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Tired of testosterone-saturated shooters? Don’t have room on your plate for another sprawling open world? Well, how about a game where you take a painfully cute yarn man on a stroll through the charming Swedish countryside? Get ready for a handcrafted change of pace.
Unravel is a unique ball of yarn. The game is the creation of a small Swedish developer and has a very personal feel, but it’s also being distributed by mega-publisher EA and clearly benefited from a pretty substantial budget. Unravel is part indie and part triple-A, but is it actually good? Let’s find out…
Unravel (PC, Xbox One & PS4)
In Unravel you play as Yarny, an adorable woolen boy who springs forth from an old woman’s knitting basket. According to Unravel developer Coldwood Interactive, the strands that make up Yarny represent love and the bonds that tie us together, although the game itself doesn’t hit you over the head with its message. In practice, the old lady’s house serves as a hub world of sorts, with you entering stages through scattered photographs. Each stage is based on a period from the woman’s life, and as you play through them you’ll encounter her memories, represented by ghostly images. The storytelling is light and ephemeral, but as you play through the game, a narrative of sorts begins to emerge. Early on the game serves up nostalgic images, before moving into some darker, angrier places then, finally, tackling themes of isolation and death. Mirroring these themes, early levels are lush and sun-dappled, the middle of the game takes place in a grimy toxic waste dump and the final levels are wintery and stark. Unravel is more concerned with tinkering with your emotions than telling a super cohesive story, and it does a pretty good job of it.
If I were you, I’d just stay on that porch, Yarny.
Unravel is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, full stop. At times, the game’s backgrounds look nearly photorealistic, although they’ve also been sprinkled with a good amount of fairy dust. Real-life nature rarely looks quite this pretty. Yarny himself is also a wonderful creation – he’s packed with personality and charm even though a couple of blank woolen eyes are all he has for a face.
As much as I enjoyed Unravel‘s visuals, I may have loved its music even more. The fiddle-heavy soundtrack delivers that special brand of cold-hearted melancholy only good Nordic folk music can. Every track is perfectly suited to its respective stage, and will force even the most dead inside feel feelings about the adventures of a tiny red yarn man.
Unravel isn’t the first game to star a hand-crafted knitted protagonist, Nintendo released Yoshi’s Woolly World just months ago, but Unravel’s unique aesthetic and slightly alien Swedish landscapes set it apart somewhat. Not a lot of platformers have stages that take place in, say, a mosquito-filled lingonberry bog.
Unravel also does more with the yarn conceit than past games. The fact that Yarny actually unravels as he plays through a stage is a fresh idea, and the trail he leaves behind isn’t just symbolic. Yarny’s yarn is a limited resource, and can used to solve to solve puzzles in a variety of ways – where Nintendo did the yarn thing with Kirby and Yoshi mainly for the sake of cuteness, Unravel takes a more practical approach to the idea, and it’s a more interesting game as a result.
Based on its marketing, you may think Unravel is strictly an art game or chill out experience, but it’s actually a fairly demanding puzzle-platformer. Most of the puzzles revolve around a few basic mechanics – Yarny can attach his string to certain points, which he can shimmy up to or swing on, tie things together and push and pull small objects. That’s more or less the extent of it.
All of Yarny’s abilities are presented to you in one big info-dump at the beginning of the game, which can be a bit baffling, but you’ll find yourself getting the hang of them pretty quickly as the game doesn’t wait long to test you. As early as the second or third stage, you’ll be using yarn bridges and pulleys to create simple Rube Goldberg-esque machines to get past certain sections. Unravel requires you to really understand its physics and mechanics, and manages to never get too repetitive. This is a game that will have you scratching your head right until its final stage.
One of the game’s simpler yarn-tying conundrums.
Unfortunately, while Unravel mostly nails its puzzling sections, it’s platforming leaves something to be desired. Unravel‘s controls feel a bit sluggish, the height of Yarny’s jump is frustratingly wimpy and the game’s rope-swinging mechanics take some serious getting used to. This would be fine if Unravel, like many puzzle-platformers, focused strictly on the puzzles, but the game forces you into a lot of straight-up action sequences. Bits where you have to make your way through a deadly electrified engine or run across a field while avoiding dive-bombing crows had me cursing like I was playing Super Meat Boy, which probably isn’t what the developers were going for.
Unravel serves up only 12 stages, but they’re fairly substantial, clocking in at around half an hour each. Unravel‘s focus on puzzle-solving means it’s kind of a one-and-done – aside from a small handful of collectible trinkets, there’s not much reason to re-tackle the levels once you know how to best its challenges. But hey, $20 for a six- or seven-hour adventure isn’t a terrible value.
A remarkably straightforward game considering its being published by the EA monolith. No DLC, microtransactions or nonsense, and the game always remained stable, even as I tied the world in elaborate knots with my bumbling.
Unravel is a beautiful, serene, heartfelt game that almost made me rage quit multiple times. Yarny and his Nordic world are gorgeously wrought and the game’s puzzles are thoughtful and satisfying, but almost every level in the game has a bit that will grind your teeth to nubs.
Does Unravel transcend its frustrating parts? I’d say so. You spend more time puzzling than platforming, and again, the game is a true work of art visually and aurally. Unravel is a game you’ll love, and hate, more than you’re expecting, but it’s certainly not mediocre. It will always have you feeling something. Unravel is a hard knot, but one worth figuring out.
Verdict: Worth A Chance
This review was based on a PS4 digital copy of Unravel, provided by EA Games.