By Travis Costello
Developer: Coldwood Interactive
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on PS4 (played)/Xbox One/PC
After seeing the reveal of Unravel at Electronic Arts’ press conference during E3 last year, I was immediately hooked by the little charming protagonist. Yarny is a small adventurer built from a single thread of yarn whose goal is to bring to light the fondest of family memories in the midst of even the darkest days. He traverses the beautifully rendered rural landscape of northern Sweden where he seeks out trinkets from days gone by. Using his own thread as a lasso, Yarny climbs, jumps and runs through different environments filled with obstacles to overcome. This puzzle platformer was built with the goal of telling a heartfelt story that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment after each level and a desire to continue on to the next journey.
Unravel begins in a quaint Northern Scandinavian country cottage during the dawn of a warm, sunny morning where we’re first introduced to Yarny as he explores a few rooms of the home. This setting is where players discover each of the photographs set up around the house, acting as portals to each of Unravel’s levels. Starting a level sends Yarny from the present time to the past to explore the vivid memories of the family he belongs to. Completing stages restores these memories which have literally faded from an old photo album on the dining room table. Once in the memory, or chapter of life, Yarny must find creative ways to get to the next spool of thread before moving further along in his journey, or else he wastes away to nothing but a single string. Some standard platforming gameplay is used to explore each chapter but the real fun of the game is the complex obstacles that blend into the environment. Flying through the air on a kite or operating a crane, Yarny has to be resourceful to get the lost trinket at the end of each chapter.
Unravel is a visually stunning experience, brimming with detail. As Yarny took me across the wilderness of Northern Scandinavia, I was captivated by the beautifully designed scenery created by Coldwood. The different chapters take players through various environments from open pastures to industry-torn landscapes shadowed in pollution, all from the perspective of our lovable little hero. As Yarny pushes crates across the ground we can see wildlife moving in the backdrop while leaves blow past us in the foreground. The detail wasn’t concentrated on just the environment either, Yarny cheers at his own successes and pouts in the failures. His dynamic expressions leave you wanting to help him succeed on his journey. Each level has checkpoints along the way represented by a small spool of thread to “refill” Yarny and keep him going. If his yarn gets hung up on ledges or players overcomplicate their platforming path, Yarny will unspool and hunch over while becoming gaunt with lack of yarn, forcing you to retrace and find a more efficient path. These details create a very real experience reminiscent of playing in the backyard as a kid with only an action figure and boundless imagination.
The music sews the emotional thread right into Unravel. There were times when I was trying to figure out a puzzle and I would stop to enjoy the scenery while listening to the Swedish folk music. Coldwood Interactive took the world they know and made a game from it but Unravel is truly brought to life with its beautiful score. Often times a jovial melody plays while swing across branches, but as the story digs a little deeper into a family’s history the music follows along to elicit the range of emotions of Yarny must face. Because Unravel tells a story without any dialogue the music of the game is especially important and in this instance, Coldwood Interactive hit it out of the park.
While Unravel was designed as a physics-based puzzle platformer, it doesn’t provide the challenge you may have come to expect when comparing it to other platformers we’ve seen in recent years. Puzzles can indeed be difficult and there are a few moments of head scratching problem solving but with Yarny’s rope swinging mechanic players won’t often find themselves in a scenario they can’t conquer in just a few attempts. In addition, the enemies Yarny must avoid are few and far between.
Unravel works despite its platforming shortcomings. The physics in the game are absolutely perfect and the aforementioned “enemies” seamlessly blend with the world so naturally it comes as a shock during the first interaction with them. Despite its lack of difficulty, the platforming is still very fun. Yarny is as sincere as a voiceless character can be in this tale of family, love and loss. The emotional journey experienced during the six to seven hour adventure feels significant. Ever since Martin Sahlin introduced the world to Yarny I had high expectations for Unravel and was not disappointed. When Coldwood Interactive and their team of 14 set out to make this game Martin said, “The game didn’t have to change the world, or even try, but it had to be genuine, it had to have a deeper meaning. It had to have heart.” Unravel takes you on an adventure while tapping into players’ emotions and reminds us to not take the small things in life for granted. Unravel doesn’t try to challenge your skill as a gamer but rather invoke real emotional depth in a genuine and fun journey. This game was meant to have heart and it does, spools of it.