At E3 2015, Martin Sahlin won over the crowd at the Electronic Arts press conference with his genuine, nervous reveal of Unravel. Sahlin, the creative director of Coldwood Interactive, gave us a glimpse of Yarny and his travels through Sweden in a shaky voice that showed how important this project was to him and his team. From that moment, Unravel became the talk of the show.
Now that it is finally in the wild, does Unravel life up to the hype? In every single way, the answer to that question is, yes.
In a time where it seems that so many games are conceived around a conference room table where the only question asked is “what type of game will sell five million copies”, Unravel is exactly the opposite. From the very beginning, it is apparent that the story is a very personal one to the developers and the game is made with a lot of care. While serious at times, there is always an undertone of innocence to Unravel, and that makes it a joy to play.
You play as Yarny, a character born from an elderly woman’s yarn basket in the first scene in the game. As the woman exits the scene, Yarny comes to life and you begin to explore the house. This serves as a nice tutorial for the yarn tying and swinging mechanics in the game. As you explore the house, you come across framed photographs, each of which represents a level in the game. Once in the levels, Yarny truly comes to life as a character. Though he never says a word, his childlike reaction to objects and the environment make you fall in love with him from the beginning.
Unravel’s story is simple, yet very powerful at times. Ultimately, this game is about the bonds created by love and how they can be broken and mended again. While there are many moments of childlike innocence, Unravel’s story addresses love, togetherness, ageing, tragedy, loss, and redemption. Playing through each of the levels takes you through another important memory or event in the life of the elderly woman. As you finish each level, you are rewarded with a missing piece of yarn that Yarny attaches to a photo album in the house, unlocking photographs of the family.
Level design in Unravel is nothing short of amazing. Each level or memory is given the finest attention to detail, and you feel as if you are actually in northern Sweden exploring alongside Yarny. It is done so well that the environment becomes the second main character in the game, and actually invokes emotion from the player. In some of the earlier levels, the stages bring out a feeling of joy and innocence as you explore the sea and forest, while in later ones, the environments assist in bringing out feelings of sadness for the family. In the levels that focus on tragedy, the colours are much darker, whereas in those which deal with ageing, the landscape is very bleak and wintery.
Aside from tone, the level design in Unravel also allows for many fun and challenging puzzles for Yarny to solve. As you progress, the puzzles become more challenging, requiring more thought and strategy. What I loved most about the design of the game is that Yarny is always using real world objects to assist in overcoming obstacles. You will use things like apples, logs, and a toy boat to get across deep holes or water, and things like tires, rocks, or an old toy box to help you be able to jump to the next ledge. In the winter levels, Unravel even incorporates the snow by having you roll an acorn or walnut in it to create a snowball that will roll and break through obstacles.
The game mechanics in Unravel are simple yet very fluid. Using the right trigger will shoot out yarn and attach it to a red knot you see, and holding the trigger will either help you climb to the object or pull it. Once you have reached a red knot, the X button will make Yarny tie a knot at the location. Tying knots to objects in close proximity to each other will create a trampoline effect for Yarny when he is on the yarn line and help him propel higher in the air. Using the left trigger when on a red yarn point will allow Yarny to hold the yarn while dropping down from a point, letting you swing him back and forth to another object. Finally, the A button will make Yarny jump and holding down the down button on the directional pad will restart the checkpoint. Most importantly, Unravel’s game mechanics are absolutely responsive and fluid. As much care was put into this as into the story and environments.
As you progress through levels, you will come across nails with red yarn wrapped around them. These points serve two purposes. First, each of them serves as a checkpoint where your game will automatically save. Secondly, these points give Yarny more yarn, allowing him to continue on his journey. This element is a great addition to the game and provides another element of strategy. If you are not careful about how you traverse an obstacle, Yarny will run out of yarn before the next checkpoint and will physically not be able to reach it. This requires players to put more thought into obstacles at many points in the game.
Visually, Unravel is astoundingly good. Like, deserves to win awards type of good. Environments are vibrant and detailed, and the colour contrast is very impressive. Yarny himself is bright and detailed – you can see the stitches on him. When Yarny walks in the snow, the bottom half of him is white until he shakes off the snow. Vehicles have grease and rust spots on them, leaves have texture and great colour, and so on. As far as the smaller digital only titles go, this is about the best visual presentation I have seen on the Xbox One.
Unravel’s score also adds a lot to the presentation of the game, and serves as a storytelling device. Sounds are innocent and playful at many times in the game, while at others it is much more sombre. When Yarny is in danger, the tone of the score changes to one of more tension and urgency. Nothing about the score felt repetitive or out of place, and it helps immerse the player deeper into the world.
The only drawback to Unravel is that it is a fairly short game. One play through will get you between six and seven hours, though you may get a little more out of it if you are determined to find every hidden secret throughout the game. Unravel’s play time was a little disappointing, mostly because the game is so good that I wanted more of it. This was the rare game that made me sad at the end simply because I had finished it.
For the money, Unravel is as close to required playing as it gets. I would still wholeheartedly recommend this game if it was double the $19.99 USD/£14.00 GBP asking price. With a tremendous story, loveable main character, and amazing levels and visuals, you really can’t go wrong with Unravel. Yes, it is a fairly short game, but what you do get was made with such attention to detail and care that I can confidently say this is one of the best experiences I’ve had with my Xbox One. Period.