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