Release Date: February 9, 2016Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PCDeveloper: Coldwood InteractivePublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: Puzzle-platformer
The charming puzzle-platformer Unravel has been capturing our hearts ever since its big reveal at last year’s E3, thanks to the game’s serene naturalistic visuals and folksy soundtrack. You play as the loveable Yarny, a pointy little red creature who spills out from Grandma’s basket of yarn at the start of the game. Grandma’s quiet country house acts as a hub for the game’s dozen or so levels, which are housed in faded photographs on the mantles and dressers. Each level represents a warm and fuzzy memory from days gone by in the old woman’s life, and it is through this existential foundation that Unravel’s musings on life and love weave inside the game and burst from the vibrant seams.
The story is definitely one that’s meant to tug on the heartstrings, but the emotion is strongly based on the sights and sounds you’ll encounter in the game world, rather than a straight narrative. You’ll move from lush gardens and salty beaches to muddy forests and snowy meadows, and each environment is more breathtaking to behold than the last. The dynamic and photorealistic backgrounds are brimming with shining details and they often house frozen memories that Yarny can collect and store in Grandma’s photobook. It’s a world that feels as real as the one sitting right outside your window, and Yarny’s journey certainly made me feel nostalgic for the carefree days of my own childhood.
But the world is also a very scary place at times, and there are lots of hazards waiting to rip Yarny into little red shreds, from hungry birds and a prowling groundhog, to electric currents and pools of toxic waste. As with anything in life, there are going to be some rough patches to counteract the sunny days, and Unravel handles this sentiment marvelously as some of the nighttime and industrialized areas give you a foreboding sense of the darker side of human existence. Yarny himself reflects this range of emotion, as he trudges through the heavy snow or shivers from the pouring rain. Again, the attention to detail here is remarkable, and likewise for the in-game physics.
As a little yarn person, you’ll need to utilize every skill in your yarnsenal to move through these idyllic, but often treacherous environments. Yarny is constantly unravelling as he walks along, and this trail of red becomes both his lifeline and restraint (the yarn can run out and leave you stranded unless you replenish it at strategically placed checkpoints). Yarny can tie little knots with his yarn at designated spots in the environment, which lets him pull objects, climb walls, or swing across gaps. He can also construct tiny trampolines by tying two knots in a line so that the yarn pulls taut between them.
Unfortunately, for all its overt beauty, the gameplay itself leaves a bit to be desired. Unravel features a light combination of platforming elements and physics-based puzzles, neither of which feels fully explored to its true potential by the end of the brisk six-hour experience. A few set pieces liven up these long stretches of uniformity, like soaring through the skies on a kite, but most puzzles involve pushing or pulling objects to reach higher ledges or strategically maneuvering around the environment so that your yarn doesn’t run out. Other puzzles can be quite obscure at first and slow down the momentum exponentially. The game also doesn’t really expand on any of Yarny’s initial abilities that you’ll learn in the tutorial stage or experiment with many new ideas in later levels beyond the core mechanics.
This makes Unravel a very simple and straightforward adventure, and there isn’t much in the way of replay value besides hunting down a few sparse collectibles or trying to complete each level from start to finish without dying. But it’s the big heart and even bigger charm that still makes this a game worth experiencing. From the way the stunning visuals and the small-scale scope of the world make you contemplate what’s important in your own life, to the warmhearted thank you notes from the development team, there’s so much love stitched into every fiber of this game, and it’s all just waiting to be unraveled.
Joe Jasko is a game critic.