Journey Hands-on (PS3)

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The Journey Public Beta has been out for a few days now, and thankfully I’ve been able to spend quite a lot of time with it. It’s one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences I’ve ever enjoyed on PlayStation, and feels very reminiscent of ICO in terms of atmosphere. ‘Soft,’ ‘ethereal,’ ‘majestic’ and ‘tranquil’ are some of the most suitable adjectives to describe it, and it reminds you what a great platform PlayStation Network is for artistic games such as Journey.

There are not many developers like thatgamecompany that seem to favour uniqueness and emotion above all else, and they ought to be commended for making games that highlight the many unexplored territories of this exciting medium.

Journey Screenshot 3

The Journey beta is 345MB and you’ll need to download a 60MB patch if you want to play it online. The sample allows you to play the first three areas of the game and see/interact with one other player who is playing the Beta at the same time as you. There’s no voice chat, however, and you can’t even see what the PSN ID of the other player is (even if you go to the ‘players met’ section of the XMB). Journey is designed to be an emotional, reflective experience, and I think the developers made the right decision by limiting the way two players can interact.

Journey is set in the desert and places you in the role of a mysterious robed figure with glowing eyes. A mountain in the distance becomes your assumed objective as you slowly make your way over dunes and through the ruins of some unknown civilisation. As the name suggests, Journey is not about reaching an end goal but rather about appreciating your slow, measured progress through the desert.

There’s a lot to see in Journey’s world, from windblown dunes of various hues to waterfall-like cascades of sand. The sky changes colour as you move from one area to the next, and this is reflected in the tone variation of the sand underfoot. There’s no HUD (heads-up display) at all, and this smart design decision eliminates any clutter from the beautiful backdrops you’ll encounter throughout your adventure.

Journey Screenshot 1

Gameplay in Journey is a mixture of navigation and simple puzzle solving. You move around the desert at a fairly slow pace, but if you come into contact with floating red ribbons scattered around the landscape you gain the ability to fly for a short period of time. Sticking close to a co-op partner (if you’re lucky enough to find one) is best because every time you come into contact you both regain the ability to fly in small bursts. This sort of symbiotic co-op is one of the most affecting aspects of Journey, and it’s an unbridled pleasure soaring around the desert with your new ‘friend,’ just as it is when you reunite after separately exploring the different nooks and crannies of a ruin.

There aren’t many puzzles in the Journey beta, but the ones I saw essentially consisted of making large ribbons disappear with your ‘voice’ (you hold down Circle for a few seconds and release it to ‘sing’). These ribbons acted like levers and opened up a path through the different ruins where you found them.

There are invisible walls in Journey which prevent you from getting lost in the desert – these are represented by a gust of wind (just like in Flower) which churn up the dunes and push you back.

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You can control the camera either by tilting the controller or using the right analog stick. I’m really glad the latter is an option (it must have been patched into the beta) because I recently read an interview with the developers where they said they didn’t want to support right analog stick camera controls because it didn’t feel organic or natural enough. I’m relieved they took a pragmatic rather than an idealistic approach in the end!

The music, sound effects and graphics in Journey are what really set it apart from the competition. The game is instantly recognisable from screenshots because of its unique colour palette and art design. Individual granules of sand sparkle in the sand and dunes ripple as you walk up their sides. Textures are smooth and suitably earthy, and there are plenty of beautiful lighting effects which infuse the game with an enchanting ambience. Animations like flying have a wonderfully artistic flair to them, and there’s really something ethereal about everything your character does. Movement and frame rate are a little on the slow side, which is a bit jarring after the speedy, 60fps flow of gameplay in Flower.

Journey Screenshot 1

I’m certain Journey is going to be one of the best and most popular games on PlayStation Network when it releases later this year. Co-op is definitely more rewarding and enjoyable than singleplayer because exploring the unknown with another human being and being able to soar around without restraint is far more fun than having to trudge through the sand at a slow pace and on your lonesome.

From what I’ve seen of Journey so far, it’s going to be an intelligently designed game with a wholly unique and interest-piquing premise – one which stirs up the kinds of emotions and has the type of artistic sensitivity which propelled ICO into the spotlight back in 2001.