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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (384)

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Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
Divinity: Original Sin 2 4.5/5
Heroes of the Monkey Ta... 4/5
Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
Lands of Lore II: Guard... 1/5
Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5

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Unravel   PC (Steam) 

An Ode to Life    3.5/5 stars

“Unravel,” and Indie game by Swedish developer Coldwood Interactive, has the dubious honor of being the primordial member of Electronic Arts’ ‘EA Originals’ campaign, where the Big Three member and winner of Worst Company in America two years in a row throws money at small Indie studios in order to gain publishing rights for the games they produce. While another Big Three member, Ubisoft, has demonstrated success in producing smaller-scale projects on their own, EA has traditionally gobbled-up small and/or struggling studios, forced them to conform to “AAA” publishing norms, then shuttered them when they didn’t/couldn’t perform to such ridiculous standards, making EA Originals feel like a warm, loving embrace by comparison.

And it’s a good thing Coldwood has EA behind them to promote “Unravel” – which is actually their 9th game, preceded by a lot of Winter Sports and Casual garbage – as the company’s website has been down since 2006, and they’ve been communicating with the public exclusively through EA and Facebook ever since.

I’m a sucker for 2D Platformers, and the yarn-based characters in “Unravel” reminded me fondly of Sony’s squandered ‘LittleBigPlanet’ IP, so I was willing to give the game a shot, despite the fact that the only way to buy it on PC is through EA’s rather unpleasant Origin DRM platform. What I discovered was a beautiful and emotional game that is ultimately not all that much fun to play.

“Unravel,” unlike most modern games, isn’t built upon the Unreal or Unity Engines. Instead, it is based on Sony’s free, open-source PhyreEngine. Surprisingly, for a game built using a free, open-source foundation, it doesn’t look or feel anything like a typical clunky, ugly, overwrought piece of open-source software. Indeed, “Unravel” is incredibly beautiful to look at, with incredibly realistic, highly-detailed Scandinavian environments, well-animated wildlife, and the occasional human character who looks on-par with bigger-budget games like “Witcher 3.” Textures look incredible and jaggies are nonexistent, making the entire experience quite easy on the eyes.

The audio direction in “Unravel” is likewise fantastic. Interestingly, the entire game in unvoiced… but it’s also completely without dialog, so it’s only natural. The soundtrack, however, consists of beautiful, acoustic Scandinavian Folk music, which I really enjoyed.

Technically, there’s nothing to criticize about “Unravel.” The game performs admirably, contains native Xinput support, and Origin doesn’t particularly annoy. I never experienced a crash, nor so much as a hiccup.

“Unravel” is a rather unique, yet unoriginal, tale of nostalgia and appreciation for a life gone by. Told completely without words, “Unravel” involves a small, bipedal, cat-like creature made of yarn, apparently called ‘Yarny’ according to EA’s promo material for the game, who seems to serve as an incarnation of memory. Yarny pops-up from an old woman’s knitting basket, and immediately sets about the task of restoring her memories of her life, embodied in the physical world by a photo album filled with crumbling, illegible pictures.

As Yarny retraces formative moments in the old woman’s life – from a childhood spend on family vacations into the wilderness, to teen years dedicated to environmental activism, to reuniting with a lost love, to the death of a spouse – the little creature literally revisits the environments in which those memories were formed in order to retrieve a knitted tchotchke that was left behind so many years ago.

It seems to me that the main purpose of “Unravel’s” story isn’t to recount the life of a probably-fictional person, but to use this recalled life to goad the player into reflecting on their own past. Each event covered by Yarny’s travels is just generic enough that everyone could have a comparable event in their own past. For young people, this type of reflective storytelling may feel maudlin, but for anyone over 30, it’s a real heart-string plucker.

“Unravel” is, however, a horrifically short game. With 12 stages, a basic playthrough might last between 6 and 8 hours, though completionists who want all the achievements/trophies/etc. can probably stretch it a bit more.

As I said in the intro, I’m a sucker for a good 2D Platformer. Unfortunately, “Unravel” isn’t that. It’s incredibly bare-bones and simplistic, and the gimmicks generally wear thin long before the game has ended.

Our hero, Yarny, is perpetually anchored to a portion of each stage by an unraveling thread of his body. Yarny can only go so far before his body is completely unraveled to the point of becoming skeletal, with a few disturbingly organ-like knots in the thread indicating when he’s just about at the end of his literal-and-figurative rope. Each of the game’s many checkpoints, however, comes in the form of a spool of yarn that completely refills Yarny’s roving range while also serving as a new anchor point.

Yarny’s platforming capabilities aren’t all that robust, and are highly reminiscent of the original “LittleBigPlanet.” Yarny can move side to side, jump in a rather poor and floaty manner, grab and drag a select handful of objects, and throw an unraveled thread of yarn from his hand that acts as a grappling hook. Yarny can only grapple to parts of the environment that are very obviously marked by a loop of yarn. However, the grappling mechanic has a bit more depth to it in that Yarny can tie-off his unraveling threat to any grapple point, allowing him to rappel, swing, or connect multiple grapple points together. Certain close-together grapple points cause the yarn tied between them to glow red, indicating that it has enough tension to act as a trampoline.

And that’s really all there is to it. Some of the puzzles the player must navigate using Yarny’s limited skill-set can be frustrating, especially when a key portion of the puzzle is just off-camera, but for the most part, neither the hand-eye coordination nor the puzzle-solving brainpower required to play “Unravel” are particularly demanding.

The only replay value in “Unravel” comes from hunting secrets. There are 5 little buttons with knitted embroidery around them hidden in each of the game’s 12 stages. Collecting them all does nothing (but unlock an achievement) however, which made it difficult for me to want to dive back into each stage to hunt down the few that I missed. I found nearly all of the secrets during my initial run through each stage, but the thing is, I can’t even think of places where I didn’t look where secrets could be. Even worse, “Unravel” suffers from a bit of the same problem that plagued “Puppeteer” on the PlayStation 3, in that there are not all that many stages, but each of them is SO long that the prospect of slogging through them over and over in search of a useless secret that could be anywhere isn’t particularly appealing.

All that said, “Unravel’s” gameplay isn’t actually bad. It’s fine. Competent. Adequate. There are plenty of synonyms for it. It just lacks any kind of real oomph that makes me want to go back and do it all over again.

“Unravel” is a beautiful, poignant ode to life gone by… wrapped, like so much yarn, around the spindle of a competent, but not compelling, 2D Platformer. It’s far more compelling than the developer’s previous titles, though, and is a great inaugural effort on the part of EA Originals to produce games that don’t feel like mainstream, cookie-cutter drek. And it got a sequel!

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5



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