Journey comes from the makers of esteemed arty titles Flow and Flower and is well equipped to bear the burden of expectation. Like Flow and Flower, this downloadable game is a curious, meditative slice of arty game-making. It's also lovely to look at, like its forebears. Where those games verged on mood pieces, though, desert-set Journey leans further towards a more traditional story-driven adventure.
Not very much further, mind. For the most part, it still favours mood and mystery over exposition and tests of skill. But here you have a protagonist, at least, and an objective--even if you know next to nothing about either. The former is a figure in a red robe; the latter is a distant mountain, topped with a bright light. You make your way across a desert towards it, climbing up dunes and sliding down the other side, occasionally flying, occasionally wandering off course to explore a dusty ruin.
In the portion of the game currently available to beta testers, the robed protagonist treks across a sandy plain scattered with mysterious marker stones and receives visions from luminous figures conjured by similarly mysterious statues. There are hints at a story in the wordless cutscenes of those visions, but Journey has no interest in spelling anything out for you, concerning itself instead with a sense of wonder and overwhelming scale--and with it, loneliness.
That loneliness makes Journey's experimental take on multiplayer all the more effective. In your solitary wandering, from time to time you come across a fellow traveller--that is, another player. But the player won't have a username or anything else with which you could identify him or her, and you won't be able to communicate using voice or text chat. When you meet a stranger, all you can do is sing, one musical tone at a time. You don't have to interact at all--you could each just wander off again--but you stay strangers even if you do continue your journey together. Most likely, though, you will also be glad of the company. And you are encouraged to travel together--when you huddle up, you each recharge the magic scarf you use for flying.
With your magic scarf, you can boost yourself skyward and then glide back down to earth. As you make your way through the dunes, you'll find glowing fragments of scarf to add to yours--meaning your trailing, glowing scarf gets longer as you progress, and so you can fly higher and further. You'll also find fonts with which to recharge your scarf's power. These are dotted around in the sand, along with the various ruins housing mysterious statues and, later on, huge pillars, which need to be bridged by unfurling magic red banners in order to reach the other side of a valley. That's the closest Journey comes to conventional puzzles, at least in the beta, and even this seems more intended as further reason to wander around than as a brainteaser; to solve it, you need only seek out a number of banners fluttering from rocks in the valley basin and sing at them.
Journey's beautiful, desolate environments have a touch of Shadow of the Colossus about them, and the simple, quirky cel-shaded character designs look like something out of a Ghibli anime movie. The sand, meanwhile, drifts and shimmers and generally looks lovely. As far as we've seen, you'll be gently guided towards your mysterious objective, the mountain on the horizon, by gliding from landmark to landmark on a mostly empty desert plane. Though it's an expansive world, it's not exactly an open one: if you wander too far off course, you'll be blown back by desert winds.
Between the spontaneous, chat-free co-op; poignant, moody soundtrack; and gorgeous, drifty sand, we think Journey is shaping up to be something pretty special. Look out for this sand-surfing, scarf-gliding downloadable adventure later this year on PSN.