Unravel appeals to the lonely old lady in me with 5 million cats. Set in your typical grandmotherly home, this puzzle platformer takes a leap to find the adventure within one of the most boring places you could think up for a video game. When the trailer launched, it raised more than a few eyebrows. For here, amidst the growing pile of hack, slash, and shooting games on gen 4 consoles, comes one as heartwarming as a cup of cocoa on a frigid winter evening. How is it going to compete with the likes of Star Wars: Battlefront and Halo 5?
The answer? It won’t. Unravel is unquestionably the first of its kind in terms of setting and story. And as for the quality? It launched last month (on the Xbox One, PS4, and for Windows) and now boasts over 20 awards.
And rightly so. It’s pretty hard to deny the originality of developers that thought of how to successfully create a layered game experience from a stack of embroidered pillows and dusty picture frames. In fact, you’re probably still wondering just how that is possible…
A Yarn’s Tale
The story is told from the unique perspective of the adequately named “Yarny”, an anthropomorphized character made of, you guessed it, yarn. In this puzzle platformer, Yarny must sift through the memories of an old lady’s photo collection to uncover her past and lay out her life in the empty scrapbook. By Blue Skidooing into the pictures, Yarny is transported to the wilds of Northern Scandinavia to locations like a serene mountain pass and a chaotic toxic waste spill site.
These puzzle locations vary, but are all connected to events in the old lady’s life. Using nothing but his stringed body, as Yarny journeys, he restores photos and collects yarn tokens, all to fill the scrapbook.
Whether you take much out of Yarny’s journey is up to how you interpret the setting in the photographs; there is no spoken narrative to spell out how the old lady lost her family, or if she’s simply lost her memories of them. We barely have a thread to go on (heh heh heh). Still, there is an undeniably forlorn tone in the setting. It’s clear that a character made of yarn represents her bond or tie to them, but its a little vague on details. As a writer, I love a good story, so I was a little disappointed by the weak thread connecting Yarny to the old lady (magic, I guess?), but I’ll admit the atmosphere balances this out.
A Finely Knit Atmosphere
My experience with indie developed games this past year has been pretty phenomenal. I was enchanted by the snowy arctic in Never Alone and grew to love the rich setting of Life is Strange (despite despising the dialogue and characters). In terms of visual quality and setting, they just bring that extra something to the table big companies like Sony lose sight of. Unravel does not fall short in this area; the impressive attention to detail in the locations is, appropriately, photographic.
In addition to the lifelike visuals, Unravel boasts a phenomenal soundtrack. Jovial orchestral folk music pulls you along on Yarny’s journey, adding both whimsy and urgency (cue being chased by a terrifying mole portion) to the gameplay. It is a masterful sensory overload. I’m convinced that if Smellovision was an option on today’s consoles, the developers would be sending us whiffs from every level. Imagine the scent of pine needles, the sea, or, perhaps, warm chocolate chip cookies. It is just that charming.
Sewed with Love
It’s hard to resist squeeing when you take a look at the character design and movements of tiny little Yarny. His body isn’t made of uniform, even strands. We get the distinct impression of “handmade” in those crossed up strings and knobby eyes, much like Lilo’s doll in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch.
In addition to his precious appearance, Yarny communicates solely through body language. He slumps and slouches when he’s stuck in one spot, shivers in the cold, shakes off water like a wet puppy, and gets distracted by butterflies. Best of all, when you progress to the end of the level, Yarny hugs the little token badge he earned like a long lost treasure. So. Much. Cute.
Playing Cat’s Cradle
Within the photos, there are lots of obstacles for Yarny to overcome. While there are no boss battles, the puzzles put you at odds with nature. Using nothing but his thread and your problem solving skills, Yarny must dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge over treacherous puddles (he’s not very buoyant), hungry crabs, and pesky magpies trying to make off with your tokens.
If you’re too liberal with your available yarn, you’ll run out before reaching the next checkpoint—more strands of yarn. The length varies depending on your level and difficulty, and more yarn is used up if Yarny, say, ties a knot on a tree branch. The attention to physics in this game is rather mind-blowing. In order to advance, Yarny must master techniques all based around creating slides and springs, utilizing gravity and inertia to launch himself over obstacles, and lifting heavy objects by way of pulleys. However, carefully calculating the distance for every leap is cumbersome when the game picks up. I came close to throwing the remote after my 306th run through the mole-chase level. Forget about honey badgers–moles are terrifying and they will mess you up.
If you’re not good at guesstimating trajectory, you’ll likely run into the same walls that I did. I’m proud to say I finally overcame those obstacles without the use of a guide, but it had more to do with luck and less to do with geometry. Since the puzzle solving is linear, you’ll be quickly stumped unless you use all the yarn tricks at your disposal. While sheer dumb luck played a part in my progression, thinking outside the box to find hidden items (Yarny also collects bottle caps) was rewarding.
The Final Thread
As a platformer, Unravel has something special to offer for problem solvers of all ages. I see you, Candy Crushers and crossword puzzlers. Perhaps there are a few knitting fanatics that would get a kick out of it as well. I would love for my grandma to play this one (super meta), but I’m afraid the mechanics would prove too difficult.
On a serious note, I look forward to seeing more games like this. This is a solid purchase and you won’t regret your time sending Yarny to new heights! Unravel proves itself sweet, full of whimsy, and nostalgic. You can bet more big publishers like EA will be on the lookout for other innovative, indie developed games. Unravel is a sure sign the face of gaming is changing.
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- A+ Atmosphere
- The Cutest Protagonist EVER
- Problem Solving is Rewarding
- Fresh Concept
- Shoestring Story
- Cumbersome Controls