‘Unravel’ (2016) Review: Yarny’s Beautiful (Slightly Frayed) Journey
‘Unravel’ (2016) Review: Yarny’s Beautiful (Slightly Frayed) Journey
Developer: Coldwood Interactive
System: Xbox One,Playstation 4, Windows
We are a sensory dependent species, attuned to and affected by the slightest change in color, light and sound. These are the building blocks of memories, the very thing that defines us as individuals, something that is unique to each of us. The makers of Unravel, a brief, sentimental puzzle platformer, understand this and in so doing, have lovingly crafted a stirring, sometimes deeply-emotional gaming experience that is all about memories, and more importantly, something unexpected, love. It is also a little disappointing.
WORLD OF YARNY
The hero of Unravel is Yarny, a magical little creature made entirely of, as his name suggests, bright red yarn. Born from a skein fallen from a basket carried by an old women ascending to the second floor of her quaint countryside home, Yarny is drawn to the blank pages of a photograph album where an inscription explains that love forms bonds like strands of yarn. Yarny explores the wold of Unravel, collecting lost memories for the old woman, the photographs in her home the levels in which to explore. Well, not exactly explore, as Yary can only move in four directions, left, right, up, and down, bound by a rigid set of platforming laws that often defy physics but still hold true to a specific set of rules, even if they bend them a few times.
It’s how these movements are used though, and the environments in which they are allowed to be exploited that give Unravel its greatest charms. Designed by Martin Sahlin, the project’s creative director who made a real Yarny for his children on a camping trip, the tiny creature is always tethered to where it starts, the connection to its core memory. As it is made of yarn, the farther from the anchored start Yarny travels, the less yarn there is to use as its body begins to literally ‘unravel’. Here is the metaphor of both the game and of time itself, where age weakens the link to the past. For Yarny, as time and distance thin the coils that bind the little creature, there are, fortunately, small spools of yarn littered about the landscape, and if Yarny can access them (some are only available after short puzzles), the sprite is fully restored, essentially a ‘health pack’ in general gaming terms.
The puzzles themselves are physics-based, using the objects Yarny encounters along the way to help him navigate the sometimes tricky stages. These include anything from apples and toy blocks to tree limbs and children’s tricycles, plus much, much more. Yarny is able to use the yarn as a lasso (akin to Bionic Commando or Spider-Man) to reacher higher locations or build flexible suspension bridges that act as a kind of trampoline (a mechanic that is visually awkward as three dimensional objects are able to balance with no issue on a single strand of yarn). These bridges can support substantial weight, like the aforementioned apples or much more, which is helpful in overcoming obstacles. Puzzles naturally grow increasingly more difficult with progression, and while none are so complex as to warrant too much frustration, many are challenging enough to keep lovers of the genre more than satisfied. Indeed, many are very clever and make excellent use of the assorted environmental hazards, which include water (that can rise and fall) rocks, grass, and trees, and animals, mostly small ones like a vole that becomes rather pesky, though some larger, more majestic breeds make appearances.
And this is where Unravel will win the hearts of any who come to play. The enchanting beauty of this 2D game in a 3D world is like no other, the serene, pastoral setting unique for the genre and yet highly imaginative throughout. The gorgeous attention to detail will astound, providing every frame of Unravel with sumptuous color and breathtaking depth. We are forced to travel only left or right, but instinctively try running off toward the horizon to see what lies beyond the lush green fields and snowy peaks. It’s a testament to the designers that while we are engaged in one genre we are thinking we are in another. The sense of scale is impressively captured and returning to these levels is a must.
It is not just the sights that draw you near and keep you engaged, it is also the magnificent sound design that breathes exquisite life into the gameplay. This is a remarkably quiet game, yet rich with ambiance that evokes powerful emotional responses, all highlighted by gentle guitar strums with a Celtic feel. There are no spoken words, ever. Everything learned is through experiment with the occasional text prompts that, though perhaps necessary, are the only brief moments that take us out of Yarny’s world. What keeps us in are the wonderfully unexpected moments of ‘life’ that Yarny seems to possess, startled by a butterfly, or shaking off water, for instance, that remind you that while you may be in control and on a mission, there are things along the way that need stopping and admiring, once more a reminder of life itself.
(Our Gameplay – Possible Spoilers)
Where Unravel begins to, well slightly unravel, are in the actual puzzle sequences where repetition settles in quickly. This is compounded by loose and finicky mechanics that make several puzzles needlessly irritating, especially where timing is crucial. If you’re a fan of trial and error, rinse and repeat, this won’t be an issue, but it slowly saps a lot of the joy from the experience. Interestingly, Yarny is not immortal, and thus, ‘dies’ when in water, is crushed by a stone or otherwise trapped by crumbling obstacles. This ‘resetting’ ability, created by a world filled with dangers, seems counter to the premise, and while we are inherently absorbed into the themes of memory and love, the sudden, sometimes jarring need to escape something or succumb to a pool of water where a black screen appears and sets us back to a shiny save point serves only to yank us from the fantasy. There is also a reset button that allows players to essentially give up on a puzzle and return to its start, a handy feature but one that, like death itself, could have been handled differently. In fact, a few puzzles do it just right by allowing Yarny to simply walk back to the beginning of the stage, admittedly not an easy solution for more complex (and often ariel) problems, but one that feel far more organic.
These are but minor quibbles in an otherwise highly immersive and entertaining game, one that while clinging to some older conventions, manages to transcend many others and provide a unique and compelling experience well worth the time. Yarny is a lovable little character that is leaps and bounds separated from the standard acrobatic video game platforming hero, unable to do many of tricks and feats we’ve come to expect. The places Yarny goes and the astonishing story that the collected memories reveal make Unravel an innovative and memorable game, but much like Yarny traveling about the countryside, the farther along we go, the thinner the experience.