Journey: Collector's Edition Review
For some reason, I missed the release of Journey on PSN. I remember it being a busy month, and I remember being just a little wary of the game after being so frustrated with playing both fl0w and Flower using those awful motion-sensing control schemes on the PS3 gamepad. But I knew I had to give Journey a shot at some point, because the developer, thatgamecompany, seemed to be making something just different enough this time. And hey, these guys absolutely deserve the attention of many, many more gamers than they currently get. I was excited to receive a review copy of the just-released Journey: Collector's Edition for PS3, which includes not only Journey itself, but also thatgamecompany's two previous releases, fl0w and Flower, along with three smaller mini-games that were never before released. I've played the other two main games, but I hadn't played Journey yet, so I sat down to try out a bit of the game and see if I liked it. I'll review that first as if it was a new game, then talk about the rest of the package afterwards.
Two hours later, I had completed Journey, having felt a range of emotions that I have never quite felt in a video game. It starts out simply with a robed figure with a scarf, out in a bleak desert. There's a mountain in the distance, and subtle camera and visual cues (of which there are many, and they are masterfully used here) let you know that that's your final destination. Your character - which has no gender, or even a set of arms you can see, although they are assumed to be under the robe - trudges through the fantastically rendered sand towards the only landmark that can be seen.
The game alternates between segments of exploration like this along with puzzle-type sections that usually have you activating bright red ribbons placed throughout levels. Several things give the scarf on your back a bright, shining color, and when it's lit up, you can press X to fly up into the air. Pressing Circle allows your character to yell in a musical tone, giving off a pulse that has several uses. From activating scarf-like ribbons throughout the world to create bridges to riding on something like a paper dragon, the few things your character can do still manage to translate the environment into a deep, inviting place that reacts to your touch and evokes real emotions. On top of this, thatgamecompany has made excellent use of color, level design, cinematography, and an amazing bit of technology under the hood to deliver visuals like you've never seen, and gameplay unlike anything else.
Journey is not a platformer in any serious way, as it has no jumping puzzles or real enemies you have to fight, but the game has one feature that, if you don't read websites about video games on a daily basis, would likely take you by surprise. It has an online cooperative mode. But thatgamecompany doesn't just throw you into a level full of orcs with some buddies and toss you a shotgun; no, this game is way, way too classy for that. Instead, Journey seamlessly brings players that are in the same area of the game together, just two at a time, to work together to find solutions and explore. This cooperative duo system doesn't allow for any kind of verbal or typed communication; all you can do is call to your partner with something like a musical note. Still, the game carefully does a lot of things to keep you together with your partner, like allowing smooth puzzles that don't jar towards the exit when the other player finds the solution. On top of this, the player that might be lagging behind gets a speed boost so that both can play together, and yes, you could conceivably play the whole game together with the same person - although I did manage to see a total of five people during my single-sitting playthrough.
Throughout the whole game, a dynamic soundtrack by Austin Wintory is being mixed together on the fly, but this is no abstract electronic/ambient score like you might expect when you read the words "dynamic soundtrack". These are the instruments you'd hear in a symphony, recorded by actual people playing actual instruments. I've never heard a dynamic soundtrack quite like this, especially when it's using an actual symphony, but after 25+ years of listening to game music quite carefully, this sounds like some kind of grand wizardry to make this music do what it does. An elaborate bit of sorcery, maybe. Fine, it's not actually magic, but it sure as hell seems like it. In truth, Austin Wintory brilliantly brought together both wonderful music composition and some freakish technical ability to mix together Journey's wonderful soundtrack. The end result is a score that is perfectly timed to match your real-time actions at just the right moment, yet it sounds like that was the way the song intended to go all along. There's just nothing else out there like it.
But the whiz-bang tech stuff that turns into something that seems like magic? It doesn't end there. What surprised me about Journey's online play is that I felt relieved and glad when another player just quietly slipped into the world and joined me, and I felt like I had a connection to that player as we would solve puzzles together. I'd also feel a bit of sadness when that player would be left behind permanently or just stop moving; I imagined some guy, somewhere in the world, having to stop playing and deal with real life instead of experiencing this little escape happening on the TV screen. Eventually I saw the PSN usernames of those players, which show up only after the credits are done, but for me, it didn't really matter what my cooperative buddies' names were. thatgamecompany designed a kind of cooperative game where players can't screw with each other or even communicate through words; simply traveling together in the world was more than enough. For someone who is beyond sick of online trash talk, spam, man-children that can't handle the challenges of adulthood, and every social gaming issue that goes along with MMORPGs that I've been dealing with recently, the kind of connected play that Journey offers was like a revelation.
There are absolutely no words on-screen until the credits start to roll (unless you pause the game, I suppose), and it did take me a while to realize one of the little twists in the plot, but I absolutely love the way Journey delivers a story without being overly pretentious about it. And hey, after more than a few indie games being a little too into themselves in the last few years, I really appreciate this game much more for that. That's not to say that a game like this is for everyone, though, as an attention-deficit gamer with the yearning for some violence isn't going to last long with something that doesn't give instant and intense gratification with every button press. It's easy to be in the wrong frame of mind for Journey, especially if, right from the start, you don't care for dynamic orchestral music underlying a shapeless figure's adventure through a lost world.
But for those that appreciate a good independent game and don't mind a bit of non-standard design here - you know, a game with rules not descended from those written by id Software in 1992, or Gary Gygax forty years ago - then Journey is an absolute must-have. It shines brighter than many indie games that came before it, and the visuals, music, and story will stick in your memories long after the scenes from those loud, expensive war games have faded from your mind. Don't get me wrong, as there's certainly a place for games like that, and I've given many of them glowing reviews in the past, but games as unique and emotionally-charged as Journey only come along once in a while, and they are not to be missed by anyone who can handle not blowing stuff up for a good two or three hours.
Now, let's talk about the rest of the games that come in Journey: Collector's Edition.
fl0w was one of the first games, if not the first, where you control an amorphous shape floating around in some kind of primordial ooze, eating up smaller monocellular creatures and "evolving" into something bigger so you can take on the bigger ones that come later on. thatgamecompany director Jenova Chen's reworked design on PS3 (it existed first as a simple browser game based in Adobe Flash) gave it smooth, enticing visuals along with a soundscape that was mostly ambient but sounded musical. The game controls simply by tilting the PS3 controller, which directs your creature - no buttons or sticks required. fl0w is certainly worth giving a shot, but its place as simply part of another collection is probably the right one, because it's a fairly simple game that won't likely hold your attention for long.
In Flower, you become quite literally that, a gathering of petals that brings color to a dreary, faded landscape. Each level brings new challenges about where your flower is allowed to go, how much spreading of life you've got to do to move onto the next area, and how to get around or through the game's obstacles - which are less like moving, breathing enemies, and more like just an inhospitable environment. Flower started to tell a very vague story, but it was one that was still a bit too abstract for some. And the whole time I played it, I was begging to be able to use an analog stick to control the flower, as the tilting thing just does not work for me.
Then there's Journey itself, which I've described above. What may entice serious fans of these games are the three mini-games that are also included, but these really don't amount to much. They were all made in basically a day for a competition called GameJam, and frankly, they play like they were made in a day. Made by very talented people, yes, as the developers got their games up and running and without obvious game-breaking bugs in that short a time, but the graphics and sound are rudimentary and the gameplay is a fairly weak little distraction in all three. With that said, I actually expected less considering they made each of these games in one day, so it's kind of cool just to see what one talented group of people can do with only that short amount of time to work. In that sense, as a novelty that you goof around in and get impressed by when you realize they have mechanics and rules and don't break and crash, they're a success. As actual games you play and come back to repeatedly, not so much.
With all that said, Journey itself to me is the vast majority of the reason to get Journey: Collector's Edition, and if you already own that, then this isn't that great of a buy unless you want the commentary content that was additionally thrown in. The version of Journey on this disc offers no major enhancements to the one that was released for download earlier this year; it's the same thing, as far as I know. Additionally, you have to install the games to your PS3's hard drive in full, and then still put the disc in the drive every time you run it; you're not saving any space on your hard drive by getting this disc-based version of the game, and then you're also tied to the disc. There are a few other extras included like themes for your PS3, but basically, this package is best bought by someone who hasn't played anything by thatgamecompany yet and wants to give all of their games a shot. If you've already played the three major games they've made in the past, then you won't likely find any of the extras here to be worth the $30 purchase. And if you are just trying to get caught up with Journey itself, spend $15 on it on PSN and save yourself the rest. (The game includes a soundtrack CD, but I found that it lost something in the necessary transition to a static score; it was much more powerful as part of the game, with all of that expert timing and its combination with the game's wonderful visuals.)
If I was just reviewing Journey itself, I'd give it a 10 out of 10, but I'm reviewing this whole package, priced at twice the cost of the PSN version of the game that's in big letters on the box cover. If you've already played thatgamecompany's previous two games, then this isn't the best value. But hey, it can't be all bad; it still contains Journey, which is one of the best games I've played this year, so I suggest that you buy whatever you need to buy to get your hands on this game. The retail box is still a decent deal, as it still only costs half of what you'd spend on some six-hour bro-fist orgy of explosions where people yell out orders and fire guns a lot. And the two to three hours you get out of Journey will be worth far more than the time you get out of a game like that.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy sent to us by the publisher.