What do you get when you combine the physics-based puzzle platforming of Limbo, the glorious environments and music of Journey, and the cuteness of LittleBigPlanet? I’m not quite sure, but it would probably spectacular, and Unravel is about the closest thing we have to such an amalgam. This title marks a dramatic departure from the norm for developer ColdWood Interactive, whose past includes almost nothing but sports and fitness titles. Here we have a puzzling platformer featuring the adorable Yarny, who uses the very yarn he’s made of to move about. It’s a treat for both the eyes and the ears and, though it doesn’t quite challenge the mind, it might just tug the heart a bit.

Body talk aside, the tale begins when an old woman is heading off to bed and drops one of her balls of yarn, out of which pops Yarny, our beloved hero. Even here we seem to have a convergence of the three titles mentioned above – he has the monochrome body and white eyes of the Limbo boy, the horns and red coloring of Journey’s traveler, and the cutesy fluffy make-up of Sackboy. In the old woman’s cottage, Yarny first comes across an old photo album. The photos within are all faded beyond recognition, and it’s up to our little red friend to do something about that.

Rolling, rolling, rolling

Rolling, rolling, rolling

The house serves as the central hub for the game. Yarny can find and interact with various photos that are placed about, each one leading to not only a new location, but a memory – a piece of the history of the old woman’s family. The journey begins in brightly-colored fields and gardens in a beautiful look at the Scandinavian countryside. Right away it’s clear just how much effort was placed on making the environments

Each stage will bring Yarny to a new area, each with its own stunning aesthetic, be it the bold colors of flowers in a garden, the detail in a small puddle, or the loose gravel on a road. With the character being so small, attention has to be placed on the fine detailing in these tiny things. Sometimes it’s possible to simply get lost in hopping around in the snow rather than trying to get further in the stage. It helps that the music is also wonderfully appropriate for each setting, enhancing the atmosphere in the best ways.

Not everything's sunshine and rainbows

Not everything’s sunshine and rainbows

As for the gameplay itself, Yarny can wield his own body’s yarn as a sort of whip to do all sorts of tricks such as creating a point he can use to climb or latching onto and pulling objects. He can also tie off the yarn to create a tether, either to allow him to safely rappel or to tie two objects together. He can even create trampoline platforms using this technique, as long as the two points are relatively level. Much like Limbo, the physics in the game are very well done and are often key to finding a solution. The only thing Yarny can’t do is fight, which means even cockroaches become deadly creatures.

It’s unfortunate, but the actual platforming doesn’t live up to the rest of the game. There are caveats to this, few though they may be, in puzzles that require a bit more effort and forethought. The number of headscratchers that popped up during my playthrough can be counted on one hand, but they stumped me long enough to be noteworthy. There are a few interesting mechanics to watch out for. As Yarny moves through a stage, he’ll begin to unravel (hence the title!) as he uses his yarn as a lifeline. Fall off a cliff? No problem, he can simply drag himself back up. Throughout each level there are spools that replenish his yarn, which is important, as he can only go so far – he won’t die, simply stop moving if he runs out. This becomes especially crucial on puzzles that require tethering, as the next spool might be mere inches away, but too far for him to reach.

So close, yet so far

So close, yet so far

Part of the problem is that Yarny can actually do quite a lot, and it can all be done from the start. This leaves the game with little to grow on over 10 stages. The obstacles themselves aren’t very difficult to solve, and even become a bit predictable. I found myself making platforms and pushing objects to the correct spot before I even knew what the upcoming puzzles were from time to time. Occasionally a new environmental challenge is thrown in such as winds forcing Yarny back unless he’s tethered down or electrical lines that will zap him during a lightning strike, as well as some hostile creatures like the cockroaches mentioned above.

Though platforming may not live up to expectations, there is another element to the stages that resonates quite well. While the levels begin with beautifully bright locations, it also has its shifts towards darker, colder areas. And the images seen reflect this. As each level represents a powerful memory, Yarny will find afterimages as he progresses through the stage – someone leaning down to gather water from a stream, two friends carving their names on a tree as they proclaim to always remain best friends, etc. But not all of the memories are bright and pleasant. Yarny brings back these images to place in the photo album, because it represents life. Just as Yarny is connected throughout an entire stage, the memories are all connected, whether they be joyous or saddening. The atmosphere is set up in such a way that it’s never simply spilled out. You’ll never see a line of text saying “X happened and it was amazing!” or “I’m so sad because of Y.” It’s a more subtle message, yet still touching in the way it plays out and how it all connects.

 

KAIJU VERDICT
3/4 Pops: Exceptional  A significant cut above the crowd. Though flawed or otherwise not necessarily for everyone, it does things other games in the genre do not, or tries something new with a great deal of success

PS4 version reviewed.

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