"Unravel," the indie platformer published by Electronic Arts and developer ColdWood Interactive for the PS4, Xbox One and PC to be released Feb. 9, is an understated tale that creates a lasting impression with gamers. Emotion is as important in "Unravel" as any jump or obstacle. As the character Yarny, you'll reminisce, fall in love, learn what it's like to lose that feeling and create new connections. It all adds up to a beautiful affair that's as rewarding as digging through old boxes to find cherished keepsakes.
In "Unravel," you control Yarny, a spool of yarn that has come to life after falling out of an elderly woman's basket. Each level is a photograph inside the woman's home. Through these memories, Yarny traverses each experience while capturing important moments found within the various levels. Not all of those memories are pleasant and the lessons learned aren't always happy ones, but that's life. The best days, or the lasting memories, can be bittersweet.
Yarny can jump, climb and use his yarn tail to swing or tie knots to create ramps or trampolines. It's a simple setup that lets ColdWood Interactive have fun creating unique challenges in each level. Players have to be aware of how they are moving around because Yarny can't travel too far without replenishing his yarn. If you tie too many knots, or set up a jump the wrong way, Yarny will tug on his tail and the player is forced to find the area where they used too much yarn.
The environments are vibrant slices of life. Each setting is teeming with life in the background. You'll notice birds flitting around trees or small bugs scurrying around in the underbrush. There are realistic changes in weather that further adds to the realism of each environment. The music adds another layer of enjoyment to the game. It's appropriately subdued or frenetic based on what's happening in the level.
Each playing area is cleverly crafted with a range of new challenges. The levels get more complicated over the course of the game, but the difficulty never seems out of place. There are tricky swinging portions or puzzles that require a bit of thinking, but as long as the player understands what Yarny can do, they can clear any challenge.
For the completionists, there are additional secrets found throughout each level, but reaching them requires a bit more skill and some clever uses of Yarny's abilities.
Every aspect of "Unravel" feels personal. The game begins with a personal message of love, bonds and memories from ColdWood Interactive. Most importantly, Yarny connects for the player. As a piece of yarn that's come to life, there's so much joy to be found within Yarny. For any player, there's going to be a point in the game where you realize you truly care for this character.
Even with two white dots for eyes, Yarny can express a lot through his demeanor. There are times when he's scared, overwhelmed, sad or hunched over from the cold. It's touching when you see Yarny so happy at the end of each level while he hugs a memory. Yarny creates a lasting impression that will stay with players long after they finish "Unravel. You can even make your own Yarny to live outside the game.
It's also incredibly sad when Yarny dies in some stages. Sometimes, you miscalculate the jump or get too hasty, causing Yarny to drown or plunge to his death. Other times, a crab or roaches will terrorize your favorite anthropomorphic piece of yarn. Each death is a heartbreaking affair where players will promise Yarny they won't be so reckless next time. It's a weird pledge to make, but it will happen in "Unravel." That promise will be broken many times during the game with each failure hitting too close to home because you don't want to fail Yarny.
"Unravel" is a great experience and a great game. Indie games are continuing to push the boundary of what can be accomplished in video games. Sometimes it's a more unconventional approach to how a story is told, such as "The Witness," and other times it's using a traditional formula for beautiful storytelling. "Unravel" falls into the latter category by making a fun platform game to tell a poignant story.
That's not to say "Unravel" is a perfect platformer. There are points where "Unravel" feels a bit monotonous after you master the general gameplay mechanics. Grabbing objects becomes second nature, but it can feel repetitive. Sometimes a rough section of the level leads to a quick succession of deaths that can remove a player from the game. At other points, figuring out where to go can become an exercise in frustration due to uncertainty and a lack of design clarity.
"Unravel" is priced at $19.99 and can be completed over a long afternoon or taken episodically. Each photograph is a satisfying chapter that can be enjoyed independently of the larger story. By the end, you'll have gained a new friend in Yarny and a whole slew of cherished memories. It's not a transformative experience, but it's a enjoyable trip depending on your acceptance of the game's flaws.
"Unravel" was reviewed using a PS4 digital download provided by the developer.