Reaching for the peak
Developer and publisher Don't Nod Entertainment have had quite a diverse history. They made their debut with a sci-fi action game, had their big break with the touching adventure game Life is Strange, and went on to create games about vampires, psychological adventures, and more. The variety has been impressive, even if not every game was a success. Switching up genres yet again, their latest title Jusant manages to captivate and entertain, as a casual 3D adventure about a young man ascending a colossal cliff.
Just like many modern casual adventure games, Jusant uses a minimalistic approach with its storytelling. Players assume control of a young man and his blue creature, as they trek across a dried-up seabed and arrive at a huge cliff that stretches beyond the clouds. They begin to ascend, climbing their way through abandoned homes and structures, apparently left behind by the previous occupants. There is no dialogue or explanation for the climb, but over the course of the game you will find letters and other artifacts that provide hints as to what happened. You can guess that this land was once filled with water, but it has been drying up over the years, and eventually forcing the inhabitants of the cliff to move on elsewhere. The texts weave a tale of previous expeditions to the top, as well as small side stories from the locals.
While these letters are sometimes engaging to read, it is a little disappointing that the finale doesn't provide answers to all the questions. You could forgive it in adventure games with much less or a total absence of dialogue – but with how much text there is in Jusant, it would have been nice to get something concrete. You could also argue that the main protagonist is a bit expressionless, and his cute but fairly generic blue companion creature is just there for ballast – both emotional and physical.
The core of the experience in Jusant is centred around the climb. You will be making your way up plenty of near-vertical cliffs, across different rock types and past varying natural and man-made obstacles. The climbing mechanics are involving – you have to alternate L2 and R2 to keep your hands moving in the desired direction, alongside ledges, rock outcrops, and other surfaces. On easier climbs, it's just a matter of alternating between pressing the two triggers, and not much thought is required. When things get tougher and ledges become less common, you'll have to utilize jumping and directional changes to make it to the next safe ledge with standing room. The climbing feels decent, if occasionally finicky and imprecise, but the game errs on the side of caution and you can often grab on to something as long as you keep pressing the triggers. There are moments where you may get stuck on the environment or witness collision issues, along with the camera freaking out, but these moments are neither frequent nor game breaking.
While climbing, you have to worry about your stamina meter. This meter drains slowly, but if you jump because you want to move faster or because that's where the next ledge is, it temporarily shrinks the available stamina – until you reach solid ground again. This creates a minor risk/reward system for the climbs. You automatically attach to a safety point before each section of a climb, so even if you happen to fall, you don't have to restart the entire level, so to speak. There are no puzzles or enemies to speak of, but that doesn't make the climbing any less engaging. Perhaps the only minor annoyance is that upon reaching safety, the rope doesn't auto-detach from the safety point at the bottom of the climb, and you have to press a button manually. You also often unlock shortcuts to previous sections of the levels, but it's unclear why you would want to go back down.
You've also got three pitons (pins) that can be deployed at any time on a flat surface. These cleverly act as manual checkpoints, letting you rest for a moment, and if you happen to fall, you can use your rope to climb to the most recent placed pin. The pins are also used as traversal tools, as they create hold points from which you can descend and perform feats like wallruns, or just full swings above the vast emptiness below. Although the level progress is always linear (with minor side paths), and you don't have to think too long about where to go next, using the anchors to create new traversal opportunities remains engaging throughout; it's a great simple and yet fun mechanic.
The title tries to mix up the gameplay by introducing new minor elements during the climbs with each chapter, and creating some minor environment interaction. You can use your blue companion creature to "ping" the nearby area, which makes some vines and flowers grow, creating new climbing paths. In another section, these flowers get burned by the heat of the sun, so the handholds are temporary, prompting you to get across quicker. Elsewhere, glowing creatures allow you to jump higher than usual, and crabs scurry across the walls creating dynamic climbing paths. All of these alterations are minor, but keep the climbs somewhat dynamic. It also helps that the game keeps a good pace, taking about 6 hours to complete, so it can constantly switch up the mechanics and environments, without outstaying its welcome. It would have been nice for your blue friend to be more useful, as in addition to the ping you can only hug it, or use it to indicate the direction of the next objective – but this x-ray view is very generic and just shows you that you need to climb higher, without any real direction of where to go in your immediate vicinity.
The ascent to the top of this humongous cliff is the core of the adventure, but it's not all about the climbing. You may have expected some kind of cheap, constant upwards momentum like in endless runner games on mobile, but that's far from the case. The climb sections are usually only a few minutes long, and are always broken up by respite where you can walk around abandoned fragments of villages and towns that were carved into the sides of the cliff. These areas are well designed and feel lived-in, helping the game create a surprisingly strong atmosphere. The collectibles only strengthen this sense – alongside the letters, you can also find mysterious fresco drawings, altars, and listen to shells that produce momentary soundscapes of what life was like in the past. These collectibles are often tucked away in well-designed side paths, making the levels feel natural despite their linearity. Exploring these abandoned locations adds a lot of character to the adventure.
The atmosphere is helped by the visuals and audio design. Jusant features a pseudo-cartoon art style, with bright and colorful visuals that help the environments feel vibrant. From the outdoor climbs in the heat of the sun, to the dimly lit interior caves of the cliff, you'll traverse through a nice variety of visual themes, each with a distinct feel. The audio is equally impressive, with strong sound design that focuses on the quiet things, with echoes of your footsteps and idle natural sounds. When the music does kick in, the piano arrangements and chimes fit the atmosphere quite well. If there are any blemishes, they are minor – such as noticeable but brief framerate drops in some areas, and grappling UI indicators that appear far too early, before you can even use them.
Jusant is a surprisingly engaging casual climbing adventure. It's got some decent mechanics and definitely enough player involvement that it cannot be classified as a walking-simulator or a Journey-like game, though some players who want a more traditional experience may still feel a bit underwhelmed. The minimalistic narrative is decent, but could have been slightly expanded. If you enjoy adventure games such as Grow Home or ICO, with great atmosphere, brisk pace, great presentation and decent variety, this journey is worth undertaking.