With such a ridiculous gaming backlog, my new goal is (at the very least) not to make it worse. The upside it pretty obvious, I save myself tonnes of cash while still getting to enjoy some “game of the year” contenders – and so what if that year is sometimes 2013. Sadly it also means that I’ve had to let a fair few games on my wishlist pass me by. Games like Unravel. Well until now.
Yes, thanks to EA Access I’ve finally had the chance to experience this fantastic little story of the “little yarn-ball that could”. And if the title of this piece or the infant-grade photoshopping didn’t give it away already, I absolutely loved it. Here’s why.
The first thing that struck me about Unravel was that it is flat-out gorgeous. It’s one of, if not the, best-looking downloadable titles I’ve ever played with beautifully drawn environments, incredible lighting and great water and weather effects. But while some games and most CGI can feel a little too polished, the beauty of Unravel is in the texture of everything in the world. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before and at times I swear I could feel the softness of the yarn, the grain of the boardwalks or the abrasiveness of the tarmac on a road. And those waves rolling through as I wandered around the beach? Wow, just wow.
I’m sure EA’s money didn’t hurt in this respect but the developers (Coldwood Interactive) should get plenty of the credit too, it’s hard to believe such a small team have created such an amazing world. At times Unravel feels like you are playing a series of interactive memories – all soft focused through the rose-tinting effect of time or an Instagram filter. But it’s also a world that feels alive – and where a scurrying hedgehog, giant moose and some angry (or maybe misunderstood?) magpies had the power to make me smile, gasp and maybe swear a little. Whether chasing butterflies in the garden, heading off on a mountain trek or going to some darker places (both literally and figuratively) I felt like these places existed and these events had taken place. And that’s quite an achievement when your guide is essentially a ball of string.
An old-fashioned Yarn
But before we talk Yarny, let me tell you a story. Well actually, here’s another way that Unravel demonstrates its class – following Hemingway’s mantra of “show don’t tell”. Not many games do (or really could) start with an old lady pottering round a house but it’s the perfect introduction to this gentle, beautiful world. Through Yarny and a selection of the lady’s photos, we revisit a series of family moments filling in the blanks of a faded photo album and of faded memories.
From the innocence of childhood to everything that follows, the story takes a number of unexpected and occasionally brave twists. It explores themes of family, growing up, and things like nature versus industry – all without any spoken dialogue and with very few words. It’s a story that feels intensely personal and universal at the same time. It is, quite simply, brilliant.
But where Unravel really stands out for me is how it made me feel.
Playing through the adventure I found myself thinking about things like family, memory and growing up. And because of this connection and despite a relatively short playthrough (I’m guessing about 7/8 hours maybe a little more) I went through an incredible range of emotions from joy, nostalgia, fear, excitement, sadness and hope. I grinned like a Cheshire cat and was brought close to tears. It’s not often a game can do that to me.
Though Yarny can’t talk, he (she perhaps? but definitely not “it”) still manages to convey an incredible range of emotions through his movement and some subtle animations. He feels like the perfect guide to both the world and this story – delicate, vulnerable, and connected. The developers have created a character and a game that feel genuinely special. Speaking of games…
A crafty compendium
I’ve always loved platformers, having grown-up in the 90s on a diet of Sonic, Mario and a number of talented pretenders. And now thanks to the rise of digital downloads and a thriving indie scene we seem to be in a second golden age of the genre. Maybe it’s an age thing but these days I find myself less drawn to split-second timing and “insta-death” options than to titles like Limbo with a slower pace, gentle puzzle-solving and more emphasis on story and mood. I’d probably not argue that Valiant Hearts and Never Alone are perfect games but I’d recommend them to anyone. Hey, they each even taught me something too – which is not something I can say from my recent Fifa or Battlefront sessions.
And, when it’s at its best, Unravel excels by building on the ideas of other great games. Like Limbo, it has a beauty and mood that draw you in to its world and puzzles that delay but rarely block your progression. To that, it adds the joy and rich colour of something like Max and the Curse of Brotherhood along with a similar mechanic for bridge and swing builing. It takes the heart of the wonderful but flawed Never Alone, along with a level where you battle the elements which is so similar its eerie. Where Unravel could have resulted in feeling like a bad covers album, Unravel feels more like a greatest hits. Occasionally familiar but hugely satisfying.
So it’s probably pretty clear that I love the game, but that’s not to say I can’t also see its flaws. Because actually, like plenty of my favourite people, Unravel has its fair share of issues.
It starts and ends brilliantly but there is a noticeable dip in the middle of the game. The tone of some of these levels is mostly darker, and my first thought was that I was just missing the joy and sense of wonder from the opening. However, “Down in a hole” and the brilliant “Rust” showed that was simply not the case. Instead it’s likely that when the immersion drops I simply had more time to notice my main issue with the game’s mechanics – namely a lack of variety.
Now, let me be clear on two things. Firstly, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off playing what I feel is a truly special game. I’m sure there will be people who don’t enjoy it as much as I did but, for me, the pros massively outweigh the cons. But, as Yarny, you can build bridges (or ramps) to climb or bounce on, lasso things to either pull, drag or swing off, and tie yourself to things – that’s basically it. It’s a pretty short repertoire and as you push a block, rock or acorn for the hundredth time the novelty and sense of discovery has mostly long gone. Additionally, lassoing and tying are so similar that I occasionally found myself “solving” the puzzle (consistent with the rules of the world) but doing it in the “wrong” way.
Tying up some loose ends
Unravel won’t be a game for everyone but it’s a game I’d encourage everyone to try. Anyone with EA Access (or Origin Access on PC) can now do this for free so there really is no reason not to.
If you like storytelling, want a break from the shooters or have ever cheered the underdog this one’s for you. It’s beautiful to look at but its beauty is also more than skin deep. It has flaws but it’s great despite them. A solid game but a fantastic experience.
Unravel is a game made with love, a game about love and, a game I now love. I hope you will too.
Loved it too? Think I’ve just gone soft? Let us know in the comments.