Video games continue to prove themselves as an art form with every passing day, week and month. This is because more and more developers are showing a lack of fear in approaching sensitive subject matter, including love, loss and the human condition. A perfect example of this is That Dragon, Cancer, the recently released, heavy hitting tearjerker, which resulted from a close family’s terribly unfortunate loss. Unravel — the new title from Coldwood and EA — also fits into this category, as it’s more than just a game.
Unravel begins in the quiet and lonely kitchen of a sad-looking old lady. A knitter out of hobby and perhaps necessity, too, she grabs her basket of yarn and heads up to bed, failing to notice that a large spool of the red fibre has fallen out and tumbled back towards the kitchen’s expanse. The lady never returns for it, and it isn’t long before a tiny, yarn-based creature emerges from the bundle. Fully red with bright white eyes, he is never named, although he’s affectionately called Yarny by those who worked on the game.
The main floor of the old lady’s depressing and darkened house acts as your hub, and is a place where you can both check your status — by examining displayed collectibles and leafing through a photo album — and enter into levels. It’s a very fitting design, which works well and also allows you to practice your yarning before you begin your journey.
What exactly is this journey that Yarny must undertake? Well, to say a lot about it would require entering into spoiler territory, and that’d be an awful thing for me to do with a game such as this, since its narrative is such a major part of its charm. What I can say, though, is that Unravel is a game about the human condition, and that through Yarny we’re able to experience the memories of the home’s previous inhabitants. This means heading out and exploring the Swedish countryside, beginning at the family’s rural home and ending in a wintry wonderland. In-between, a plethora of elaborate and occasionally devious puzzles await.
You could say that Yarny is the vehicle through which another character’s story is told. One who doesn’t have a voice of her own, but exists in plain sight and in the words, rhymes and photographs she holds dear. The red, thread-based creature is our eyes and ears, and it’s through him and his eight-or-so-inches that we learn about this lost family.
At its core, Unravel is best described as a puzzle/platformer. Similar to LIMBO in quite a few ways, it’s a challenging and sometimes unforgiving game that doesn’t hold your hand or give obvious hints towards its problems’ solutions. That’s not to say that it’s the Dark Souls of puzzle/platformers, though, because that isn’t anywhere close to true. Still, if you’re not great at solving occasionally obtuse puzzles (like me, I’m afraid), then you’ll be in for some frustration. This is, after all, a thinking man’s game, despite its cute and rather cheery looking exterior.
Throughout each of the game’s eleven or twelve stages, your goal is to make it from point A to point B, along a linear, left to right path. To do this, you’ll need to take full advantage of our protagonist’s unique construction, which means you’re in for a lot of swinging, climbing and planned weaving. Yarny can jump, but his best attribute is his ability to swing, with his panache for tying his line to environmental items (in order to create trampolines or gain leverage) coming in a close second place. Both are required throughout this adventure, as is an understanding of basic physics.
Overall, the controls are rather simple, though they can be tough to master. You move with the left joystick, jump with the A button and use the Xbox One controller’s right trigger to shoot out a string of yarn, which you can grab with or swing on. While the right trigger is for advancing, the left trigger comes into play as a way to hold onto or climb one’s appendages, whereas the B button is utilized to grab and move environmental objects like pop cans and flower pots. Those are — as one would expect — there to help you reach ledges or items that would otherwise be out of reach.
Every level also has a hazard of some sort, be it water (which causes drowning), birds (who are assholes) or toxic waste (which burns). Puzzles are often based around these unique problems, but many are simply physics related and revolve around moving platforms, vehicles or see-saw like contraptions. Solving these is a means for progression, but there are times where survival is of the utmost importance and speed is of the essence. Those additional factors often come into play during the latter portion of the game, as the stakes get higher.
Visually and audibly, Coldwood’s passion project is a treat for the senses. It’s colourful, detailed and beautiful all around, and features incredible orchestral music that is both haunting and fitting. Unfortunately, however, Unravel fails to achieve perfection due to the frustration I mentioned above. Puzzles being obtuse and challenging is one thing (and, as many would say, par for the course given the type of title that we’re talking about), but this one’s controls sometimes fail to deliver the precision that it requires. I cursed at my TV several times, and endured more frustrating moments than I was hoping to.
Outside of said occasional control imprecision, this is a pretty polished effort, which runs well and has an impressively stable frame rate. However, I’d be lying if I said that my six to seven hours with the game were problem free, as I did encounter a few glitches that caused foreground items to disappear. I was able to get rid of these visual hitches by moving in the opposite direction, or by holding down on the d-pad and restarting the affected segments, but they happened and must be mentioned.
So, dear reader: Should you spend your hard-earned money on Unravel and experience Yarny’s quest? Absolutely. Just be warned that it’s not a perfect game, nor are its mechanics always as precise as they could have, or should have been. At the end of the day, though, this is a stunning, memorable and entertaining experience, but it’s not without its faults.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Unravel is a stunning and unforgettable experience, but its gameplay isn't always as polished as its visuals.