In simplest terms, Journey is a third-person, sporadically two-player adventure in which you travel through a desert towards a mountain. By the alchemy of developer thatgamecompany's skill and vision, it is also unique, exciting, mysterious, and utterly lovely, with mesmerising landscapes and stirring music. It deploys more 'gamey' elements than any of the developer's works before it, and does so successfully, while maintaining the feel of an evocative, interactive art piece. Three hours long at most, it's concise but not overly short, its cycle of emotional highs and lows best experienced in a single sitting.
You begin without context, a red-robed figure in a desert, and set out hiking towards the mountain on the horizon. Why? Initially, at least, just because it's there; instinctively you seek an objective and the mountain, topped with an unexplained bright light, is your only option. It's a straightforward but elegant kind of signposting, making the mountain a near-constant, towering waypoint. Elsewhere, Journey's signposting is lighter-touch but similarly deft, suggesting objectives so subtly as to feel like you're always exploring on instinct--as though while being drawn onwards to that distant peak, every reveal is your own discovery.
You hike up dunes and slide down the other side, sand-surfing with either the Sixaxis tilt sensor or the left thumbstick. Both controls feel nimble and light, and the pleasing rhythm of steady uphill climbs and exhilarating downhill slides make trekking along a joy in itself. Then you encounter dusty ruins and mysterious stone markers, and among these you discover your first cloth fragment: a scrap of the luminous scarf that lets you fly.
Holding the X button boosts you off the ground, and as you explore and collect more cloth fragments, your scarf grows. This lets you boost for longer, enabling longer spells of gliding, across wider gaps and up to higher crests. Like the surfing, gliding is blissful fun, and it makes for graceful platforming around colossal towers. Once the power in your scarf is depleted, you'll often yearn to be back in flight, and to that end there are recharging fonts which themselves loft you skyward. Progress is made by walking, sliding, and flying onwards, and sometimes by opening the way to the next big area by triggering new fonts or reactivating old bridges.
Escape to which mountain?
Journey's gorgeous desolation and overwhelming scale bring to mind Shadow of the Colossus, while its dreamy colour and quirky, elegant designs recall a Studio Ghibli movie. It's relentlessly beautiful, and there's much more visual diversity than you might expect of a desert-set game, not to mention some charming desert denizens, airborne creatures made of the same magic fabric as your scarf. Even in the appearance of sand there's striking variety, from smoothly matte to glittery to full-on gleaming, through shades of red, white, and gold. It reacts convincingly, too, rippling in the wind or shifting under your feet as you climb.
The camera alternately draws in close to show the runes glowing on your undulating scarf and pulls far back to make you a little red speck in a sandy wilderness, where huge, half-crumbled structures hint at an empire long since vanished. It's all backed by moving, dynamic music, closely matched to in-game happenings, with exuberant orchestral bursts for action and mournful strings for quieter, poignant moments.
There are hints at the backstory in hieroglyph-like murals and visions (wordless cutscenes) brought on by statues, which allude to a terrible cataclysm. Mostly, though, Journey opts for atmosphere and mystery over exposition. The implication, at least, is you might be all that's left, and reaching the distant mountain is an important thing to do. It's a lonely prospect, however pretty the post-apocalypse.
That loneliness makes Journey's intriguing take on multiplayer all the more evocative. Multiplayer is anonymous and automatic, spontaneously bringing together two players at the same stage in their game. When you come across a fellow wanderer, he or she is stripped of PSN ID, and you have no means to communicate except a one-button musical tone, with which you can chirp at one other. In the absence of identifying details, you can only wonder who your nameless companion is.
Ain't no desert wide enough (to keep me away from you).
By withholding his or her identity, Journey makes your only friend a perfect stranger, simultaneously more anonymous and more immediately companionable than anyone you've met in an online multiplayer match-up. Huddling together keeps your scarves charged up and, in the absence of chat, your musical piping is surprisingly expressive. Though he or she is far from vital to making progress, the company is invariably welcome; it's a powerful contrast to the solitude of voyaging alone through a mostly empty desert, and when you drift apart forever, it's curiously sad.
In the light platforming, the challenge is slight; like Flower, thatgamecompany's previous title, Journey favours affecting experiences over systems of reward and punishment. That said, this is a more conventionally game-like affair, not least by way of your precious, flight-powering scarf--essentially an in-world representation of a boost gauge--for which you gather collectables (cloth fragments) and which can be cut short as well as grown, leading to some genuinely tense and scary moments.
It's a real accomplishment that Journey draws together so many conventional game elements, and so well, and still feels like the art piece we expect from the makers of Flow and Flower: intriguing, ambiguous, and experimental. The game's length, two or three hours on the outside, is exactly right, letting you take in the whole experience in one session. Once you've completed it, you can dip back into favourite chapters, and even without the impact of unexpected reveals, it's uncommonly enthralling. Its deliberate ambiguity brings on the urge to speculate on deeper meanings, but meaning here is bound to be personal, and best discovered for yourself. Discover it you should.