Video Games Review: Unravel (PS4, 2016)

Unravel, the newest game from Swedish developer ColdWood is so inherently magical and sublime that it has quickly become one of the most moving gaming experiences I have had the pleasure of embarking upon. And you should too, because at its core, Unravel blends a simple premise, head scratching puzzles and a sentimental story to create something truly special.

Unravel opens in a kitchen, where an elderly woman, seemingly upset, looks over her home and the family photos contained within it. When she retires to bed, knitting basket in hand, a red ball of yarn falls out. This, is Yarny. And like Sackboy before him, this anthropomorphic material clad creature, is tiny, adorable and about to set off on a journey far bigger than him.

Picking up in the house, which essentially acts as a hub, Yarny must visit picture frames in order to access levels. The crux being that each of these photos represent a moment in the elderly woman’s past. Entering a level takes you to the location pictured and throughout each one, you gather memories and fill up a book back at the house, complete with a brief passage of writing that serves as narrative.

Unravel is a 2D platformer and instead of suffering because of its simplicity, it augments side-scrolling tropes by introducing fresh and inventive ways to traverse each level. There is only one tool at your disposal and that’s Yarny himself. You need to lasso hooks in order to swing and create bridges to springboard from and drag objects across. There are no enemies per se but occasionally you’ll need to form a plan to escape some perilous situations.

The coolest part of Unravel is that throughout the entire game, you’re always…well…unraveling, which means your yarn is always behind you. You can use this to climb back up it and repel down to safety.

It also presents a constant snag, literally. Yarny eventually becomes what looks like a skeletal frame if he unravels too much so the key is to reach checkpoints where you fill him out with more yarn.  It’s something to keep in mind because if you loop around objects too much and then try to advance, he won’t have enough yarn to make it.  So you’re always going to need a fairly straight trail.

These kinds of gameplay elements are what keep Unravel so fun to play with. The physics of certain objects and Yarny himself are done so well. It can get tricky too. Often you’ll enter a room and be faced with a multitude of hooks and objects that make for quite the noodle scratcher. Figuring out what you need to tether, which hooks to create bridges on and in what order to do certain things, keeps Unravel from being a simple, linear side-scroller. But the solutions are never beyond reach. There is usually a point where a light bulb goes off and you realize how stupid you’ve been for the last half an hour.

The first thing you’re going to notice about Unravel is how stunning it looks. There were innumerable moments where I was taken aback due to the craftsmanship and vivid detail in each level.
The level design has a purposeful synergy with how good the visuals are. The levels, based on nondescript locales such as the sea, snow and boggy marshes, each go above and beyond to feel remotely distinct compared to one another.

They all help with putting into perspective how small Yarny is as he treks across the wilderness. One level sees him swinging through a tractor and overcoming obstacles like seat recliners and brakes as though they were massive, because to him, they are.

There is an emotionally charged narrative at play here that gradually reveal itself in segments. It’s a story of loss, and the curve-balls that life throws at you and suffice to say, the end may cripple you. What Unravel does so well though is that it doesn’t disconnect Yarny from the larger picture. Indeed, he battles and takes bumps and suffers as much as our human characters do. The last level in particular is a real tear jerker and its assisted by Yarnys expressionless emotions. His eyes will droop to convey sadness and he’ll hug himself to keep warm in the cold.

Note: I accidentally hung Yarny at one point because I ran out of yarn in mid air and it was the most crushing part of my gaming life. As he hung there, disheveled and swaying, it dawned on me that I never knew that I could care about a ball of string this much.

The most understated aspect of Unravel however may well be the score. With the help of local musicians, Unravel is backed by Swedish folk music that fits the game to a tee. It dynamically switches depending on where you are or what kind of situation you’re in, cutting from somber to nerve racking at a moments notice.
It really fuels your journey across these 9 levels and pulls on the old heartstrings when it needs too.

Unravel is the most beautiful game I have ever played. It’s simultaneously fun and heart wrenching, simple, yet complex, deep yet accessible. Very visibly crafted with love, dedication and a warmth that games seem to be lacking at the moment, Unravel is a touching and uplifting platformer, whose significance and good intentions are ingrained until the end.

Review Score: 10 out of 10
Highlights: Stunning to look at; Story and Yarny’s journey are beautiful; Music is wonderful; Simple, yet complex gameplay; Neat level design
Lowlights: Unravel is so close to perfect, I won’t bother
Developer: ColdWood Interactive
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: February 9, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4