I had very high hopes for Unravel. It had all the promise of a unique, indie game crafted with passion. The game’s character, Yarny, looked cute and the story was supposed to be filled with meaning. As much as I enjoy the action of FPS titles, the challenge of strategy and the deep, invested growth of RPG’s, I do occasionally hope for something different. That’s what I wanted Unravel to be; a departure from the norm.
The good news is that I wasn’t entirely let down. In fact, I think Unravel showed most of what I yearned for and it certainly is different. The bad news is that there were some let-downs, some disappointing parts, and some room for improvement.
The Down and Dirty
Unravel is a puzzle-platformer in function and a story teller in form. Yarny must navigate his little self through the memory-laden landscapes of northern Scandinavia (where Coldwood Interactive is based). These memories belong to his “owner” and Yarny is on a mission to collect and return them. Each level passed will place another set of memories in a special photo album. The more sets you collect, the more the story comes together.
The Nitty Gritty
Unravel excels at bringing the player into a mode of remembrance and self-reflection. There’s an intangible quality to it that lulls one into a more relaxed state and threatens to whisk you away to the innocence and bliss of childhood. At times I found myself in a daze, wonderfully unaware of my own stressful existence.
One of the ways, if not the most potent way, that Unravel is able to transport its players is through its beauty. I found myself transfixed at times, just standing around, doing nothing but staring about the lush vegetation dwarfing my tiny, bipedal ball of yarn and enjoying the calming chords of Celtic folk music in the background. Even small details such as the lichen on rocks, wood that has split and faded with time or the rusted joints on an old tricycle, weren’t overlooked. Coldwood has created some truly stunning surroundings and paired them with an equally impressive musical score.
As one is happily traversing the shores of northern Sweden or the grass in grandma’s backyard, the trance-state can be abruptly interrupted by the intrusion of Unravel’s puzzles. For the first few levels, I enjoyed the puzzles. They are simple and yet elegant in their own way, challenging players with a deliberate lack of explanation. Soon though, my enjoyment turned to boredom, and from boredom to frustration. Many of the puzzles are solved by the same few mechanics that have been repackaged to look prettier, more complex, or like something else altogether, but remain the same underneath.
My main issue is not with the puzzles themselves, but with why they were included at all. I don’t feel as though they added anything to the nostalgic or melancholy vibe Coldwood was trying to create. Perhaps if I had been able to solve some of them more quickly, I would feel otherwise. As it is, the puzzles only seem to distract and detract from Unravel, removing the player from the pleasant dream world he or she was in.
As he (she? it?) moves throughout the world, Yarny leaves a trail of—you guessed it, yarn—behind him and after a while he becomes noticeably threadbare, requiring the player to replenish the life-sustaining fabric at designated spots. Manipulating Yarny as he runs, jumps, pushes, pulls, falls and climbs was straightforward; the gameplay was smooth, fluid and easy to master.
There were times however, when Yarny’s infinite tail became a drag (I couldn’t resist). Solving certain puzzles and negotiating certain obstacles requires tying knots of yarn around special anchors placed throughout the world. These knots can be used as pivots points for swinging from or can form one side of a trampoline if connected to another nearby anchor. It’s a fantastic idea, but it can quickly lose its novelty when, like me, you’ve made a series of attempts on a puzzle or obstacle, then notice that you’ve inadvertently created a Cat’s Cradle-like web of knots behind you that must now be undone. This is a shame because the idea of leaving a trail of yarn in one’s wake that is simultaneously a tool and a burden, while also lending credence to Unravel’s entire theme, is a brilliant and unique gameplay dynamic.
The Bottom Line
As I mentioned in the beginning, I had lofty hopes for Unravel, perhaps too lofty. I cherished Unravel’s uncanny ability to transport me somewhere else, somewhere more pleasant, blissful and stress-free. Coldwood’s passion comes through clearly in their work, shown by how strikingly and lovingly they have recreated their homeland for Yarny to travel through. In the end though, despite the meaningful message of Unravel, I fear it has failed to do much more than be a briefly memorable flash-in-the-pan.
Disclaimer: This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
- Beautiful scenery
- Yarn trail is a unique mechanic
- Evokes pleasant feelings, memories
- Memorable message
- Loses its appeal
- Repetitive puzzles
- Frustrating at times