Unravel Review (XONE)

Unravel screen 1
Unravel screen 1. EA

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At first glance, Unravel seems like it ticks all of the boxes to be the next indie game sleeper hit.  Distinct visual style, clever puzzles, emotional story, solid music, cute lead character - it seemingly has it all.  Then you actually start playing and find out it's disappointingly shallow and not particularly fun to play.  From the pre-release hype I was hoping it would be my next Ori and the Blind Forest or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (XONE review) (two indie games I love and are previous GOTY winners ...), but instead Unravel turned out to be just another indie game with lots of potential squandered on so-so execution.

  

Game Details

  • Publisher:  Electronic Arts
  • Developer: Coldwood Interactive
  • ESRB Rating: “E" for Everyone
  • Genre: 2D Platforming
  • Pros:  Nice visuals; some interesting puzzles
  • Cons:  Sub-par gameplay; story is thoroughly unnecessary

Story and Setting

Unravel stars a little humanoid creature made of red yarn called Yarny.  It is tiny and it always has its head turned so both of its little white eyes are looking at you the player as you make it run and jump and swing around worlds made of normal objects that seem like impassable mountains.  The story of the game starts out on a somber note as you tour an old woman's house and get the feeling something bad happened recently.  The game's 12 levels each take place as a memory you enter through pictures located throughout the house (sort of like Super Mario 64), and while the memories start out pleasant enough, things slowly turn dark as  you unravel the tragedy that struck this particular family.

Except you don't really unravel or experience anything.  You only see the story as brief flashes of memories that pop up in the background for a second or two a couple times per level and are left to put the pieces together of what actually happened yourself.  But those memories are almost always so brief and so ambiguous that it is hard to draw anything but the basest of conclusions.

  You never become emotionally invested in the family the game follows because you never see enough of them to care.  And you certainly don't become attached to Yarny because it never does anything besides look sort of cute (Or, in my opinion, kind of ugly and creepy.  Like Sony's Sackboy).  For a game that clearly wants to elicit emotions, Unravel falls flat. 

Gameplay

Gameplay-wise, Unravel is a 2D puzzle / platformer where you use Yarny's string to solve physics-based puzzles in order to make progress.  You can lasso hooks to swing back and forth, push and pull objects, or make trampoline jumps by tying two objects together.  As you tie knots and trek back and forth over objects, Yarny's string unravels from his body and eventually you run out and can't move forward anymore, at which point you either have to backtrack to untangle your string to get some slack, or find new balls of string scattered around the levels to replenish your supply.  The puzzles you have to solve mostly involve making ramps out of string to push or pull objects and pulling sticks or rocks with your string to make new platforms, but sometimes the game gets more interesting where you'll have to start a boat motor or make Yarny operate heavy machinery or something.

So while the ham fisted storytelling approach came up short, the gameplay sounds solid enough, right?  Unfortunately, that isn't the case either.  The game has a nasty habit of changing the rules on you on a whim from one puzzle to the next, so there isn't any consistency.  Sometimes Yarny's string lasso goes way further than others, or Yarny can jump much higher, or string trampolines bounce you way higher, or Yarny can or can't move an identical object it could or couldn't before, or Yarny won't grab a ledge it sure looks like he should be able to.  Not having consistent rules is a no-no for both puzzle games and platforming games, so it is a particularly egregious issue in a game that wants to be both.

  The puzzles are rarely all that difficult to figure out, but with the rules constantly changing on you it becomes frustrating when something that should work, and did work two puzzles ago, somehow doesn't now.  As the game progresses, these frustrations increase and it becomes a real grind to get through.

Unravel's bigger gameplay problem is that it simply doesn't feel particularly good to play.  This isn't one of those games that you pick up and just feel magic right away (I'll use Ori and the Blind Forest as an example again here).  Instead Yarny is slow and sluggish and clumsy feeling.  Maybe that's realistic to how a floppy yarn person would behave, but that doesn't make it fun to control. 

Graphics & Sound

Presentation is one area where Unravel definitely does live up to its billing.  The environments you explore are fantastically detailed and almost photorealistic.  The lighting and special effects are wonderful.  The game just looks awesome.  And if you actually find Yarny cute, it's all the better.  My one complaint is that the foreground and background objects can blend together, so it can be hard to tell what you can and can't interact with sometimes.

The music is also well done.  It is a bit heavy handed in its "you should feel like this now" music cues, but the music itself is wonderful. 

Bottom Line

I will admit that there are moments when everything comes together and Unravel does seem like a special game - flying a kite, seeing a huge majestic moose, careening across a lake on a boat (or being pulled by a fish), and some genuinely clever puzzles - but those moments are too few and far between to make up for the inconsistencies and frustration everywhere else.  I don't think Unravel is a bad game, but it rarely rises above being merely mediocre.  With all of that said, Unravel greatest strength is that its a $20 download game with 7-10 hours of gameplay, so you aren't exactly taking a big risk if you do want to check it out.  I can't see myself remembering it all too fondly, however.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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