Journey was a memorable experience when I first played it and it became a Game of the Year Finalist at PSXE that year. It also won several other awards, as you might well expect. Now, three years later, Thatgamecompany’s splendid, minimalist adventure has returned on PlayStation 4 and quite frankly, it can’t get any better. At first, I was intent on determining the key differences with this updated version but after playing for only a few minutes, I once again became immersed in this singular, captivating experience. The sand shifted and blew, the mountain in the distance beckoned, and the world I traversed echoed with surreal sentiment. I was, once again, entranced.
Those who adored Journey on PS3 will find another level of appreciation on PS4. The fresh coat of paint, glossy and beautiful, infuses an already intoxicating quest with even more visual appeal. The 1080p/60fps package allows this strangely personal and probing quest to shine, to emit its pleasing, rapturous melody of graphics with even greater poignancy. As I mentioned in the original review, one could argue that such a landscape doesn’t warrant certain adjectives, and that its barren landscape might prove a shade boring. But the ingenious interweaving of sand, water and snow, despite the lack eye-popping special effects, continues to exert its power. You are at sea, lost in the gentle movements of a visual and aural symphony.
The work of award-winning composer Austin Wintory remains a highlight of the production. Those haunting, wonderfully complementing strings fill every step with emotion and interest. The base sound effects reflect the minimalist presentation – all you really hear are your steps on the terrain and the occasional cry of a mystical creature – so the spotlight is firmly on that amazing score. As you’re playing, you get the palpable sensation that the game itself was created around the score, as opposed to the other way around. The music fits everything so perfectly; you can’t imagine taking this particular journey without it. By placing the focus squarely on simple interaction and an engrossing soundtrack, the designers manage to enliven your senses, some of which aren’t oven teased when playing a video game.
For the most part, the gameplay is almost exactly the same as it was on the PS3. The 60 frames per second just means movement and animations went from painfully smooth to immaculately smooth. There is, I believe, a noticeable difference in the backdrops, which are cleaner and sharper, and the crispness of each effect – as minor as it may be – grabs your attention. There’s an unparalleled fluidity to Journey and with the heightened technical benchmarks, that fluidity is enhanced to almost ridiculous levels. You can’t stop playing simply because you’re caught up in the ceaselessly enrapturing flow and before you know it, the adventure will be over. Yes, we all know it’s only about two hours in length but I think we’ve tackled that issue to death, haven’t we? Here, length is irrelevant.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, here’s a brief summary: You are a strange, lonely creature who finds himself (or herself…or itself) in a forbidding landscape. When you first rise to your feet, after apparently crash-landing as a shooting star, you see nothing but sand. You take a few tentative steps and you notice that you have no arms and no mouth. You walk up the sand dune before you and after ascending, you espy a snow-capped mountain far off in the distance. At the center of that mountain is a light source of some kind; it seems to erupt from the center of the peak and radiate up into the heavens. It’s your only geographical marker of any significance and somehow, you get the tingling sensation that it’s your only hope. Or perhaps it’s your fate.
At first, you can only walk around. But you’ll quickly find a glowing magical glyph that enhances your signature scarf. This allows you to leap into the air and float for a certain period of time; the more glyphs you find, the longer your scarf becomes, and the longer you can fly through the air. Finding all these glyphs can be a challenge (especially when you only have a limited period of time to grab them) but really, it’s not about the glyphs. It’s not really even about the frequent and well-designed puzzles that you must solve. It’s about the experience as a whole. It’s about making your way to that mountain because you feel you have to. And with the lovely gameplay – wonderfully paced with almost perfect control – you’re relishing the task.
There is a story, told at intervals with no voices or dialogue. There’s only a tall, white figure that is open to interpretation; some may see this figure as the mother of the main character, while others will see her as a deity, or perhaps the mother of all creatures. She directs your attention to a story played out on what appears to be a wall of animated cave drawings (only with an Egyptian hieroglyphic tinge). What you see on that wall isn’t meaningless and it isn’t entirely vague or overly subtle. It does have meaning and it also gives you a clue as the next stage of your trek. The game doesn’t intend for you to ask, “what does this mean?” It only wants you to think and to feel; you can ask that question after you’ve completed the journey. Strangely, the reflection of this trek is far more intriguing than the baseline story.
You may encounter another traveler as you progress and believe it or not, this adds an entirely new dimension to the experience. I think what’s most striking is the contrast; one minute you’re completely alone and the next, someone’s right next to you. You involuntarily smile, realizing that another creature is undergoing the same trial, and that creature has resolved to join forces. You can travel with only one other player at any given time, which further enhances that connected sensation. Interestingly, you know nothing about this other person; they’re not distinguished by a username or any unique characteristics. They look exactly like you and that’s it. You can’t communicate with voices but you can help each other, by refilling the other’s scarf, for instance.
I would like add a side note and it might be indicative of a gaming community (and a society) that absolutely suffers from widespread attention problems. I’ve probably come across a half-dozen other people when playing, and every single one of them simply wants to move forward as fast as humanly possible. As far as I’m concerned, these people are completely missing the point of the game, but it doesn’t surprise me in a world dominated by “twitchers.” I wonder what would happen to some people if they were forced to simply stop. You know, just stop and look around, or perhaps just wander and drink it all in, without actually doing anything specific. Would their heads pop right off their shoulders? Perhaps.
Anyway, Journey on PlayStation 4 is undoubtedly the definitive edition of an instant classic. It’s not drastically different and there really isn’t any new content, but the upgrades included in this package are noticeable and appreciated, and vault the production into the stratosphere. We are moved and impacted; some even say they’re forever changed after finishing. This is because the game reaches inside us and attempts to expose our humanity; its highs and lows and its many pressing – oftentimes frightening – questions. And as humans, we respond to such a gesture. In effect, I think of Journey as precisely that: An incredibly and subtly profound gesture to mankind. All we have to do is extend our hand and let it take us on a remarkable adventure.
The Good: Slightly updated visuals are even more understatedly fantastic. The score remains one of the best in history. Easy, accessible gameplay that connects with everyone. Wonderfully paced and balanced. Intriguing atmosphere and narrative makes us think. Encountering another individual significantly changes the experience. An unparalleled sense of fluidity and immersion.
The Bad: N/A
The Ugly: N/A
7/24/2015 Ben Dutka