Review: Unravel -- The Chronicles of Yarnia
Xbox One, PC
Review copy provided by the publisher
Starting up Coldwood Interactive Unravel leads to one of two bookends that punctuate the game’s experience.
Directly after the game loads, first-time players are greeted with a kind “thank you” screen from the entire development team, a play that seems no less sincere as it was when CD Projekt Red gave a physical thank you note alongside The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Mere seconds before, publisher Electronic Arts is asking you to concede to their 30-page End User Licensing Agreement before playing the game. The takeaway, from the very start, is that Unravel is a game of two minds — trying both to be art and a viable investment from the publisher — that manages to succeed in neither.
Unravel first made waves at EA’s 2015 E3 Showcase when the game’s developer and director, Martin Sahlin, shakily approached the stage. What followed was five endearing minutes of (the obviously nervous) Sahlin pitching his hand-crafted yarn mascot along with his upcoming project.
This moment was considered by most to be the highlight of EA’s press conference for feeling distinctly separate from EA’s corporate persona. And, while the reveal of a game may hardly be noteworthy in most reviews, this origin story (and whether you know about it) will largely mold your opinion on the title itself.
Unravel tells the story of Yarny, a childhood play-thing and representation of human memory, who’s purpose seems to be to connect the highlights (positive and negative) of an estranged family’s life.
However, the meaning is up to a fair amount of interpretation — the game is not narrated, apart from a handful of quotes in a scrapbook and the way the soundtrack is able to dictate the . Regardless, the 10 hour puzzle-platformer is able to occasionally tug at the heartstrings thanks to Yarny’s inherent affability and the accompanying music.
Yarny’s adventure is explored through twelve (fairly long) levels, each connected and easily-accessible via framed pictures in a grandmother’s house. Each level holds a fully realized and visually stunning environment, be it a familiar pond, a hiking trail, or snow covered landscapes.
Yarny’s goal is to make it to the end of each level, through platforming and the occasional puzzle challenge, to add more yarn to his ever-dwindling body, collect memories, and find the yarn figures that adorn the grandmother’s scrapbook.
Unfortunately, the lowpoint of the title is the gameplay itself. While Unravel advertises as a physic-based puzzle platformer, the lion’s share of the action lies in the mediocre platforming. While nothing about the platforming rubbed me the wrong way, it manages to add little to the tried and true formula.
The yarn-lasso functions don’t separate the game from older one’s with the same mechanic — from the original Bionic Commando to Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash. More interesting were yarn-management and physics puzzles that were under-utilized and simply too easy. The gameplay never ends up feeling rewarding, instead mostly a delay of the actually enjoyable segments.
And what are those enjoyable segments? Mostly exploring the detailed environments while letting the masterful soundtrack craft the journey. The closest the game comes to the more artistic titles (e.g., Flower or Journey) is when the platforming is light or the puzzles take the spotlight.
But when the annoying, mediocre platforming steps in, there is a noticeable speed bump in the enjoyment of the game. With this in mind, Unravel straddles an uneasy line of being too gameplay heavy to sport a “game as art” persona, yet not fun enough to be considered a stellar game.
Lastly, one of the most endearing aspects of Unravel is the notion that the game was lovingly crafted — in the same way one loves their hometown band or local cafe. From the beginning screen throughout Yarny’s adventure, the tale seems like the creation of a humble team of passionate people.
Yet, as mentioned above, this notion is cradled along with the memory of the trembling creator with a hopeful message. Absent knowing the context, I couldn’t or wouldn’t blame a player for believing the humble air instilled in the title is forced, pandering or schmaltzy.
As I wrapped up the final moments of Unravel, exploring the beautiful memories of an unfamiliar family, Yarny — and through extension, myself — flipped through a scrapbook of heartwarming quotes and photographs.
After that, a sentimental thank you from developers Coldwood Interactive, along with a collection of pictures of the development team creating the game. Last but not least? A laundry list of EA’s corporate members, third-party tools, and lists of protected intellectual properties.
Unravel is a game that manages to be easy yet difficult to recommend. At a $20 price tag, the game offers an enjoyable 10-12 hours of beautiful scenes and music to match.
If you’re looking for gameplay that could be called anything better than unobjectionable (or you simply aren’t a fan of platforming), you may be better off somewhere else. Yet, even if you fall with the latter, Sahlin and Coldwood Interactive’s persona which permeates the title is hard not to support.