Unravel may seem like “just” a unique-looking puzzle-platformer, but it’s an emotional journey masquerading as one. It begins with a kindly older woman sitting at a kitchen table pondering the past. You see brief glimpses of her past life in blurry photos, and then a strand of red yarn comes to explore the room she has just left. He sees a photo and hops into, and the game’s journey begins. You go through each photo and explore the world contained within it and learn about the people contained within this world bit-by-bit.
Unravel has a fantastic premise, and an even better execution. You have a few tools at your disposal – each revolving around either Yarny’s yarn, leaping skills, and your smarts. Logic puzzles are the biggest part of the game and provide a healthy mix of joy and frustration. While you are made of yarn, your supply is limited since you’re just a single large strand – but it gets stretched too thin if you’re using it too much.
You will need to use it to fasten onto hitchposts and other objects in the world. You can create makeshift platforms to jump off of doing this, or craft a bridge for items. Trial and error is the only way to solve some puzzles, and completionists will definitely want to replay stages to get secrets. Most of the secrets are either hiding in plain sight, or require you to go off the beaten path – but when your goal is to just progress, it’s easy to just focus on getting from Point A to B as quickly as possible.
Doing so is fine, but the experience is so much more enjoyable when you don’t try and rush through it. This is an experience that should be savored, and much like Journey, tells a compelling story without words and makes you care about everything in the world without endless exposition dumps. Traversing the world is fairly simple, with stick movements instead of the d-pad (which is reserved for restarts) and a logical button layout for jumping, tying rope, and then throwing a yarn line with the right trigger, or pulling yourself up with the left trigger. This layout is easy to remember and it allows you to focus on puzzle-solving instead of actively wondering which button you need to press.
Unravel has a very user-friendly design and a generous checkpoint system. Because there are only going to be a couple of objects you can interact with on-screen at once, you know there can’t be too many solutions to a problem – or too much confusion to overcome to solve a puzzle. If you have a small gap that you can’t clear, you know after one tutorial that you should look for a swinging point. If you can’t reach a higher point in the stage, then swing and see if there’s another swinging point – you may need to make a platform and spring off of it into another area.
If this doesn’t work, then you know it’s time to look around another area because the solution to your current problem might be on the prior screen. It doesn’t happen too often, but it can occur, and it’s usually just as simple as not tying a knot to the correct object, or leaving one on something that will impede your progress. Fortunately, you can either just move back to that area most of the time – and on the rare occasions that you can’t due to a circumstance like not having an essential item needed to make a large jump, you can just press the d-pad and restart at the last checkpoint which is usually one or two puzzles back from your current location.
Yarny is quite the expressive character, and it’s all in the eyes and his body language. When the adventure begins, you see his eyes grow wide in astonishment and then he cautiously moves around the environment. Everything is new to him, and the game exudes a sense of whimsy at all times that gives the player a similar feeling. The emotional attachment you wind up feeling to Yarny is surprising in theory, but not when you play the game – and that’s evident at the end of every stage when he finds something and is either overcome with joy or even a touch of sadness.
Animation also plays a huge part in telling Yarny’s story, and much like Journey, slowed-down movements that show a struggle are used to convey things. Snow weighs him down realistically, while a sunny day on dirt results in a smooth ride for our yarn-crafted friend. You’ll feel his pain as his movements become labored, but also smile a bit when he’s running around without any physical or environmental obstacles in his path.
Beyond just Yarny, the world itself is stunning. You’ll see water with a realistic look to it that is some of the best in gaming – and easily the most beautiful in a side-scroller since the Donkey Kong Country days. There’s a photo-realistic look to nearly everything in the world and with Yarny as the only odd thing in it, it’s easier to get invested in everything. You see things from his perspective, so mundane items like cans are suddenly fairly big – while a simple ride on a tricycle becomes exciting since he’s standing atop it like Rose and Jack from Titanic. Everything in the environment is heavily-detailed, with realistic lighting and shading. Depth of field is a huge deal here too, and you’ll see objects that are close up and far away have a slight haze to them with only the Yarny and his gameplay area in crystal-clear view. The only real downside to the graphics is some occasional clipping with the yarn going through things it shouldn’t – like brick, but those instances are rare and never take you out of the game.
Your ears are in for a treat with Unravel, because its sound design is top-notch. The sound effects are realistic, so things like squeaky wheels or a soda can sound like they should. The best part of the audio is definitely the music, though. It’s serene and so relaxing most of the time that you could listen to it after an unbelievably stressful day at work and just have your tension melt away. It’s one thing that allows the game to never reach a level of true frustration too, because you just can’t stay annoyed by something so serene.
Unravel is the best puzzle-platformer since Journey, and the best side-scrolling one since LIMBO. All of these games share so many elements that make them great – from worlds that imply more than explain, to an atmosphere that is untouched by other games – that they’re all worth-owning. If you enjoyed either of those games, give Unravel a shot – anyone with either EA Access or Origin Access has no reason to avoid doing so, as a two level trial version is available while those hunting achievements can even unlock them in that version of the game too. It’s a stunning game that combines logic puzzles with a serene soundtrack and an unmatched level of graphical beauty for the genre.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of Unravel for the Xbox One provided by Electronic Arts.