It’s got the look of a big-deal indie game, but it’s all style and zero substance.
Developer: Coldwood Interactive
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: February 9, 2016
Unravel is adorable, that much was almost universally agreed upon the moment the world first saw Yarny, its feline wool protagonist. A gorgeous game with a cute hero and a stunning soundtrack, Unravel has production value in spades and benefits from one hell of a unique presentation.
Unfortunately, that’s about all it has going for it, because outside of its saccharine appeal, Unravel is about as pedestrian a puzzle-platformer as you could hope to find.
Yarny’s adventure suffers from following in the footsteps of better produced and more inventive games, games it shamelessly pilfers for ideas while delivering little of significance outside of its aesthetic.
Most challenges involve pushing objects from point A to point B in order to reach high ledges, occasionally tying yarn between two points in order to create ramps – basement-level busywork that does nothing to stimulate the brain.
When you’re not doing that, you’ll use Yarny’s threaded appendages to lasso and swing from grapple points, create makeshift trampolines, and run away from rocky landsides. Basically, you’ll do things you’ve done in dozens of puzzle platformers over the years.
Worse, you’ll put up with terrible physics along the way, and a protagonist with jumps so wonky you’d swear their surname was Belmont.
The weightless nature of objects and characters, coupled with wild and unwieldy swinging mechanics, makes Unravel feel almost exactly like Littlebigplanet, along with the same simplistic “push/pull” non-puzzles found in that series’ most basic example levels.
It’s not uncommon to get objects stuck in the ground, as Yarny struggles to pull a crucial rock into position because it caught on something. Even the heaviest looking objects have no sense of gravity. Yarny itself struggles with recognizing ledges, sometimes missing jumps they’re clearly supposed to make.
Choosing style over functionality, Unravel features richly detailed environments alongside terrific animations, but terrible visual feedback and poor communication with the player.
There are moments where interactive objects are indistinguishable from static walls and subsequently obscured. Ledges you can grip and platforms that are just part of the background decoration all look the same, with trial-and-error being the only way to tell the difference. Climbable walls are marked only by a faint glimmer, almost impossible to make out in certain areas.
Unravel is so concerned with looking pretty, it fails to provide its player adequate tools for progress.
Compare this to Limbo, a game Unravel shamelessly mimics in more than a few ways. With its monochrome color scheme and gradual drip-feed of mechanics, Limbo is excellent at informing players without so much as uttering a single word. The boldly contrasting color scheme makes objects distinct, and players learn to implement new ideas as they go.
None of this is true with Coldwood Interactive’s effort.
Unravel is a gorgeous mess as everything blends into each other, while a terrible tutorial opens the game. It inelegantly dumps a wad of text on players and even goes so far as to detail mechanics that won’t show up until far later in the game, by which time they’ll have likely been forgotten.
What we’re looking at here is a poor mimicking of two superior productions – it’s LittleBigPlanet without the user-generated content, and Limbo without the well designed levels or puzzles.
Unravel straddles a frustrated line between these two games, bringing nothing but a suite of intellectually lazy and repetitive puzzles, a character that feels unpleasant to control, and some challenges that reek of “guess what the developer was thinking” rather than well-communicated objectives.
Coldwood made one of those ironic games that get more enjoyable the less like a game they resemble. There are fun moments to be had, but they’re all too fleeting and have nothing to do with puzzle-platforming.
Subtle sequences that feature Yarny walking through the world, confused and mesmerized by their colorful surroundings, are heartwarming. All-too brief segments where one is steering a kite, lassoing a fish to ride across a pond, or hanging from a floating carrier bag are breathtaking.
These little moments are where Unravel appears to have the most fun with itself, and the comparatively banal puzzles come off like token gestures toward gameplay – a case of Unravel putting in the bare minimum to be considered a game so it can concentrate on its audiovisual impressiveness.
Indeed, the looks and the sounds are truly captivating, but scratch all that away and there’s just no substance to be found. Nothing but a mediocre offering caught desperately aping infinitely better examples of its genre. Its mawkish narrative, communicated via photographs and other imagery, might be enough to charm some folks, but it does little to inject actual life into the game.
The only original idea Unravel has going for it is Yarny’s stringy limitations. Yarny survives from wad of yarn to wad of yarn, requiring frequent checkpoints to rebuild itself after trailing a length of string everywhere it goes. A handful of puzzles require players to be mindful of this – choosing optimal routes to the next checkpoint to save on yarn and not get caught on a tight leash.
There was a lot of scope for this idea, and it could have made for an outstanding and clever experience. Unfortunately, I mean it when I say it’s a handful of puzzles, relegating what could have been the entire basis for a clever game to mere gimmick territory.
Unravel, quite frankly, comes off as too amateurish to capitalize on its own potential. The ridiculous tutorial, unpredictable physics, and obfuscating visual design are rookie mistakes, while the primitive puzzles that make up the majority of obstacles could be thrown together by any hobbyist game designer dicking around with basic tools.
Cloying adorability is Unravel‘s saving grace. Propped up on a crutch constructed from mawkish sentimentality, it gets away with a fair few missteps and manages to claw together a smattering of memorable moments.
This pretty shell, however, is undeniably a shell, and no amount of pretty little animations can make up for a total drought of engaging game design.