Journey Preview

For years, I’ve toyed around with the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago. It’s an old Catholic pilgrimage that, if you do it properly, starts in the Bay of Biscay and takes you pretty much all the way across northern Spain, ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela. I’m no Catholic, but the Camino welcomes people from all walks (pun) of life, and pretty much everyone who walks it comes away pleased from having done so. I haven’t done it, because I can’t afford the luxury of taking a month out of my life to go hiking. The good news is, I can play bloody video games.

Why is this relevant to Journey, the latest PlayStation 3-bound offering from flOw and Flower developers thatgamecompany? Well, it’s about a pilgrimage, sure. But its relevance gets a little more specific than that.

People who walk the Camino often talk about the strange way you make and lose friends on the way. Everyone walks at a different pace, so you constantly meet up with, and separate from, different people. And most of the time, you’ll find you don’t even share a common language. But you’ll find yourself regularly partying-up with people who you don’t know and can barely talk to, because you’re just glad of the company.

Playing Journey stirs similar feelings. You’re permanently online, and as you play the game you’ll bump into other travellers with whom you cannot communicate. You can make your character ‘sing’ by tapping or holding the circle button, but that’s it. You don’t even have any way of finding out who the other travellers are; no name, no PSN ID, nothing. But as you wander across the largely danger-free but intimidatingly vast and arid desert with these total, uncommunicative strangers, it’s just nice to know that somebody else is there.

Journey‘s premise isn’t difficult to figure out. You’re in a desert, and you can see a mountain in the distance with a huge, brilliant light on top of it. You already know the game’s called Journey, so you start walking. You won’t know why at first, but it becomes clearer as you go. Journey appears to have a story to tell, more so than flOw or Flower did, but it’s told entirely through pictographic visions and environmental clues. It doesn’t take a genius to fathom that the vast structures we see in the early stages of the game weren’t always surrounded by sand, and one of the first visions you receive bears that out. Indeed, it implies that there’s a lotof buildings buried underneath, so it’s safe to assume something pretty terrible has happened.

The bulk of Journey‘s early stages involve finding bits of holy/magic fabric that have become dull and lifeless, and restoring them to their former glory. Moving your wandering monk near them brings their colour back, matching the red of your own cloak, and can prompt a number of different effects. Sometimes it’ll create a fabric bridge that allows you to cross a previously impassable canyon, while at other times it’ll release a swarm of floating pieces of fabric that, when summoned by your singing, swoop down and lift your character into the air.

The floating pieces will also attach themselves to you, taking the form of white symbols on your scarf, and each one allows your character to jump into the air once. As the game progresses, your scarf gets longer, allowing you to ‘store’ more jumps between refills. thatgamecompany once again show their talent for subtle methods of displaying information without using a HUD, similar to the way flOw used the white dots on your creature’s body to denote how much damage you could take. It’s baffling that pretty much nobody outside of thatgamecompany or the dudes who made Dead Space have experimented more with this kind of thing, but hey ho.

In case it even needs saying, the game looks incredible. What’s less obvious from screenshots is that the soundtrack is also superb, though this will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the developer’s previous work.  Even highlighting Journey on the XMB is enough to have you staring slack-jawed at your TV for a minute or two. A shame, then, that most attempts to look into Journey‘s music will end up here, and not here.

Journey isn’t going to be for everyone, and that’s okay. But for those who can get behind a slower and more contemplative experience, something wonderful is just around the corner.

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