Note: I originally wrote this review for The Game Bolt. The original review can be found here.
Ever since Unravel was first announced at E3 in 2015, I was intrigued. What interested me the most wasn’t its gameplay, but rather the fact that it is an EA published title. While published by the large corporation, Unravel was actually developed by Coldwood Interactive – an independent Swedish developer whose previous titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
Unravel is based on a family camping holiday taken by the game’s director: Martin Sahlin. During this family vacation, Sahlin created ‘Yarny’, a cat-like creature standing on two legs made out of wire and red yarn (or wool). With Unravel, Sahlin wanted to make a game that showcases the areas where he lives, and it’s clear that he loves where he lives as all the environments and backgrounds are very realistic – a true reflection of the area of Sweden the game is based on. The art-style really looks beautiful, reflecting fantastically the mood of the game, each stage imposes its own atmosphere and tone wonderfully.
The environments and setting are lovingly crafted interpretations of real areas of Swedish countryside, and love is evident throughout Unravel, acting as one of the biggest themes of the game’s story. Unravel’s plot is rather ambiguous, but on a base level, the game tasks you with recovering memories, lost in time. There is a bit more to it than that however as Unravel talks about hope, love, and almost the meaning of life – it gets quite deep and actually rather emotional.
Each level represents a particular moment in the life of a family, and as you progress, you see memories etched into the background, but not all of them are happy memories. Some of the memories and situations depicted are quite poignant, especially towards the end of the game when the surroundings become far less forgiving. Yarny has to deal with the elements, environment, and living creatures; and nothing is altogether friendly for our knitted hero.
The unstable environments and critters looking to kill you draw comparisons with Limbo, but the puzzles and character movement in Unravel compare to Limbo unfavourably. Yarny moves fine, and his walking and running animations are a joy to watch, but in terms of his jumping ability? It leaves a lot to be desired. Yarny doesn’t have a big jump on him, but he can grab onto ledges and pull himself up. The worst aspect of Unravel’s platforming aspects is that his jump and landing never feel quite precise enough, which messes with some areas and puzzles in the game.
Most of the time, puzzles are fairly simple to get your head around, but there are a few puzzles that were frustrating. At its best, Unravel forces you into conserving the wool that’s constantly being unraveled as you move. These puzzles force you into thinking about the best route, planning your way and thinking about conserving wool. Yarny’s wool is unwound all the time, and throughout the game there are anchors you can tie part of your ‘tail’ to; doing this uses more yarn, and the more you use, the slower Yarny moves, and the more skeletal he becomes. Thankfully, in each level there are several checkpoints that supply you with more wool, so conserving yarn isn’t often much of an issue.
Unravel uses yarn in a variety of ways, including the aforementioned unravelling, which is always happening. Yarny always leaves a trail behind him, which can wrap around items, be tied to things and be used as a rope for climbing and descending treacherous climbs. It’s nice to see that the developers were thinking about the different uses for yarn in a video game, and it’s great fun to see a web of yarn spread out in fiendish puzzles. Tying Yarny’s tail to anchor points creates a whole range of puzzles, including the ability to create trampolines out of tight areas of yarn raised above the ground. A tap of the ‘R2’ button throws a yarn lasso, which can be used to drag items and hold onto perches in order to climb up steep inclines and swing from left to right to cross treacherous ravines.
Most of the time I played through Unravel in trial and error mode, largely stuck in error. There were more than a few times where Yarny wouldn’t land exactly where I wanted him to, or wouldn’t quite climb up something properly. Some sections of the game killed me before I had any idea of what to do, but the most irritating parts of the gameplay come when you need to balance on moving objects moving through water; it never quite worked as I wanted it to, and I saw Yarny die, a lot.
Despite this, Unravel never becomes a chore, as it is always charming. The environments alone are good enough to make you forget your frustrations; with close-ups of trees, mushrooms, icicles and a whole range of other things to brighten your day. Yarny himself is brilliant, Coldwood Interactive puts him through the ringer and in each stage, Yarny himself reacts differently to his surroundings. When something particularly dangerous happens, the music picks up its pace, and so does Yarny. In the snow, Yarny holds himself to keep warm, and as his body unravels, he becomes skeletal and starts holding onto his overstretched tail for survival.
A big part of Unravel’s success is its soundtrack, which mixes classical Swedish songs with new tunes that mesh perfectly with what is going on in the level – it truly is expertly crafted. The soundtrack evokes feelings perfectly, with mellow songs for sadder moments and fast, hectic tunes for when the action ramps up. The sound effects are great too, with a satisfying crunch of snow under Yarny’s feet being my personal favourite. Despite the great sound design, I did have to restart the game once as I encountered an odd glitch that put bird song in the background at all times after a stage full of crows. It was thankfully a blip in an otherwise wonderfully designed game.
Part of the challenge in Unravel is in collecting all of the secrets. There are five secrets to find in each stage, and some are more hidden than others. I didn’t find every secret, and a couple I found so difficult to get to, I just gave up on altogether. I do have something of an urge to get back to the game, to collect each secret, as I’m left wondering whether collecting them all unlocks anything or not. It’s almost worth going back through the game just to experience it all again; it is all wonderfully designed, and a joy to play through despite the slightly unnatural platforming.
The gameplay almost doesn’t matter in Unravel; the presentation, touching story, fantastic visuals and brilliant soundtrack make it an experience that almost transcends traditional video game design. The feelings Unravel evokes as a piece of entertainment make the game almost priceless. It is a truly beautiful video game experience that I will never forget and I thank Coldwood Interactive and EA for letting it happen from the bottom of my heart.
Unravel offers an outstanding video game filled with love, beauty and wonder. A memorable physics-platformer that’s well worth a play.