From a tumbling ball of cotton yarn a hero is birthed. Yarny is the aptly and unimaginatively named embodiment of Unravel’s central themes; bravery, persistence, and a desire to connect. While these aren’t very directly communicated through the game, they do lend some weight and meaning to this puzzler, in case that’s what you’re after. Traverse beautiful landscapes, listen to stunning music and piece together a story of memories and the passing of time. And lots of drowning.
Comparisons to Playdead’s Limbo are difficult to avoid and easily founded, with some major differences. Limbo pits the player in an oppressive, monochrome world where the aim is to die, die, and die again before circumventing obstacles. Unravel follows a similar, if less gruesome and violent pace; literally, the character typically meanders across the 2D world but won’t be impaled on nearly as many objects. This environment is imposing and hides a flock of threatening creatures that set up some dramatic and fast-paced sequences between bouts of puzzling gameplay. The main game mechanic, yarn, adds a unique personality to these physics-based puzzles that flesh out the title.
The bulk of Unravel is spent swinging gleefully from anchor points using Yarny’s yarn in standard grappling hook style. Spiderman’s web-slinging ability comes to mind, with great reason. Puzzles involve tying yourself to anchor points to form ramps, bridges and trampolines to traverse the environment. These mechanics, while integrated well with the narrative and environment, do become rather repetitive. It often feels as though you are completing the same puzzle time and again, relying too heavily on the visuals to create a distinct experience on each level.
Each step you take dispenses recoupable yarn, meaning that you’ll need to get to the next naturally occurring spindle of yarn before progressing. Initially I anticipated this mechanic to involve more strategic management of yarn, but as long as players don’t overlook a spindle they should never run out; even if they do, there’s not much they can do except backtrack until they find it. While there is no serious repercussions from failure, it is heartbreaking to watch Yarny weaken as his body deteriorates and he literally unravels. His pace slows as his body thins out, and when he reaches the end of the line he tugs and pulls at the strand, as if hoping to make just one more step.
Unravel’s most identifiable distinction from most puzzle games is the amazing efforts in audio and visual beauty, which cooperate and complement each other consistently. The screen is perpetually bursting with colour, dynamic lighting and environmental effects that cannot be ignored. The music is composed by local Swedish musicians, fitting neatly into the aesthetic of the visual designers and the shown-not-told narrative from northern Sweden. The repetition of a certain few musical bars may verge on irritating, but that frustration also stems from the repeated failure of particular puzzles. Perhaps if I was better at the game, I would never have noticed.
The story is somewhat evasive but becomes very rewarding slow-burner. I enjoyed discovering memories and photographs slowly to piece together a narrative that is up to interpretation. Some gameplay elements, which are arbitrarily conceived in many puzzle games, are given purpose in Unravel. A blue plastic bag used to descend the tops of trees is revealed to have been used by a man as a shoe replacement on a family outing, while his boot rests abandoned in a river. This integration of an ambitious, vague and emotional narrative with the ant-size puzzle gameplay makes for interesting scenes.
As a puzzle game, the length of levels is entirely determined by your ability to catch on, to remember the mechanics of the game and use them in action. While earlier levels took me as long as 45 minutes to complete, later levels were significantly shorter at around 25 minutes a piece. I’m not sure if this is due to familiarity with the game or level design, but I definitely did feel more comfortable swinging through the later levels. All up, one playthrough will last easily 7-8 hours, and the distinction between environments makes each level memorable enough to warrant a second go. Especially to get those hidden items!
Coldwood have developed an adorable piece of art in Unravel, as best represented in their endlessly cute and emotionally-tapping credits. A lot of love and creativity have been poured into Unravel, with technical skill to boot. The memories this game creates and displays are so realistic I’ve had trouble deciding whether they are simply well written or have been lifted from personal memoirs. Either way Unravel is beautiful, touching, and most importantly, fun.
Select Start Media were supplied with a review copy of Unravel by EA.