actually, the biggest reaction I had towards the game was an annoyance over the fact that my character had no feet. That really bothered me.
Presentation wise, the game is superb. The desert scenery is gorgeous with its harsh lighting and barren features, and the wind and sand physics create a lovely, dynamic ambience. Climbing up dunes and moving against the wind creates a tangible sense of greater effort, while sliding down dunes feels carefree and effortless. For the most part, the controls are simple and responsive, but you're always fighting against a drifting camera. I'm guessing this is partially due to the PS3's Sixaxis controls being used for looking around, and it's difficult to keep the controller perfectly flat while playing. You can also use the right analog stick for camera control, but there's unfortunately no way to disable the annoying motion controls.
While the game looks great and is easy and intuitive to play, the greatest feature is its musical score, which seamlessly and dynamically adjusts to your actions. It's a beautiful and moving soundtrack, and it's definitely worth tracking down a copy. Unfortunately, where the game falls short is in its overly ambiguous nature, and the abstract symbolism is so purposely obscure that it detracts from the enjoyment of the game. I'm a very superficial and detail oriented person by nature, so complex symbolism and ambiguity leaves me frustrated, confused, and feeling stupid. And I absolutely HATE feeling stupid. That's what my day job is like, and I don't need that creeping into my entertainment and personal life. If you want to say something, then say it. Don't force me to guess at your meaning and then chastise me for guessing wrong. The various glyphs can certainly be interpreted as the rise and fall of a civilization, where trees and birds once flourished. Then some cataclysmic event put the people at odds with each other and led to their destruction, leaving their abandoned cities to be buried under endlessly drifting sands. But no explanation is given beyond that. Was it plague, famine, drought, or war? And just what is the giant beacon that relentlessly drives you forward? Is it simply death, and how we are powerless to escape it?
In many ways, "Journey" reminded me of "Dear Esther", which is a story of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. It's equally odd and abstract, but it drops enough clues to generate an emotional context to play in and has a moving conclusion with a strong sense of liberation and closure. "Journey" lacks any sort of emotional context, so by the time it's over, all you can do is wonder what it was all about. It raises way more questions than answers, which is one hook for getting you to play it again. Subsequent journeys eliminate the element of surprise and the joy of discovery, but still provide no clues or answers. Perhaps it's just meant to be experienced and enjoyed, rather than analyzed and catalogued. And perhaps that's how life is meant to be as well.