Monday, July 4, 2016

Unravel Review (XONE)

At first glance Unravel seems like it has all the makings of the next great indie sleeper hit.  It looks great, has a “cute” mascot character, and promises interesting puzzle gameplay and an emotional story.  Then you actually start playing it and realize it is extremely shallow and not actually all that fun to play.  What could have been a GOTY contender based on pre-release hype turned out to be just another mediocre indie game with lots of potential squandered on so-so execution.  See our review for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Electronic Arts
  • Developer: Coldwood Interactive
  • ESRB Rating: “E” for Everyone
  • Genre: 2D Puzzle Platformer
  • Pros: Amazing graphics; some decent puzzles
  • Cons: Sub-par gameplay; story falls flat
  • MSRP: $20

Unravel stars a little creature made of red yarn named Yarny who uses its yarn body to swing around levels, build bridges, and more as it explores realistic worlds made of normal everyday objects that seem like impassable mountains to something as small as Yarny.  The story of the game follows Yarny as it is “born” out of an old woman’s knitting kit, but you get the feeling something bad has happened recently.  The game’s 12 levels take place in memories that you access through pictures located around the house (kind of like Super Mario 64).  The memories start out pleasant enough, but soon turn dark as you slowly learn about the tragedy that struck this family.

The only problem is that, while the game desperately wants to tell a mature story and elicit an emotional response from you, it flubs the storytelling so badly that you don’t ever actually get emotionally invested in anything that is going on.  You only ever see the story as brief flashes of memories that pop up for a couple of seconds in each level, and then you’re left to try to put the actual story together yourself.  Everything is so brief and ambiguous, however, that you can only ever draw the most basic and obvious of conclusions, which isn’t a very satisfying way to experience a story and does nothing to justify the storytelling method used here.  Not only does the story fail to draw you in, but Yarny itself isn’t very interesting either as it never really does anything to make you care about it. 

Likewise, the gameplay starts off promising but quickly proves to be as shallow and uninteresting as the story.  Unravel is a 2D puzzle / platformer where you use Yarny’s yarn to lasso hooks to swing around or make trampoline jumps by tying two objects together.  Yarny only has a limited amount of string, however, so you have to either backtrack to untangle the string and get some slack, or find balls of new string scattered around the levels.  Puzzles are generally limited to simply figuring out how to get past obstacles, but sometimes you have to do something more interesting like figure out how to make Yarny start a boat motor or operate heavy machinery or something.

The gameplay sounds interesting enough, but the execution leaves something to be desired because it is extremely inconsistent.  Sometimes Yarny’s string lasts significantly longer, or shorter, or trampolines bounce you much higher, or Yarny can or can’t move an identical object to something he could or couldn’t move previously, or Yarny won’t grab a ledge it looks every bit like he should be able to.  The game constantly changes the rules on you with every new puzzle, and this inconsistency makes the game frustrating to play.  The puzzles are never particularly difficult to figure out, but when the game is moving the goal posts on you every other minute it just gets annoying to play more than anything.  Even worse, the game just isn’t particularly fun to play.  Yarny is slow and sluggish and not fun to move around. 

The presentation, at least, is one area where Unravel doesn’t disappoint.  The game looks absolutely gorgeous and the environments you explore are borderline photorealistic.  I’m not really a fan of Yarny’s design, though.  I find it to be kind of ugly and creepy and off-putting, like Sony’s Sackboy.  While the environments look great, foreground and background objects tend to blur together, which can make it hard to tell what you can actually interact with.  The soundtrack is also extremely well done, though perhaps a bit too heavy-handed with its “you should feel this emotion now” music cues.

Ultimately, Unravel often feels like a game designed simply to check all of the “Indie Darling” boxes rather than something built with heart and love.  There are moments where a puzzle is particularly clever or you do something cool like fly on a kite or see a giant moose in a meadow, but those moments are too few and far between to make up for the inconsistencies and frustration present everywhere else.  The utter failure of the storytelling is also very disappointing here.  Unravel isn’t by any means a bad game, but it isn’t particularly special, either.  I say skip it, as there are better indies out there that are much more effective at everything Unravel wanted to do.
Disclosure: Review code provided by publisher.