Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Earnest. That’s the first and lasting impression you get from Coldwood Interactive’s charming, twee platformer starring Yarny, a faintly demonic-looking woollen doll with a Borrower style perspective of the world. From its debut announcement as a trembling developer introduced Yarny to an international crowd at E3, Unravel has primed itself as an emotional, intensely personal journey. While the game is gorgeous and occasionally tugs at those heartstrings, the full experience doesn’t quite land those emotional moments as well as it would like.
From the off it’s evident that Unravel is beautiful. The ground-level perspective of the diminutive Yarny allows for some eye-catching detail, imbuing the everyday settings with a sense of wonder. A forest, a garage, a barn; exploring each remains a joy. Likewise, the changing seasons also provide a tapestry of textures to traverse. Snow gathers and crumbles under Yarny’s delicate footsteps, golden rays of sun bathe hayfields in light so thick you could get hayfever just by lingering too long. The minutiae of each level makes each feel lived-in - this is a world of dust, pebbles and detritus.
Working your way through these side-scrolling levels starts out fascinating but becomes rote once you’ve worked out Yarny’s skills. Shedding a thread of wool as it progresses, Yarny can jump (albeit with a weight that means not particularly far), tie knots on marked hooks and use the thread to swing, rappel or yank. Aside from the simple task of threading your way through the world, a smattering of puzzles are included for good measure. Each level has a defining challenge - be it a simple see-saw challenge, working through the innards of a hazardous machine or rolling up a snowball to reach a higher platform. While dressed up to look oh-so-pretty, none of these are new.
The one thing that differentiates Yarny is that constant thread that’s attached, like some subliminal reminder of his material being. Checkpoints through each level refresh this string but, with a limited amount of thread to use in between, Yarny can sometimes run out just steps away. Retracing your steps will allow Yarny to reclaim the wool but a new path or solution must be found in order to walk further than before.
It’s a practical mechanic in theory but early levels, where trial and error may factor into a few puzzles, are slightly unforgiving. When you successfully hurdle a tricky spot only to find out it took more thread than was needed it can be intensely frustrating to go back and untie your progress. Yarny’s ability to create thread bridges by tying knots between points is a basic (and rather overused) skill but also one that can be initially confusing as you lose track of the order in which the red thread has been tied.
Aside from these minor hiccups, Yarny’s journey is fairly flaneurial, taking in gorgeous sights and straightforward problems as he winds his merry way through the countryside gawping like a three-year-old. The story and motivation behind this jaunt is harder to decipher - an opening screed mentions themes of ‘longing’, ‘threads of relationships’ and that old chestnut, ‘love’. Then a cutscene seems to imply Yarny is tied to an old woman reminiscing on her past. Sure enough, hazy tableau form sporadically in each level, referencing heavily doctored photos collected in a book in the main menu hub world. Is it about family (which, given the game was inspired by a family holiday is highly likely) or does Yarny represent an individual in particular. It’s never really explained and, despite some moments that bordered on tear-jerking, the lack of clarity, combined with a seeming specificity in relation to certain elements, proves unfulfilling. It means that there isn’t enough emotional manipulation to eke out those truly cathartic releases, but neither is there a freedom of interpretation. There’s the definite sense that this is a personal story that really means a lot to someone out there - it just didn’t connect with this jaded reviewer.
The other problem, despite the true loveliness of Unravel, is that the influences are obvious and read like a checklist of indie or ‘emotional’ games; games that have truly changed the genre or been profoundly affecting. Yarny’s naive nature and doddery movement recall Limbo’s unnamed child, the folky soundtrack echoes Braid, a last-act battle against a blizzard is straight out of Journey and the painterly menu hub feels like Flower’s plant pots (just with picture frames instead). It gives Unravel a strange homogeneity - the support from EA has certainly made it look amazing, but pull back the woolen exterior and there isn’t anything that feels truly unique.
It also doesn’t help that its influences are derived from pioneers of storytelling - all of those games listed above are regarded as classics, titles that did something different and stood far out from the crowd for doing so. For better or worse, times are different now and something like Unravel feels fairly conservative when placed alongside equally independent, personal narratives like That Dragon, Cancer or Gone Home. Pick this up for someone weaned on Call of Duty and Forza, however, and it could be profoundly affecting or regarded as wanky fluff.
It might sound like Unravel isn’t a recommendation but that would be foolish - it has beautiful moments and could well reach other people emotionally. It’s charming and easy to fall in love with - dependant on your familiarity with storytelling in games away from the blockbuster excesses. However, picking it up expecting deep gameplay and equally involved experiences would be potentially too hasty. Like the photo album at its heart, Unravel feels like it boils important ruminations on life and relationships down to a handful of photographs and a paragraph or two that you’d find on an inspirational poster from Etsy. Like the red fella front and centre, Unravel lacks personality and ultimately feels, well, a bit woolly.