Publisher: EA | Developer: Coldwood Interactive | Genre: 2D puzzle-platformer | Platforms: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC |ESRB : E | Release Date : February 9 2016
An elderly woman gazes upon old family photos by herself with a smile on her face, reminiscing of times long past with her loved ones. The wall barely has room for more pictures, and she straightens up one slightly skewed frame before picking up her wicker basket full of thread and traipsing upstairs. Unbeknownst to her, a vibrant red ball of yarn drops over the side, bounces down the stairs gently and rolls under the table. And thus, Yarny is born.
Unravel is a lovely game. As one of our top five games to look out for this month it lives up to the hype…for the most part. If you’re looking for a hardcore platforming experience with mind-bending puzzles and intense difficulty then you should look elsewhere. If you want your heart to melt, your mind to wander, and your eyes to moisten, Unravel is the perfect game for you.
Coldwood Interactive, a Swedish company usually focused on the sports genre with titles such as Ski Racing and Playstation Move Fitness, have moved into the world of 2D sidescroller platforming with the help of heavyweight publisher EA, as well as one of the cutest protagonist’s you’ll ever seen in a video game.
Yarny is simply made up of a red yarn twisted around itself to form a humanoid body with two white dots of yarn for eyes. As he(?) strolls along the houses, gardens, beaches and even toxic waste sites, his body unravels, leaving behind a trail of yarn behind in which the player can utilize to overcome the puzzles before them. Yarny can also toss a line of himself in front or above his tiny body to latch onto hooks and branches to climb, pull, swing or hang from said objects, on top of his ability to pull and push certain items with his sweet little arms.
However for all of Unravel‘s highlights, which I will come to in a moment, the main bulk of the gameplay is unfortunately where the game falls short. The puzzles themselves are not particularly difficult, but one or two may have you stumped for a short while. The problem, though, lies in the fact that you are given all your tools to succeed in the first level, therefore there is no real sense of progression throughout the game both in terms of Yarny’s abilities and the puzzles set out to test you. The one time I really became stuck was when I had to perform an action I’d simply forgotten about since its introduction in the first ten minutes. My gaming brain was searching for some sort of convoluted method of progression due to the amount of puzzle-platformer games I’d endured over the years, when all that was required was a simple climb up a rope. On the flip side however, there is a lot of repetition of other certain mechanics, mainly building bridges between two points which Yarny can then “spring” from to a higher location, which does become tiresome.
Although the game isn’t particularly “hard,” it can be frustrating at times. There are plenty of ways Yarny can perish such as water, animals, and electricity, but none should hamper your progress too much. The main obstacle comes in the form of the controls, which could potentially be a bit tighter. The distance between Yarny and a potential latching point is somewhat undefined, leaving you flinging your yarn at thin air more times than you care to admit. When various hooks are presented, it’s not always the intended target that you latch on to either. When jumping onto platforms in water, it’s not always a steady footing which leads to an annoying death as opposed to an avoidable one. Although only small gripes, they do slightly diminish the overall enjoyment regardless.
On a positive note though, there is one level roughly halfway through the adventure situated on a farm that requires you to run between different hiding spots away from swooping birds looking to nab poor Yarny away. This section lasted maybe ten minutes, but was exactly the sort of original gameplay I had hoped for the rest of the game to deliver. Sadly, we were quickly back to similar sorts of puzzles after this respite. Thankfully, they are at least presented in drastically different environments.
Which is where my glowing praise shall begin! Before booting up Unravel for the first time, I was aware of the style, mood, and gameplay involved. What did surprise, though, was just how beautiful the game actually looks. Set in the Swedish countryside inspired by the creator’s home-town, Yarny will experience many different landscapes in his adventure such as a mountain range, a train track, and a winter wonderland, as well as the aforementioned seaside, garden, and somewhat bizarrely-placed toxic dump site, among other things. The “hub” of all the locations is the elderly woman’s stately home where pictures on the drawers, piano, and windowsills indicate your next move.
The developers opted for a photo-realistic look to each environment to mirror the fact you are effectively entering this old lady’s pictures, and therefore her memories. The settings are remarkably well-detailed, especially for an indie game, and it’s clear that Coldwood Interactive put a lot of heart into the look of this game. There is detail in the foreground such as waving grass and rocks glistening with rainwater between the player and Yarny, as well as far off in the background such as roaming Elks and trees swaying in the wind. Yarny adjusts to the weather as well, wrapping his spindly arms around himself to keep warm in the snow or gleefully prancing around in the Summer sunshine.
In collaboration with the wonderful aesthetics comes an astounding soundtrack. Produced solely for the game, the music behind Yarny’s movements hold extra significance due to the absence of a single spoken word in Unravel. Therefore, Coldwood Interactive hired local musicians to perform the whole score, using their Swedish folk music background to create a dynamic set of tunes that adjust to Yarny’s surroundings and feelings. It is a resounding success and as I sit here now with Unravel playing in the background, the dulcet tones are soothing to the ear no matter what surrounds me. Here is a snippet of Coldwood’s inspiration, taken from their official website.
The game is not long, maybe six or seven hours with little replayability other than gathering potentially missable collectibles (that offer no reward besides achievements/trophies and an extra ornament or two in the home), and is released with a $20/£15 price tag. This may not represent full value for money, but supporting an ambitious independent developer that have poured their heart and soul into the project may just sway you. Still, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone waiting until an inevitable sale price.
Behind all the beautiful sights, brilliant sounds, and frustrating gameplay comes a subtle and rather melancholic story. Yarny relives some nostalgic episodes of the old lady’s life, which include family days out, snowstorms, and even government projects of renovation. Unravel doesn’t so much tell a story, but it portrays a message of lost love, gentle living, and an appreciation of what you have. You have to dig deep to discover what Yarny is really telling us, but the mostly pleasant experience will stay with you nonetheless.
This review copy of Unravel was played on Xbox One.