UnRavel is a part-platform, part-puzzle game for Xbox One. The protagonist is Yarny, a self-aware bundle of yarn attempting to reclaim lost memories and piece together the joys and losses of a family through a lifetime. Your journey takes you through fields and forests and industrial waste dumping grounds, all suffused with beauty and regret.
The game mechanic is fairly simple- Yarny expends a portion of his yarn with every movement he makes, which means that he can only move so far before finding spools of yarn with which to replenish himself. He also has various yarn-based techniques available to him, such as lassoing objects out of reach, tying knots to serve as a belaying point or tying knots between two points to create a trampoline type of surface made of yarn. Yarny can also manipulate various objects in the world to maintain progress.
You use your various yarn techniques to either assist in platforming (e.g., scaling obstacles, reaching higher ground) or to solve some light puzzles; for example, pulling certain levers to make X or Y happen to allow further progress.
The mechanic one is always fighting is that Yarny has a limited amount of yarn to use before he can’t unravel any more, which forces the player to use his yarn techniques in different ways depending on the circumstance. Sometimes you have to make a couple trampolines to reach the next portion of a puzzle, only to find that you’ve used up all your yarn and have to rethink how to move forward with what yarn remains.
All in all UnRavel is not the most challenging puzzle-platformer, but there’s definitely enough here for the length of the game to keep it interesting.
The aesthetics of UnRavel are simply incredible. The visuals are gorgeously crafted throughout the game; I found myself wanting to get to every area simply to take in the beauty around me. There is also a nice yarn-y fluidity to the animation which interacts well within the environment; I felt like every area was handcrafted with an immense level of detail that felt extremely immersive. Yarny himself is a fun little character, and you often get little expression changes from him as you attempt to do different things. For example, as you reach the end of your yarn and he has almost completely unraveled himself, he starts to slow down and look pained and exhausted; eventually he won’t go any further and you can really sense the weight of the situation on his face.
This creates an overarching aesthetic that you want to be a part of; every level feels really well put together in respect to one’s senses. The little details really play well-together: In a couple snow-filled levels the character holds his arms up a little while wading through torso-level snow piles; larger things falling and hitting the ground have just enough effect on him to give the world a sense of weight and depth. These little details (which intersperse the game) demonstrate a project that was crafted with love and passion, and as far as aesthetics are concerned this game fires almost flawlessly on all cylinders.
The soundtrack adds brilliantly to this equation; each piece nicely fits the level or scene you are playing, utilizing lots of traditional folk instrumentation in a seamless manner. This creates a nice aesthetic harmony between the delicately handcrafted visuals and the folk inspired musical accompaniment, and there is always a sort of rhythmic flow to the gameplay as a result. The style of music also lends a hint of nostalgia to the entire experience, which helps to sell some of the emotional import of the storyline.
Unfortunately, for all of the aesthetic praises I could heap on UnRavel, there are a couple flaws which in my mind water down the impact this game could have had.
First, while the game mechanic is intriguing, it never really goes anywhere. That is, while the puzzles change somewhat from level to level, Yarny’s repertoire of moves doesn’t, causing the puzzles to feel fairly monotonous after awhile. The difference in environments and particular objectives change from scene to scene, but after you master the various moves it’s pretty straightforward from there, leaving little challenge from puzzle to puzzle as the game progresses.
Granted, I’m convinced that this game is meant to be as much about the aesthetics as the gameplay; I wanted to see each level and hear reach track and absorb the details around me. However, this couldn’t in and of itself overcome the limited gameplay.
As an example, in the classic Legend of Zelda formula you end up progressing through what you can do over time. At some point you’re going to get a bow, a hookshot, some other kind of implement, etc. And because of this, the various puzzles and obstacles have different methods of being overcome; sometimes you even get an “aha” moment as an area impossible to get past suddenly becomes accessible. Part of the game mechanic thus is about modifying the way the game is played and either offering new challenges or requiring deciding which method to use to overcome a challenge. Ori and the Blind Forest also offers a great example of how to do this right.
UnRavel unfortunately does not have this mechanic, and thus the gameplay can get a little stale towards the end. This was somewhat mitigated by the last level, which introduces the necessity of a slightly modified mechanic, but it leaves one wishing these types of things had been used more frequently to keep things moving a bit more. For a game with such an organic and immersive fluidity in its aesthetics, it has a tendency to introduce tedium, which is an unfortunate mark against the game.
The second problem was that there was the promise of emotional impact that simply wasn’t cashed out in the end.
At the beginning you see an elderly woman looking longingly at a photo book with a distinct combination of nostalgia and sadness or regret in her eyes. Yarny’s quest is to recover these memories as told in photos and bring them all back together, like a life is being reassembled over the years of life through all its ups and downs, but the payoff simply doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Through each of the beginning levels I was hoping for increasing emotional depth, and as vague as the memories being assembled were, it seemed like it should be building up to something. There are little explanations at the beginning of each section of recovered photos, but they simply don’t have the explanatory depth necessary to convey what is being reclaimed.
The last few levels that approach the memories of the loss of the elderly woman’s husband offered a glimmer of hope that this would eventually pan out into a satisfying conclusion: the weather turns cold and Yarny is forcing his way through snow and ice, braving gusts of wind and icy blasts. You see him shivering in the cold and looking exhausted, but yet unwilling to give up his quest. His expressions and movements even mimic the sense of sadness and loss, as if something has been scattered to the winds, never to be recovered. In the final level you begin to feel some emotional impact towards Yarny, this little hero who struggles through a graveyard trying to bring a lifetime of memories back into focus but is lost in the freezing night, as if all the stars have gone out and he is doomed to be left wandering in a frozen eternity.
Sadly, this emotional build-up which was been reserved for the final levels falls flat in the end; there is very little resolution and thus no chance for catharsis. This I feel is the biggest disappointment with the game, as it could have ended up being a very deep and profound commentary on life, memories, death, hope, despair and the like, but unfortunately ends up being an aesthetically brilliant experience that peters out when it needed to shine the most.
Overall, UnRavel is a game with exquisite visuals, an achingly beautiful soundtrack, a unique if overused game mechanic and a so-so story. Despite its shortcomings, however, it is certainly worth a play through, if for nothing else than to immerse oneself in the aesthetics of the experience which shine spectacularly throughout.