Unravel Review: Expertly Woven
Ben Sheene / Apr 13th, 2016 No Comments
Thirty years ago, video game characters were commonly represented by a handful of pixels and colors. It was a different time for video games as many titles reflected the state of the world in the 1980s. Ripples of the Cold War were seen in games like Missile Command and Space Invaders. Players were rarely heroes, just loose representations of spaceships and soldiers defending the world from blocky attackers. Mario came along and put a face to gaming. Nintendo helped usher in generations of mascots. The trends of Sonics and Bandicoots continued for a few decades until games and gamers grew up.
Unravel brings up a perfectly valid question: Why is EA — one of the biggest companies around — pushing a small, quirky platformer into the limelight? Many might see it as an attempt to defang the “most hated company in the world” by injecting indie goodwill into its DNA. Fewer will see it as big money supporting smaller teams with promising ideas. But none of that matters because Unravel is one of the most charming and solid platformers to release in years.
Hanging by a Thread
Unravel is a game where players control the instantly lovable Yarny. Constructed from bright red strands of yarn with big white eyes, Yarny is both simple and easily identifiable. It’s a voiceless character that exists in a realistic world full of changing seasons and nature that is given the familiar goal of moving right. Through and through, Unravel stands among the countless platformers that have existed for more than 30 years in terms of core mechanics. Players will navigate obstacles and solve puzzles with the full purpose of inching toward the right edge of the screen.
Coldwood Interactive has crafted a game that is quite familiar, maybe to a fault. For instance, take Yarny’s ability to throw a strand of itself around with the touch of a trigger. Players can use this to latch onto glowing red bundles of yarn in order to solve puzzles and navigate levels. Think Bionic Commando with its mechanical arm that stiffly swings from platform to platform to cross gaps or move up to the next level of a building. Think Samus Aran’s grapple hook that would allow her to whip around objects and fly across the map. The “twist” gameplay mechanic in Unravel’s platforming doesn’t seem entirely original when lined up next to the many games that have included ropes and hooks and pulled them off effectively.
Yarny is also able to take those pieces of itself and tie them onto points. Connecting two points close to each other will create a tightened strand of yarn that acts as a platform to push objects onto or as a line to bounce on and reach higher ledges. Players will also be able to lasso certain objects with the yarn. This is used to pull on objects, unlock doors, solve puzzles, and so on. Many of the puzzles and obstacles players will come across are physics based.
In one instance, Yarny has to reach a high platform but can only get there by climbing up a seesaw-like structure. As Yarny moves near the top of the structure, the top end begins to lower due to the weight. Obviously, players need to figure out a counterweight. Similar puzzles are found throughout the game, but the simplest one has players tying a knot on the ground and then tying another knot to the bottom half of the seesaw. Since the bottom part is now firmly tied to the ground, Yarny can jump to its destination.
Artistry and Craft
Physics puzzles and grappling hooks aren’t uncommon in gaming, so when speaking about them in this context, it makes Unravel sound unremarkable. Often enough, puzzles and challenges in Unravel aren’t difficult and rarely tedious. A few of them are definitely head-scratchers, tasking players with tying multiple knots to objects to reach a final destination. Scattered throughout each stage are bonus collectibles that require a bit more effort to reach. Some are mildly easy to get to but several feel ingeniously just beyond Yarny’s grasp, teasing players to use expert timing with their swings or pure patience and thought.
Again, Unravel isn’t doing anything that truly pushes the limits of the genre. This isn’t the first time hidden bonuses extend the depth and replay of a level. It definitely isn’t the first time a developer has raised and lowered the difficulty of puzzles encountered as the game goes on. When laid out so plainly, it may be hard to imagine Unravel as anything more than just an everyday platformer with a cute main character and some impressive at-a-glace visuals.
My personal journey through the opening bits of Unravel reflected much of this sentiment. I wasn’t feeling that challenged, except in a few instances. There was a certain thrill to snagging a strand of yarn on an environmental object and holding my breath in hopes Yarny would land its jump after being flung fast and far. And the visuals… good lord.
Almost every aspect of Unravel’s world emanates with life and the loving amount of detail and realism Coldwood put into it. Being left in awe at a beautiful game isn’t always enough, yet I was having enough fun soaking up the 10- to 20-minute levels.
In screenshots and on paper Unravel looks a certain specific way. Videos might unlock a bit more for curious players wanting to understand the finer mechanics of the game. However, nothing compares to being able to put a controller in your hands and sinking your teeth into the game. As the hours rolled on and I soaked up more of the game, I became enchanted with Unravel. And it all started with Yarny.
Unravel is a picturesque journey where Yarny is the vehicle taking players through each destination. Yarny, the humble mascot and crux of gameplay. Yarny who, according to the game’s director, represents love. In its constant journey to the right of the screen, Yarny is becoming unraveled. A long piece of red yarn is always present, stretching from the left, all the way from players’ starting destination.
Yarny constantly needs to reach checkpoints to spool up more yarn into its body, in a sense, constantly replenishing its love before becoming undone. Players only have a certain amount of yarn to tie around attach points and move from checkpoint to checkpoint. If knots appear in the yarn and Yarny becomes more threadbare, it likely means you are doing something wrong, like carelessly flopping love in a heaping pile at the bottom of a level or tying it up in too many things.
Ties that Bind
Are we as players supposed to love Yarny? Is a platformer the type of game that can evoke feelings of longing, loss, elation or joy? Unravel answers with a “why not?” Beating a series of levels in Super Meat Boy never failed to fill me with glee. Fez brought back memories of my SNES days without internet and willing to absorb a game fully. Even Super Mario 3D World made me long for a Nintendo that would create a game in the vein of Galaxy or Super Mario 64. But these are feelings derived from most games; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I felt attached to Yarny. At first my cynicism got in the way (like it may with other gamers jaded by the indie moniker or other factors). Unravel seemed too cute, too humble, and too simple to find itself under the EA umbrella. But Yarny began to crack away at my armor and any preconceived notions I had about Unravel. Like any good mascot, Yarny comes to life without saying too much (in this case, nothing at all) and holds the weight of bringing the game itself to life.
The amount of expression and detail Coldwood threaded into Yarny represents some of the best character animation I’ve seen in years. With small body movements and changes in its eyes, Yarny can express fear, sadness, caution, happiness and more. It’s a thing of beauty. I became so attached to Yarny that whenever it “died,” I let out an groan of anguish and felt as though I had just kicked a puppy.
Yarny becomes this believable figure in an even more believable world. I’ve touched on the realism of Unravel’s world, but that only goes so far. What Coldwood did is recreate a gorgeous representation of a slice of the Swedish countryside in both an expansive soundtrack and near photorealism.
Unravel’s story can be loosely interpreted as Yarny/love weaving through memories of a family over a period of time. In each level, a memory materializes in the background showing this family existing in the world. They might be fishing, working on a farm, repairing a car, going on a picnic, or stomping through snow. As Yarny passes by the memory, it will condense into a tiny ball of light that Yarny grabs. Each level culminates in Yarny putting a yarn symbol on a photobook that players can then flip through. It’s obvious someone at Coldwood took pictures of their family and brought these memories to life in a game. A testament to their love, perhaps.
Each level is a new set piece that takes on an emotion, season or tone. Early in its adventures, Yarny will encounter things like crabs and gophers that will try to tear it to literal shreds. Watching Yarny look down in fear as he dangles close to a crab’s claws or change his running animation when he is being chased by a gopher or rock slide shows fantastic attention to detail. In fact, there will be many times Yarny will clue players into danger or something going on in the environment if they pay attention to its dynamic reactions.
Throughout the course of the game, the puzzles mainly tread water, but there are several moments later in the game and spread through the early parts that feel unique enough that I don’t want to spoil. But do look forward to guiding Yarny through thick trees as it sails the skies on a plastic bag. Or just wait until the wind begins to blow a bit too harshly in a slightly frustrating but ultimately clever stage.
What a Yarn
Unravel will likely attract players because it looks so charming. A pretty game is often hard to ignore, even if the mechanics don’t always hold up to the same standards. But just because the game settles into familiar gameplay more often than not doesn’t mean it takes away from the whole package. There are plenty of times when simply swinging by a thread or tying up objects is simple and satisfying. Overly complex mechanics would take away from the feeling and the emotion Unravel can often provide when players least expect it.
It may not go down in history as one of the best platformers ever made but Unravel is certainly one of the most well-rounded. It brings to the table a heartfelt journey that could stand strongly against the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. Yarny and Coldwood’s attention to detail are hard to resist because you can see the care that went into crafting this game. Unravel is the kind of fresh experience we need and the kind of experience that big companies like EA should continue to invest in to enrich gaming in exciting ways.
Unravel was reviewed on PS4 using a code for the game provided by the publisher.
tags: Coldwood , Coldwood Interactive , ea , review , Unravel , Unravel review