A straightforward adventure with charm, simplicity and a whole lot of yarn
Unravel is quite a bit different from the usual lot of Electronic Arts published games. It is not a sequel, shooter, sports game, racer or movie tie-in. It has no multiplayer, season pass, or in-game currency. Unravel is a simple platformer that tells the story of Yarny, a small creature formed entirely from strands of red wool. With a development team of around a dozen individuals, it is the type of game that might typically be self-published or even crowd-funded. It bears partial resemblance to the Trine series, due to its length, visuals and puzzle design. Players will explore levels that represent the memories of a family. Since memory can be quite fragile, it makes sense to explore it using a character that is just as vulnerable. Yarny has no offensive capabilities and, in a similar fashion to Limbo, he is quite susceptible to danger. Electronic Arts saw the appeal in a single player adventure with a character made of yarn, and Unravel more than justifies that faith.
Unravel is a personal and family-orientated adventure that begins in the dining room of a quaint house. Yarny awakes in front of an empty photo album, and his task is to fill it with memories. To do this, you explore rooms and enter worlds found inside photo frames. Many of these worlds consist of natural landscapes such as the seaside, forests, caves and treetops. Within each world are the faded motifs taken from the photographs that will, in time, fill the album. Completing a level will forge a chapter in the album and unlock another world to explore. Eventually these adventures expose a pivotal family event. Not all of Yarny’s journey is personal, as it briefly shifts focus to that of mankind corrupting nature. This corporate aspect feels out of place—a political message in a game that begins and ends with family—and would be more suited to a cruder adventure. Fortunately this change is only a minor stumble in the mid section, and it quickly recovers and cruises to a strong finish.
Every platforming aspect in Unravel relates to Yarny’s woolly composition. As Yarny walks, he loses part of himself via a strand of yarn that trails back to the start of each level. He can use this to hang from great heights, or rappel back up to a higher position after a fall. Yarny will eventually lose almost all of this wool and be unable to continue. Finding clumps of wool, which also serve as save points, will allow him to progress. Most of the time there is enough wool to go every which way, but occasionally the game asks players to be efficient with their wool reserves so you can reach the next save point or find a secret collectible.
The other major aspect of Yarny’s platforming ability is using his own wool as a grapple to latch onto anchor points scattered in the world. He can use this to swing or climb to higher areas, or just pull at distant objects. If the anchor points are close together, tying a knot between them will create a bridge that can support movable objects or launch Yarny to great heights like a springboard. Yarny’s abilities remain consistent throughout his journey, but they are all exploited carefully. These basic platforming elements prove sustainable over the six hour adventure.
Although moving steadily through levels is the primary goal, certain puzzles require a few minutes of pondering. Many of these use the competent physics engine, which may involve buoyancy, levers or counterweights. In some cases, wrapping yarn around objects helps to solve puzzles, but there were not enough crazy patterns formed by webs of red yarn. The puzzles are fairly basic so it won’t be long before Yarny is moving to the next area.
Although the puzzles are simple, minor problems with the physics engine can be a nuisance. Objects occasionally get stuck, usually around knots that form bridges. Buoyant objects sink quite far when the lightweight Yarny jumps onto them, adding to the challenge as you contend with rising water. Another minor issue appears when climbing up a strand of yarn after a fall; instead of ascending, Yarny sometimes created more slack which proved disastrous over the instant-kill toxic water. Despite minor physics issues, the puzzles and platforming elements provide good variety and keep the game flowing.
Unravel’s best asset is the little guy made of wool as Yarny displays many human qualities. He is tentative as he moves through levels rife with danger and wonder. The way he walks and observes his surroundings adds to the charm. With no offensive capabilities, Yarny must avoid or hide from danger. Although most harm will come from the environment—water, toxic liquid, power lines and heavy objects—he will need to overcome some dangerous creatures like birds, crabs, and mosquitoes. Occasionally these culminate into a chase sequence, which are usually fair and evenly staggered. Avoiding the swooping birds in a field allowed little margin for error, but it ended so brilliantly that it was hard not to smile. These threats and situations only strengthen the bond between the fragile Yarny and the player.
Yarny’s adventure is also helped by stunning visuals and a unique musical score. Powered by the same engine that brought us Flower and Journey, the 3D environments are packed with detail far into the distance. A smooth depth of field effect keeps the focus on the two dimensions that Yarny can navigate, and these are packed with even more beauty. Grass, rocks, snow, and flowers under Yarny’s furry feet are natural and carefully placed. Some distinct music also complements these strong visuals. The melodica (key harmonica), violin and cello are mostly responsible for its unique tunes. The subdued background music is usually calming with appropriate increases in tempo during the aforementioned chase sequences.
Unravel is a fleeting adventure, but also one of charm and simplicity. Yarny is an endearing character that players will come to love. He uses his own yarn to progress through no-nonsense platforming and effective puzzles. The environment around him is dangerous, and hostile animals will need to be avoided, but with a little help Yarny will reach the end of his tale. With lovely visuals and distinctive music, this is a small adventure that is hard to resist. A personal and quaint story like Yarny’s is rarely seen under the helm of a large publisher, and that is testament to the warmth of this woolly adventurer and his memorable journey.