How long is a piece of string yarn? About as long as you’re willing to be rewarded in a challenging and charming game, with ambiguous and intangible ‘memories’ and photos.
Unravel, from emphatic developer Coldwood, introduces us to Yarny -- an adorable sentient piece of yarn (or wool as we’d say here in Australia) bent on restoring lost memories in a decayed photo album of sorts. Why, we’re not really sure, but I can say that at the very least the photos craft level themes for the designers to run amok with challenges and level design, making Unravel a wonderful gem of a platform-puzzler that *maybe* takes its premise and reward system a little too seriously.
As Yarny, you move your way through side-scrolling levels filled with puzzles. He’s also only able to use so much of his makeup before needing to find another dose of wool to flesh himself out and go that little bit further. You’re able to lasso yourself to specific wool knots spread throughout the levels, and swing from these, or use them to create trampolines or bridges to move helpful objects around. There are also little wool badges hidden throughout each level, and you can come back into any completed level in order to find any you may have missed.
As with any puzzle game of this nature, things start out simple enough, and you’re slowly introduced to the gameplay mechanics that will eventually see you facing some serious challenge. Thankfully, some puzzles can be attempted with a few different approaches, and so your own skill with Yarny’s yarn will determine how laterally you think about each impediment you might face. Often though, it’s a balance between logic and common sense, against skill and determination. In my time with the game I only hit a major roadblock once or twice where I actually had to turn the game off and come back at it later, and each time the solution was either just a less-than-obvious exit from a room, or a very simple yarn knot I’d missed somewhere.
The game’s charm comes from its voiceless protagonist, Yarny, the absolutely gorgeous visuals, and how these things look and react with the puzzles. The designers have been mindful of keeping the logic of the game-world as close to real-life as possible, so as to make tackling them always seemingly obvious, despite the fact we’re taking a walking piece of wool through them. It really is a wonderful experience, and the wonder (and my love for Yarny) is equally compounded by some of the horrendous deaths the studio put him through: drowning, poisoned, electrocuted, being grabbed by a crow, crushed and more. That I feel for him in these instances speaks volumes about what Coldwood has managed here.
Unfortunately that’s a segue to my biggest gripe, which is something I mentioned earlier by way of the game’s purpose and reward system, which is to simply reinvigorate memories for an NPC you really only see once, in a land and featuring people we’ve never met before, or ever probably visited.
It’s all well and good to attempt to tug at heartstrings and take the ‘fun’ out of these types of games, replacing it with emotion, but the two aren’t exclusively disparate. You can have both, which is achieved here, so long as you immediately give up on the basic concept of Yarny’s mission and look specifically at the game as it actually is: a cute side-scrolling physics-based puzzler with amazing visuals. Anything more is more or less a sleight of hand approach to drawing out potential falsehoods in player feedback. The reality is, I don’t know whose memories these are, nor do I care that someone lost a shoe during one of them. A lot of people lose shoes, it doesn’t mean I should base my completion of the level around that.
For mine, turning away from any of the heartstring stuff instantly made the game fun for me. I find it odd that in a realm of games where protagonists can come in any shape or form -- because creativity and entertainment -- Yarny needed a real-world tangible place to have sprung from. He doesn’t, and the game lacks because of it.
Overthinking the studio’s mission statement though, is likely playing into their idea that Unravel will make players think. What it actually does is make you think about Yarny’s limitations while trying to traverse an engine room that simply wants to chew him up, and spit him out. The heart of the game is its puzzles, and Yarny himself. He’s a wonderful creation when nestled alongside the puzzle formula because his makeup complements that formula. I rarely opened the photo album because it was superfluous in the grand scheme of the gameplay loop knitted within here (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The truth is Unravel didn’t need a reason for you to play it, because the basic mechanics handled that for you, and so it didn’t need a story, no less one built around rebuilding foreign and alien memories from someone you don’t have a connection to, nor care about.
That being said, fans of great visuals, physics-based puzzles and cute characters can overlook the game’s ‘basis’ and jump in and enjoy a game that truly delivers in its core elements.
What we liked
Wonderful puzzles with an escalation in challenge
Amazing visuals and calming soundtrack
Yarny is a great fit for the puzzle and visual side of the game