Unravel was unveiled at EA's 2015 E3 press conference by its incredibly nervous but endearing creative director. It appeared sweet and charming, stealing the show due to how much it stuck out compared to the usual EA fare. It was a contrast perfectly summed up there and then, when Unravel's trailer gave way to someone dressed a superhero zombie for Garden Warfare 2, prancing around to Kenny Loggins's Danger Zone.
As stark a clash of styles as the game represents on EA's slate, a major publisher trying new things should – generally – be celebrated, particularly when that means championing something as artful and delightful as Unravel.
Developed by small Swedish studio Coldwood Interactive, Unravel is a game about love and memories, which stars a little woollen figure named Yarny – who platforms his way through levels based on the memories of an elderly woman. There's no real story to speak of, it's more of a stroll through this woman's life.
Yarny acts as a metaphor for love, unravelling slowly and growing weaker the further he moves away from homely comforts. In gameplay this creates a neat and unique platforming mechanic, that requires players to replenish Yarny's yarn-body at various points throughout the level. Yarny also uses his unfurling strands to create platforms from which to jump, to pull up or manipulate objects and to create swings over perilous drops or bodies of water.
It's an inventive conceit, but there's a disappointing lack of variety in the puzzling, with the repeated use of earlier puzzles quickly turning them into a chore. When something new is thrown in, overcoming the problem is usually a case of trial and error rather than skilful problem-solving. In many cases this is due to the manipulation of physics-based objects, which quickly grow frustrating due to those same physics. You'll accidentally knock objects over, or they'll get caught on the environment.
These annoyances add up, but ultimately don't ruin the overall, laid-back experience of Unravel. The underlying platforming mechanics run smoothly, save for Yarny's sometimes meagre vertical leap, but what really makes Unravel a delight are the visuals and the wonderful, complimentary soundtrack composed by Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja.
Unravel's twelve levels are set in recognisable locales (a pier, the woods, a scrapyard) rendered realistically but with a slight stylistic flourish. What makes this work so well is the wonderful sense of perspective, as Yarny (who is 2-3 inches tall) leaps through undergrowth, over discarded cans and away from aggressive wildlife. This perspective lends the game a Honey I Shrunk The Kids aesthetic, with the naturalism of the art adding a serene melancholia aided by the easy-going score.
Unravel is an unashamedly twee game, overflowing with emotion and sentimentality. That isn't for everyone, and nothing has changed with that regard, but where this kind of approach can be problematic is in the sincerity of its execution. If it ever feels false, the whole illusion would come crashing down. Thankfully, for the majority of its run-time, Unravel is perfectly sincere – the honest expression of passionate and hard-working developers - but its desire to pluck at player heartstrings grows tiresome during a strenuous conclusion.
If Unravel connects with a player, it'll likely be because it has stirred up nostalgia for personal memories in some way connected to the environments; the sound of a beach, the babbling brook in the woods and so on. However, the game falters during a conclusion in which it changes tact purely because it's reaching its end and feels should suddenly become more dramatic. The result is essentially a half-arsed copy of the soaring ending of thatgamecompany's Journey, composed of one level that's a slog to complete and another that provides the complete opposite, without the cathartic feeling it aims for.
Unravel is an ode to cherished memories, but it doesn't create any of its own. It is gorgeous to look at and listen to, but its repetitive, sometimes laborious and frustrating, puzzles undermine the game's relaxed tone without offering much in the way of a challenge.