Unravel – Review
PS4, Xbox One, PC
Occasionally, you meet people who are instantly likeable. Perhaps you enter a room, and notice them, and they exude warmth and friendship. For some reason you just want to hang out with them.
Well, this game is kind of like, maybe, a favourite aunt. The moment the game launched I was presented with green leaves in mottled sunshine, accompanied by rich violin music, I just got the feeling of “home”.
Welcome to Unravel. At its core, it’s a side-scrolling puzzle platformer built around the concept of a woollen doll using its yarn to traverse environments and overcome puzzles and obstacles. At its heart, it’s a visual story about people, family and memories. This is a game that really seems to wear its heart on its sleeve, and I think I felt that warmth come across when playing through Unravel’s levels.
The visuals and music in the game really are lovely. The different levels have various settings and are represented by very realistic looking backgrounds. All of the levels are beautifully presented. When Yarny is travelling in sun speckled glades, you can almost feel the sunshine. When he’s shivering in snow and ice, it almost seems like the temperature in the room has dropped. It is almost possible to taste the salt when Yarny goes to the seaside. Some environments are a bit more tense and the game makes you feel that too. I think the lighting in this game is excellent. Music infuses the game, and various background sounds, such birds or even Yarny’s footsteps round out the feeling of the game and make it seem more alive. Overall the game is a visual and auditory delight.
The game’s protagonist is a small doll made of bright red yarn called, Yarny. Although Yarny is just made of red yarn, with white eyes, he is a very expressive character. He is animated wonderfully and moves in a way that seems natural for a little living creature. He sometimes blinks and looks around, and seems to have weight in the world. As you move Yarny right along his environment yarn unravels from his frame. When he moves left the yarn re-spools. Yarny is a nimble little character and has a few abilities that are used to solve any environment puzzles or overcome obstacles he encounters. He can use the loose end of his yarn as a grapple to swing from grapple points, or to climb up and down various objects in the environment. He can also tie his yarn to special anchor points and make yarn bridges. The bridges also allow him to jump extra high. Physics are an important part of the game and objects and elements behave in a realistic fashion. By using Yarny’s skill mechanics and considering the physical properties of objects in the environment, you get to take Yarny on his adventure.
The controls, in general, are quite smooth, although sometimes I had a little trouble latching onto grapple points with Yarny’s yarn. I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of puzzle platformers though. They usually result in me making stupid mechanical errors and yelling at the screen while I try over, and over again to get to some ledge that appears to be just out my reach. There are a few experiences like that here, but the game never punishes you by setting you too far back if you fall short or succumb to an environmental hazard. The big outdoors can be tough if you’re made of yarn. You need to take care not to let Yarnie soak in water for more than the briefest time, otherwise he’ll sink. If you’re like me, you’ll get him squashed by rocks, shredded in machinery, or even blown away in fierce winds. Luckily, these experiences just help you figure out the environment, and with some practice and experimentation, the solution eventually becomes clear. (I only cheated once. Well maybe twice, but that’s just because I’m impatient).
I’m not sure that Unravel has a story with a plot, but rather it takes you through glimpses of memories and the places those memories are set in. The game’s intro starts with an old woman staring wistfully out a window before contemplating a picture of a baby, and then heading upstairs, dropping the ball of yarn that becomes Yarny. Yarny plays through the levels, or memories, I suppose, by looking at various photographs in the old woman’s house. Although it’s all lovely and the memories might remind the player of similar experiences in his or her own life, it still does feel like someone else’s memories and I didn’t always feel invested in this “story” element.
Unravel is quite a short game. There are only a handful of levels, although there are some tricky collectables to find and retrieve, which should keep completionists in the game a little longer than the rest of us. A lot of love and care went into this game and it really shows and is echoed back through the story, themes, art and sound. Even if platformy bits and environmental puzzles make you mad (and some of them did; no controllers were harmed though), I think this title is worth a playthrough.
Joel Guttenberg hearkens from the motherland in deepest, darkest southern Africa, but now calls Australia home. His interest in games led to a career in IT, both of which continue to this day. He occasionally wrangles electrons into stories that are hopefully fit for (e)print and never, ever, sleeps on the job.