Un­ravel

De­vel­oper Cold­Wood In­ter­ac­tive Pub­lisher Elec­tronic Arts For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease Out now

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PC, PS4, Xbox One

Un­ravel pro­tag­o­nist Yarny is an in­scrutable pres­ence. A vul­ner­a­ble, ap­par­ently be­nign con­tor­tion of thread that re­sem­bles both a rus­tic child’s play­thing and a horned devil. It’s an am­bi­gu­ity that’s re­flected in the game: a mix of gor­geous vi­su­als and oc­ca­sional plat­form­ing bru­tal­ity; heart­warm­ing play­ful­ness and heart­break­ing melan­choly.

Cen­tral to the game is a smart physics-based me­chanic that con­ceives of a crea­ture per­ma­nently teth­ered to the un­furl­ing ball of yarn from which he emerged. In need of con­tin­ual re­plen­ish­ment from scraps of thread along the way – both to ex­tend his reach and progress through the level with­out be­com­ing an ema­ci­ated (and quite un­nerv­ing) wretch – Yarny must care­fully man­age his route, and so a con­sid­er­able por­tion of the chal­lenge comes from en­sur­ing you have enough length left in you to con­struct the cat’s-cradle­like puz­zle so­lu­tions and reach the next bob­bin.

But as­sum­ing am­ple thread is to hand, Yarny can make good use of his mu­ta­ble woollen body. Las­sos can be tossed to en­snare out-of-reach at­tach­ment points; large drops can be ab­seiled down, while cav­ernous pits can be swung across; and sim­ple rope bridges can be con­structed by ty­ing off your yarn at two nearby points. You’ll also need to ex­per­i­ment with rust­ing mech­a­nisms, keep rafts from float­ing out of reach, and con­tend with un­wel­come at­ten­tion from all man­ner of un­friendly wildlife. But de­spite this rich seam, Un­ravel leans a lit­tle too heav­ily on the cre­ation of bridges (which also dou­ble up as tram­po­lines) and mov­ing ob­jects across them, while some of its more in­ter­est­ing ideas are left un­der-ex­plored.

Still, the game’s yarn-driven lo­co­mo­tion is, for the most part, deeply sat­is­fy­ing. The re­sult is a mor­eish ab­strac­tion of rock climb­ing – as you dan­gle, clam­ber and de­cide whether to tie off your thread be­fore a risky leap, or gam­ble to en­sure you have more to play with on the other side – in the same way a Tri­als game dis­tills the sen­sa­tion of rid­ing a bike on a 2D plane. Yarny can fling him­self into the air while mantling, too, and the spool­ing thread be­hind him twists and flexes as it set­tles into a bright red record of your jour­ney and snags on out­stretched scenery.

It’s lovely stuff, but Un­ravel isn’t al­ways so in­tu­itive. While you’re able to push and pull some ob­jects around the en­vi­ron­ment, it’s some­times not clear which parts of a scene are in­ter­ac­tive. Sim­i­larly, al­though the at­tach­ment points that Yarny can make use of are marked with a lit­tle tangle of red thread – and even sparkle when you’re in range – they of­ten don’t stand out enough from the de­tailed, busy back­grounds, lead­ing to some flow-break­ing stop­pages.

When sheared of the need to use thread, Un­ravel’s plat­form­ing foun­da­tions also prove shaky. Yarny isn’t al­ways as re­spon­sive as you’d like, and a hand­ful of sec­tions where you need to bal­ance on diminu­tive pieces of flot­sam prove par­tic­u­larly mad­den­ing as you fran­ti­cally tap the jump but­ton to avoid be­ing tossed into the wa­ter (Yarny can’t swim, and will ex­pire af­ter a short time in a pond or river ir­re­spec­tive of whether his head is above the sur­face). All this means that the in­fre­quent Limbo- es­que trial-and-er­ror deaths don’t in­spire a chuckle so much as a be­lea­guered sigh. But it’s hard to hold any of this against a game as earnest and well-mean­ing as Un­ravel. Cold­Wood In­ter­ac­tive con­structs its bit­ter­sweet tale of friend­ship, love and fam­ily ties around its de­vel­op­ers’ mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in Swe­den and im­bues ev­ery level with an en­tranc­ing sense of child­hood ad­ven­ture and won­der. Aside from one level, which aban­dons sub­text for some­thing more heavy-handed, the game’s grown-up themes are ex­am­ined with a re­fresh­ingly light and – de­spite an all-male de­vel­op­ment team – fem­i­nine touch. It’s also an ex­cep­tion­ally beau­ti­ful game. Cold­Wood’s take on Swe­den’s coasts and wood­land feels con­vinc­ing de­spite their need to con­form to the game’s con­trived physics puz­zles. Lit­tle mush­rooms bob and sway as you push through them; waves roll in and out across multicoloured peb­bles and age­ing wooden struc­tures; and sim­ple en­coun­ters with a but­ter­fly or an am­bling hedge­hog are el­e­vated to feel ex­tra­or­di­nary.

As you move through each lo­ca­tion, spec­tral im­ages of past events shim­mer into fo­cus in the back­ground – a boat­ing trip, per­haps, or time spent ex­plor­ing the woods with a best friend – be­fore co­a­lesc­ing into a glow­ing light for Yarny to col­lect. At the end of each level, th­ese mem­o­ries pop­u­late a photo al­bum that charts the life of the age­ing lady who un­know­ingly brings Yarny into be­ing at the be­gin­ning of the game when a ball of red yarn falls from her knit­ting bas­ket. It feels like it’s de­signed to make you reach for the phone in or­der to check in on dis­tant rel­a­tives.

But if that sounds too mushy, the game’s fa­mil­ial warmth con­ceals some tough plat­form­ing chal­lenges and un­ex­pected (though en­tirely wel­come) el­e­ments of hor­ror along the way. One par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable sec­tion re­quires you to main­tain a light source in a dark­ened room while try­ing to avoid spend­ing too much time on the floor, upon which hun­dreds of cock­roaches skit­ter about. Stray too far from the bu­gre­pelling il­lu­mi­na­tion and Yarny will be swarmed as he comes to a night­mar­ish end.

Un­ravel is sur­pris­ing in many ways. That its un­der­ly­ing sys­tems don’t al­ways match up to its con­fi­dent ex­te­rior is a pity, and there’s scope to ex­plore many of the ideas Cold­Wood toys with in much greater depth. But like its enig­matic pro­tag­o­nist, Un­ravel is never any­thing less than charm­ing, even dur­ing mo­ments when it doesn’t quite hold to­gether.

The fa­mil­ial warmth con­ceals some tough plat­form­ing chal­lenges and un­ex­pected el­e­ments of hor­ror

BUT­TON UP Each level con­tains col­lectable but­tons, which are usu­ally con­cealed in hard-to-reach ar­eas. Get­ting to them in­volves some of the game’s most chal­leng­ing, and en­joy­able, nav­i­ga­tion puz­zles as you di­vert pre­cious thread to as­cend into a tree’s branches, or dan­gle pre­car­i­ously over the mouth of a cave. The lev­els them­selves are ac­cessed by reach­ing framed pho­to­graphs in a homely hub area. While it’s fun to ex­plore at first, hav­ing to run and climb your way all the way from the be­gin­ning each time you want to start a new level (or retry an old one in or­der to find missed but­tons) be­gins to feel like a chore the more times you’re forced to do it.

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