(Click the picture above for the Video Review of Year Walk)
Year Walk was one of those games last year that everyone couldn't stop talking about, but I unfortunately couldn't play. Being a filthy peasant Android phone user, the fascinating world of interesting looking iOS games is one that I can only depressingly watch from afar. And from such a distance, Year Walk looked incredible. Its fantastic production values seemed to transcend its mobile game upbringing, making it stand out in a long list of Bejeweled clones and myriad free-to-play annoyances. Year Walk not only seemed unique in the mobile game space, but in the entire video game industry as a whole.
It was exciting then when developer Simogo announced that it was working on a comprehensive PC port which would remake a lot of the puzzles with mouse and keyboard in mind, and redo a lot of the art. So imagine my surprise then when, after finishing Year Walk, I was left ultimately disappointed. Year Walk's production values are indeed incredible, but the rest of the game is fairly lacking, making Year Walk a disappointingly bumpy trek through the woods.
Year Walk is based off an ancient Swedish custom where an individual can undertake a dangerous journey in the dark wilderness on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve to brave supernatural creatures -- all of which have entries in the unsuspecting encyclopedia that you carry around -- and mysterious challenges to solve for the opportunity to enter the local church and earn the right to see into the future of the following year. Your nameless main character embarks on this year walk ritual to see if the women he loves will choose to marry the man that she is betrothed to.
It's a fresh premise that has a lot of promise, but unfortunately fails to set up any emotional connection to the characters in the story. This is incredibly detrimental to the story as it heavily requires you to care about these paper-thin characters for the surprise but weak ending and unexpectedly complicated yet ridiculous epilogue to have any impact on you whatsoever. Without that, Year Walk merely feels like a rather aimless stroll.
And sometimes quite a frustrating one at that. Year Walk is a first-person adventure game where movement is locked to a side-scrolling axis. Your character is limited to moving left-to-right, and vice versa, with the ability to move forward or backwards only if there's a trail for them to follow. The game progresses as you wander through the forest until you stumble upon an abstract puzzle for you to solve. The way that Year Walk allows you discover things for yourself should be commended, but it felt like a rather passive and reactive style of interaction that rarely felt engaging, stumbling along through a ton of different environments until you happen to come across a puzzle.
Though when you do manage to encounter one of these puzzles, like a gravestone which you can connect dots on to makes various shapes, I was rarely satisfied with them. Very few of the puzzles are something you can solve intuitively or through an exercise of the ol' brain. They are esoteric machinations which require you to further explore the forest until you find another construct in the world which will spell out the solution to the puzzle for you. This irritatingly made the difficulty of the puzzles not in intellectually challenging or stimulating me, but in awkwardly moving about the forest until I tripped over the answer elsewhere. Year Walk rarely felt like it was testing anything more than my patience.
Which is unfortunate considering the stunning and horrifying sights and sounds you'll encounter on your hike through these dark, dark woods. Year Walk has a breathtaking art style that is unlike anything else out there, with a beautiful hand drawn sensibility. Every scene and character are gorgeous and hideous at the same time. And the game has some very clever instances of true horror between its disturbing imagery and nerve-wracking and paranoia-inducing atmosphere that recalls horror classics like the movie The Thing and the short story Young Goodman Brown .
And the audio production feels just as up to the occasion with a score that sent chills down my spine on a consistent basis, with deeply unsettling tracks which perfectly fit in with whatever horror was present at the time, whether seen or unseen. The sound design is also top-notch when some brilliant sound effects and sharp editing that further enhances Year Walk's menacing atmosphere. An atmosphere which is sometimes broken, though, when I was shuffling through the normally terrifying woods, frustrated with the frequently annoying puzzles that I was scouring for the solution to.
Where Year Walk lacks imagination in its puzzle design, it makes up with its incredible production values that creates one of the most unique and interesting atmospheres in a video game in recent memory. It was the one aspect of Year Walk that stood out last year when all I could do was longingly gaze at the game in my Android's web browser, and that aspect still holds strong today.
But it's a true shame then that Year Walk rarely can find any footing with good or interesting gameplay or puzzle interaction to take advantage of its stunning audio and visual design. Not to mention its meaningless story that lacked any emotional gravitas which is extremely important to the journey that Year Walk desperately wants you to care about. Year Walk's production values were quickly the only thing that kept me coming back to its short hour and a half playtime, making me half-heartily drag my feet through this uneven stroll.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)