Journey Review: One Way Trip

With thatgamecompany’s first two games, the Los Angeles based developer established some serious arthouse cred. Both flOw (2007) and Flower (2009) used the Playstation’s Sixaxis motion control to create some minimal, ethereal experiences. Their latest game Journey doesn’t follow suit with motion controls, but it does continue the developer’s goal of creating airy, emotionally driven games. What Journey lacks in substance, it makes up for with pure feeling.

As a robed Bedouin figure in a vast desert, your goal in Journey is, well, to make a journey. It starts simple and remains so for the entire two-and-a-half hour pilgrimage. A large mountain in the distance soon becomes your goal, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the endless dunes. This becomes the crux of the narrative as you weave through ruined highways and grand halls. What will happen when you get to the mountain? Well the game doesn’t give up any sort of answer before the very end, and only conveys story through intermittent cutscenes that feature absolutely no dialogue.

As you make your way forward, the loneliness of the desert can be a little harrowing. If you are playing online however, you’ll occasionally run into other players making their own way to the mountain. It is random, there is no way to contact the other person besides a chirping sound that you can make, and there is no guarantee that the other player will stay with you. But when they do, it adds a sense of companionship that changes the entire dynamic of the game. You’re sharing this experience with another person in a very restricted, yet powerful way.

Besides walking rather slowly forward, sliding down dunes, and chirping incessantly, players are given a kind of gliding ability that can only be used when charged up via magical pieces of cloth. These little scraps of cloth often serve as markers for which way you’re supposed to go, and also lead to some of the more impressive moments in the game. An early puzzle has you reconstruct a bridge made entirely of the stuff, and then lets you fly over it in a wide arc. These moments of elation pop up between much solemnity, and give the game much of its emotional appeal.

At all times, Journey is a beautiful game despite not pushing a huge amount of polygons. Sand blows across the land like a golden ocean, and the entire aesthetic is sort of like a mosque drawn in a cel shaded style. The game makes liberal use of pink, maroon, gold, and even cooler tones as you move through the world. The soundtrack supports this style even further, with long, buzzing cello pulls that reinforce the isolated vastness of the desert. But in moments of joy and excitement a full orchestral ensemble blends in naturally.

You aren’t likely to spend more than a few hours at most playing Journey, but if you’re into the minimalist indie scene, you’ll be very glad to have spent that time with it. I can see how it would be too barren for some to appreciate; I fully admit that what story is here isn’t well explained. But the point is to feel your way through the game. To get caught up in the moments that the designers have carefully crafted. If you can’t get into it, then I don’t know what would pierce your cynical soul.

Journey is available only on the PSN for PS3. All screenshot credit goes to thatgamecompany’s own selection of screenshots available via their website.

Dust: An Elysian Tail Review: Auteur Theory

Dust: An Elysian Tail is unique even by indie game standards. Dean Dodrill, who had almost no experience in game design, computer programming, or story writing, designed it almost entirely by himself.
Knowing that fact along makes it shocking that this game’s mechanics work as well as they do. The juggle heavy combat is simplistic, but responsive, and the RPG elements are deeper than most other XBLA games.
From a narrative perspective though, Dust has some serious pacing issues, and a glut of dialogue performed by irritating characters. For every great moment of story telling comes many more moments of overacted melodrama. Because Dodrill was the sole creator, he could put whatever he wanted in the game, and however much of it that he pleased. Auteur theorists may be pleased, but all I could think was that some editing would’ve helped greatly.
In Dust, you play as, well, Dust. Joining the annals of amnesiac protagonists, Dust awakens in a Wonderlandian forest with no recollection of how he got there, why here is there, or who he even is. A magical sword named Ahrah and its winged keeper Fidget find Dust and tell him that he is the chosen one to wield one of the Blades of Elysium and bring order back to the land. A great war between two factions has raged for years, and Dust must find a way to end it and figure out his past.
Much of your time spent with Dust focuses on killing monsters and other evildoers with Ahrah. Dust only has two or three main combos and a whirlwind attack on his own. Use Fidget’s projectile attacks with the whirlwind however, and things get really interesting. The whirlwind causes the normally puny fireballs to explode across the screen, racking up the combo counter and experience bonus quickly. There is a fluidity to combat here that can’t be understated. Dust is incredibly agile, able to jump from side to side to dodge incoming attacks or high into the sky to continue slicing up enemies. To put it simply, fighting feels good in Dust.


The world of Dust is also of high quality. The soft focused style evokes a lushness and color palette not seen often in games. Teal, purple, yellow, and orange all work in ways that most other contemporaries don’t dare attempt. There is a small amount of exploration, helped along by a map system cribbed from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sadly, the character animations also look like they were taken from the PS1, which is jarring in front of the meticulously detailed environments and abundant HD particle effects.
The story here is clearly inspired by SNES and Playstation era RPGs, and anime. The focus is on surprisingly dark themes such as death and loss. The side quests are where most of the whimsical and goofy writing comes out. As you travel the Elysian lands, the lesson that all things will eventually die is married with pretty well characterized quest givers.
One of Dust’s greatest failings is how such heavy and poignant story content is buried beneath a surplus of dialogue delivered by nearly every character. I don’t even care that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. That’s fine. But the endless amount of talking is unforgivable. When it isn’t grating—Fidget’s unfunny attitude never hits the mark—it is just pointless. The game stops the action for literally every interaction. Hitting up the store for some health items? Well prepare to hear the shady shop-keep spout some nonsense every single time. At a certain point, I just quit listening and skipped as much talking as possible.
And then there’s the last hour of the game, which is quite simply terrible. Forget that the story takes a complete right turn and refocuses on characters that are either introduced entirely too late or not characterized well before hand. The real killer is a difficulty spike leading up to the final boss, and the final boss itself. Enemies suddenly gain the ability to block your attack chains, bringing what used to be a great sense of combat momentum and fluidity to a full stop. Oh, and good luck buying enough health items to make it past the final confrontation where one strike eliminates ¾ of your health bar.
I have a feeling that plenty of people will like Dust more than I did. There is a huge amount of content here for $15, and who knows, maybe some folks actually like Fidget’s annoying voice. Ultimately, I found the game sloppy and amateurish, which is to be expected from a first effort. Dodrill has a lot of promise, and Dust isn’t a complete waste of time at all. There are plenty of moments where the story and gameplay mesh, but there are also plenty of moments where the action gets bogged down in melodramatic, snarky, or just plain boring dialogue. Give this guy a team of 10 other developers, and there could be greatness in the future.