Thursday, 5 April 2012

Riding on Ribbons - Journey Review

With the current state of Video games retail, games enthusiasts have never been moree money concious - services like Steam have regular sales that set a precedent on what 'the worth of a game' is, and yet when new console games release for an average of £40, it constantly feels that any game that isn't on sale is out of a sensible price range.

Journey, being a 2 hour-ish game for £9, as such doesn't feel like a great value for money. After all, why spend that money on such few hours of entertainment?

Because, dear reader, those two hours are so compelling and content-filled, you'll definitely be leaving satisfied. Developed by thatgamecompany, the team behind the PSN-only game Flower, Journey is their next attempt at meshing game design and aesthetic artistry together.

The premise is wordlessly straightforward - you are on a pilgrimage to a distant mountain, with nothing but a scarlet cloak and the ability to shout at your disposal. The desert you're in the middle of is scattered with ruins and mysterious artefacts, most notably sapient red ribbons that grant you the ability to jump and float.

The 'rules' of the game work out to be incredibly intuitive - at least for those who have played a platformer game before. Considering how Journey refuses to spell out its rules for you, it's never difficult to work out what to do or where to go. The level design is incredibly subtle with it gently guiding you to where you should be heading, with rewards hidden just out of the way of your main objectives.

With the peak of mountain almost always in view, it's easy to keep things pacey even with the relaxed feel and no time limit. Your adventure is split into segments, bookended by visions of where you'll be heading to; and explanations of what these ruins once were.

Although Journey is entirely playable solo, at each stage of your adventure, you are randomly paired with another player. They have all the same abilities you do (including not having any way to communicate aside from a wordless shout), and can help solve puzzles, but their presence isn't as important as the developers advertised it as some years ago. They're never a hindrance (Which is definitely for the best), but an inclusion of bonus puzzles that required teamwork would make that aspect of the experience far more powerful.

Journey's aesthetics (when compared to its neat but very basic mechanics) are where the game shines. It's involving, bright, and the tone and colour pallet subtly changes from scene to scene, leaving you excited to see what the next area holds. The music stays carefully low-key, biding its time for huge swells at the right moments. It's definitely impacting, but not what I'd call catchy or memorable. I played through with two of my friends watching, and they were both glued to the screen as much as I was.

Journey is better off compared to DVDs rather than other video games. Not because it lacks interactivity, but in buying a new DVD, 2 hours of new-release quality entertainment for £9 is a definite purchase.

Games Retail: A Love Story

When I was 8, working in a games shop was my dream job. You could play all the newest games for free, and you could tell other people what the good games were! Finally people would listen to me when I said Crash Bandicoot totally sucked, and Spyro was way better.

Over twelve years later, and my childhood dream of video game retail has been met with two years working as a Christmas Sales Assistant at GAME. It obviously wasn't going to match up to my younger aspirations; and a knowledge of just how greedy retail industries can be jaded my outlook; but it wasn't a bad experience by any means. But either way, it's good I got to have the experience when I did - the games retail industry has changed.

To be fair, brick-and-mortar stores have been suffering for a while when it comes to digital entertainment. Competing with the behemoth that is e-commerce; and then digital download services, consumers were able to consume media faster and cheaper than ever before. Roll on services like Steam and suddenly no one is interested in going to their nearest shopping district to buy PC games any more. HMV had long been sweating bullets over their future, and in the last two years or so GAME has been feeling the pressure far more overtly.

It was something I noticed first-hand as I worked there. I've never been one for forcing a sales pitch down someone's throat, but it's disheartening to offer legitimate purchase suggestions and be told time and time again "Never mind, it's cheaper online." The higher-ups sent e-mails almost every other day demanding for harder pushes for items that netted us the most profit: preowned games, loyalty cards, preorders and gift cards. It was shrewdly penny-pinching; every lost gift card was free profit for the company, 100% of a preowned game's price went straight to GAME with nothing to the publishers, and the number of people who put a deposit on a preorder and then entirely forget to retrieve it on release is stunning.

But it wasn't enough - back in February the Game Group saw fit to downsize to staunch a bleeding wound, closing 39 European stores. Unfortunately, that didn't slow things down. Last month EA resolved to deny GAME and sister chain Gamestation from stocking EA titles, most notably Mass Effect 3. The explanation for this is rather unclear - maybe it's because their sales of new EA titles had been dropping in light of cheaper online options, or maybe due to the financial issues, GAME was no longer capable of paying whatever selling costs EA imposed. Either way, it was the kiss of death - after that bomb; other publishers started to pull out. GAME could no longer sell Street Fighter x Tekken, Kid Icarus Uprising, Mario Party 9...

Despite fire sales to shift as much stock as possible to recoup losses, it was over. GAME went into administration, the company was removed from the stock market, and the number of functioning GAME and Gamestation branches was roughly cut in half. The store I used to work at was one of those that didn't make it; and it saddens me. Not because I was a huge supporter of the company - I readily recognised that its practices were outdated and barely in the consumer's best interest - but because the presence of games retail was a huge part of my childhood, and UK nerd culture; not to mention that the staff I worked with were wonderful people, and seeing people you care about have to seek new jobs is heartbreaking.

Things are looking up for the survival of the remaining shops though - on April 1st Opcapita, an investment group, agreed to buy out the Game Group, saving it from administration. I argue that it's a little too late, considering an offer was made before the company had to cause a loss of over 2000 jobs, but if the purchase can save the remaining 300 stores and their staff then that's at least something of a positive outcome.

If nothing else, I hope that these tribulations for the company will result in the games retail industry seeing a change - with fewer worries about surviving until the new financial year and more direct competition (or embracing?) of media through digital distribution.