One of the longest running friendships I have is with Dylan. Our taste in media was never similar. In movies he skews documentary, artsy or quirky. I like sci-fi, fantasy and superheroes. His music was upbeat and varied. Mine would make a good soundtrack for an infinite number of Punisher reboots, but only that one scene where his whole family gets murdered in front of him. He goes for walks in the woods without a destination, I started a blog about niche computer games that can take 60 hours to “play”.
Both of us are also not the type to share things indiscriminately so despite our differences we tend to give each other’s recommendations a solid try. It doesn’t always work. I couldn’t imagine how any human, let alone one I’m friends with for 20 years wouldn’t enjoy Logan (He didn’t even finish it! Whatever, the friendship endures) but he didn’t. Just as often we get exposed to something great that we never would have tried otherwise.
When Dylan gave me a gaming recommendation (the last time he mentioned a game was when he lost a chunk of his life to Plants vs. Zombies, the time before that when The 7th Guest blew our minds with it’s FMV awesomeness) about Unravel, which he assured me is about yarn, I googled it. An artsy platformer made by a tiny Swedish team? It sounded dreadful. I gave it a try and now you get the Unravel PC Review.
Should You Buy It
If you like platformers then definitely yes. If you generally hate them like I do then still yes but with two big qualifiers. First, you can’t be value conscious. I paid CDN$20 (US$16.80) and I would have naturally stopped after a few hours. Second, you don’t mind going through the EA/Origin store because that’s the only place I could find it. For me it was worth it just to experience the absolutely brilliant wordless characterization of your little yarn dude and the wonderful art and graphics all around. It was the perfect palette cleanser following my last review.
You’re a little guy made out of yarn dropped by a grandma and you spend your time traveling through the environments shown in pictures in an old cabin or something. It’s not important. What is important is that within seconds you will love and care for your little yarn dude. Making him happy will become important to you and keeping him safe and un-pestered a worthy and noble goal.
You play in classic side scrolling fashion, controlling the agile little anthropomorphic bundle of red yarn. The little silent guy is animated so gracefully and with such nuance that he instantly becomes real. I can’t think of a humanoid character that has garnered more empathy from me faster. It’s not that he’s cute, it’s that he’s likable and plucky and right away you want him to win.
The foreground and background are gorgeous and flawlessly animated. Everything about it is a visual treat. It’s big too. Platformers so often are full of tiny characters but here things sometimes zoom in until your yarn dude is half the size of the screen at full 3440×1440. And it’s crisp and smooth.
If you like violins the music is sublime and accentuates the on-screen actions wonderfully. If you don’t you should consider experiencing more culture. The whole thing feels like you’re playing in something made by Pixar’s finest, if a few more of them were french. It even evokes the same melancholy that Wall-e and Toy Story do.
The core game mechanic is quite clever. See, you’re made out of yarn which spools out behind you as yarn does. You can also throw a loop of yourself out like a lasso or tie the yarn to certain hotspots. These simple mechanics let you climb, swing, rappel or use the yarn to fashion bridges, ramps and trampolines. You solve a nice variety of environmental puzzles that are mostly based around the fact that you’re just a little guy so any old item becomes a puzzle or barrier. Thoroughly lovely and charming.
As you progress things open up to keep up with your (not my) skills. Where at first you might spend a long time getting past a rocking chair in a kitchen you’ll later be zooming under an old bridge like Spider-Man downtown.
Before I forget due to all the gushing about charm, the game is a very solid physics game. Both the string and the environment behave realistically. When swinging you’ll have to let out more or less string to control your parabolas. Things balance or float or slide around. It immerses you to such an extent that when a moose walked from the background and over my guy I experienced a moment of awe that I haven’t felt since seeing the whale in The Blue for the first time (still the best 5 seconds of VR). I was a little yarn dude and the moose was gigantic and I felt it. As I said above, how much you value moments like that amidst some frustration determines whether you should buy this game.
There isn’t much story in a narrative sense. Barely any text and no dialogue. Every once in a while you’ll see shimmering shapes that briefly focus into images of the family you’re following. Your end of level reward is a little red emblem which you stick onto a family photo album that you can browse through, revealing more images as you finish levels. In a funny way the photos, slightly filtered real pictures of real people, felt like the least real thing in the game.
At first I didn’t care in the least. The only experience I had with the family is some grandma dropping my little yarn dude. The story emerging from his on-screen struggles overshadowed the occasional flashes or new pictures. It did get a more interesting when the shimmering shapes became more ominous. I was curious at the sudden change in tone.
The designers had won so much respect from me that I assumed the ending would be something impactful. I’m not sure it was. Maybe I didn’t get it. I’m a literal person and I can be dense when it comes to subtext. I once read in a movie review that No Country for Old Men is obviously an allegory for aging. I thought it was just a cool movie about a guy with a weird haircut chasing the stiff boyfriend from Hollowman while being in turn chased by Tommy Lee Jones.
It’s a minor quibble. The emergent story of yarn dude getting around stuff was so compelling on its own.
It’s hard for me to judge which problems stem from slight design mis-steps and which are caused by my abysmal platformer skills. The frustration I felt was from the most basic penalty mechanic built into platformers; I often knew the correct solution but had to try multiple times before I could make my little dude successfully do what he needed to. It drives me insane but I know that’s the difference between me and people who like platformers. They are more tolerant and probably derive a bit more satisfaction when they finally succeed.
I don’t think it’s an easy platformer despite being essentially non-violent. Machinery and small animals are the scariest things you’ll encounter. There are many Tarzan like swinging sections and traditional jumps that don’t give a ton of room for error. The controls are perfect in the sense that they always do what you tell them to but I was never entirely comfortable with the arrangement. It’s my own fault, I should have remapped.
There’s also a bit of unfairness in how small some of the hotspots are. A few times I thought I should lasso an obvious spot, tried until I hit it and nothing happened and then wasted time running around the level looking for another solution before realizing I had the right spot all along. Again, I’m irrationally intolerant of stuff like that and it didn’t happen frequently.
I would have naturally stopped around the half way point. I was still enjoying myself but it got harder and more platformy. It also lost some of the tranquility, with more daring timing based sections. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, they were very well done and the music was evocatively frantic. For me it was just more frustration as I struggled to progress. I also wish the game eschewed all platform conventions and skipped the spinning wheels and moving walkways. There was no water level.
I have no idea how long this would take someone who is good at platformers. It took me a good long while, over a dozen hours for sure. I’m guessing someone good could finish it in 5 hours and a perfect playthrough would take more than an hour? The levels are quite long and there’s a lot to do on each one.
There’s also constantly something new. I don’t mean the graphics – those are new throughout with no assets reused. I mean clever little mechanics or very tiny natural minigames. Early on you hitch a ride on a flying leaf and after a few crashes realize you can influence its flight. The whole thing lasts maybe 5 seconds before you’re dropped off on a branch for more swinging and climbing. The game is absolutely full of brief and wonderful discoveries like that.
Just when I got bored of the styles of environments I experienced it changed to something snowy. An ice level is a platforming cliche but some things are cliche because they work and the fresh feeling and frozen mechanics were cute and fun. It generally switches between darker and brighter levels throughout which is welcome. The darkness never got too oppressive.
It’s hard for me to score a game like this because I suck at platformers and puzzles. And this is like 75% platforming, 25% puzzles. I had to cheat a bunch of times to see exactly how to get past an obstacle. It’s also the sort of game I’d rather play in small bursts as it punishes angry-playing with more frustration.
If you don’t care about the money, it’s worth experiencing even for a few hours. It’s a masterclass in how to wring the maximum amount of characterization from a handful of animations and reactions. Your yarn dude doesn’t even have a face yet he emotes effortlessly.
I have pretty narrow tastes and preferences but it’s not hard to appreciate art when you see it. I rarely feel things when I play games (great RPGs excepted) and I felt lots of stuff playing this. Sadness, excitement, worry, but mostly just delight.