I've been playing video games long enough to know that a character doesn't necessarily have to be flesh-and-blood to be expressive and relatable. That said, I'm kind of blown away at how one of the most expressive game characters I've met to date is a little red yarn cat with no facial features, save for two big eyes.
When Unravel's creative director Martin Sahlin took to the stage at E3 2015 to introduce us to his game's star, Yarny, he was visibly overwhelmed and shaken. His whole heart obviously belongs to the tiny dude, and having spent several hours with Unravel myself, it's easy to understand why. Yarny steals the show and keeps you going, even when you find yourself stuck on a puzzle because of a poorly-placed cue, or repeatedly missing a jump because the game's swinging mechanics aren't quite pixel-perfect 100% of the time.
While Unravel's visuals might prompt comparisons to Yoshi's Wooly World for the Wii U, the two share little in common beyond having protagonists that probably shrink in the wash. Whereas Wooly World is a straight-up platforming game, Unraveled is a puzzle platformer. As you travel through levels, you stop every so often to figure out a way to get around objects in your way.
And since Yarny is a little guy with a feeble jump, you can expect to come up against a lot of resistance. It's not just piles of branches or pits, either. There's water, toxic waste, rockslides, falling debris, and -- probably most disturbingly -- animals that want to rip up Yarny for the sake of a soft nest. Whereas you or I could conceivably boot a garden mole like a kickball (don't do it), Yarny doesn't have that option.
However, Yarny does have the ability to unravel bits of his own body, thus granting him the ability to lasso marked hot-points. Once hooked, he can anchor himself with a knot, pull connected objects, swing, and grapple up or down. Effective yarn-slinging is therefore vital in Unravel, not just as a means of transportation, but also as a way to manipulate everything from branches to rusted-out machinery.
Unravelling adds challenge to the game as well. If you don't use your yarn efficiently, you may find yourself without the necessary slack to reach the next checkpoint for a refill. While this mechanic has the potential to be frustrating, it's not implemented unfairly. Checkpoints are visible enough that you shouldn't have a problem with run-outs, provided you don't go all Charlotte and start weaving everywhere.
Aside from being a unique means of problem-solving, Yarny dismantling himself in the name of progression is an ingenious way for Coldwood Interactive to get us to bond with him. When Yarny has nothing following him except for a frayed, knotted strand, he slows down and appears visibly tired and hurting. Yarny's mission isn't crystal-clear, but his physical struggle does make it obvious the journey he's making is out of devotion and love.
That's not the only moment that hits you where it counts, either. Yarny looks around in wonder at his surroundings, shivers in the rain, jumps at lightning, and struggles through a snowstorm that's so intense, it makes your heart hurt for the little fellah. It also needs to be noted that Yarny's body language is easy to read thanks to Unravel's stunning graphics, which take you through foggy berry patches, filthy mines, and snow-covered forests.
The thrill of seeing a moose stride through the water just inches away from Yarny more than makes up for the moments when the game makes you say, "Aw man, really?" Visual cues indicate where Yarny can attach his yarn, but they're not always as clear as they need to be. The same weakness affects certain movable objects, too: I got stuck on one puzzle in particular because I had no idea a nearby rock (half-hidden by foreground foliage) could be moved.
And while swinging and grappling is a complete joy if you're into the same activity in Bionic Commando and / or Super Castlevania IV, Yarny's weightlessness makes things difficult from time-to-time. Thankfully, checkpoints are plentiful.
Graphics and character don't make a game, but they sure can bolster an experience. Unravel's push-and-pull puzzles aren't very different from what most puzzle platforming games ask us to work through, and they can be downright sigh-inducing at times. But when Yarny looks at you silently with pleading eyes, you find it in your heart to soldier on.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: Unravel is part puzzle-solving, part action. There's a lot of grappling and swinging involved, and it feels great for the most part. The puzzles aren't very original, and sometimes they're outright frustrating, but they make good use of the surrounding environment.
- Lasting appeal: Once you're done with the main adventure, you can search each level for hidden "Secrets." Beyond that, Unravel is fairly linear. You should be done anywhere between five or ten hours.
- Sound: The orchestrated soundtrack is rich and provokes emotion effortlessly. It even changes several times in a level to reflect the nature of the puzzle you're solving.
- Visuals: From peaceful white of fresh snow on trees to the glistening toxic black of wet coal dust, Unravel is one fine-looking game. That's not even counting Yarny's emotional glances and lively body language.
Unravel is a solid (if flawed) puzzle platformer wrapped up in beautiful visuals and emotional moments. It's like a Christmas sweater. It's not perfect, but you're compelled to love it just the same.
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