Journey must of course measure up to its predecessor, Flower...and Flower is the better game.
The game's premise and goals are simple: you are a small, pointy-footed fella in a desert, and you must reach a distant mountain. You do this by traversing sand dunes and ancient ruins, solving simple puzzles. Early on, you get a magical scarf which gives you the ability to fly for brief stretches, and there are items you can find that lengthen your scarf and your flight time. Even this control scheme falls short of Flower: while that game made excellent use of the Sixaxis motion controls, in Journey they are neither required nor the best option. Add this to the fact that flight is severely limited (you can only replenish your scarf at certain locations or with the help of a fellow traveler) and Journey lacks the intangible sense of freedom and immersion that made Flower's controls so magical. You cannot fly to wherever you choose, and slogging across the desert with scarf drained quickly becomes tiring once you have tasted the freedom of flight.
Just like Flower, Journey is absolutely beautiful, jaw-dropping at times. The visual style is similar in that there is a base material (here it is sand, in Flower it was grass) whose color and appearance is altered by its surroundings (flowers, sunlight, the wind, etc.) Journey's lighting effects are absolutely staggering, and probably the best moments of the game are when sunlight gleams ethereally off sand to magnificent effect.
However, even in the visuals there are problems. Sand appears in a variety of colors, sure-pinks, golds, oranges, blues-but it is mostly orange and red, as is the architecture you're climbing over. There are lengthy shifts to other palettes, especially higher up the mountain, but these feel a bit too subdued for the occasion. Furthermore, several of the environments evoke (or, at worst, seem lifted directly from) games like Uncharted 2 & 3 and Shadow of the Colossus. Again, it's hard to put into words, and it's not a big fault when compared to some of the more jaw-dropping moments, but it's ever so slightly uninspiring.
Sound fares less well. Some songs work well, but others feel cluttered, dissonant, and confusing, clashing with the intended emotional impact of the gameplay and the visuals. No doubt this is partly due to the chime that is your means of communication in multiplayer, where you can randomly be joined up with someone playing the same section as you. You have little effect on their game, although huddling together or using your chime replenishes their scarf. The company is certainly nice, especially for the increased freedom that comes from replenishing your scarf. On the whole, however, I did not find the co-op as moving as some seemed to, and it disrupts the music.
The biggest problem for Journey, however, is its narrative. Be warned that from here on out there will be spoilers for both Journey and Flower, necessary for pointing out what I feel is the game's biggest structural flaw. If you wish to play the game first, stop here. Journey is still a good game, and just because it didn't move my friend and I like Flower did doesn't mean that you won't have a much better time with it. Perhaps it is because it is better played without someone else in the room-although Flower didn't have that problem, and replaying it on my own didn't change my opinion much. In any case, do find a way to play it.
Journey's narrative is essentially a carbon copy of Flower's-joyous opening, a descent into sadness and melancholy, than an exciting, redemptive conclusion. The only difference is that Journey has two descents, separated by a teasing return to joy and redemption. The mood in Journey is loosely correlated in my view to a combination of the player's vertical position in the world and/or the speed at which they can move, which is pretty neat and shows how the narrative influences the gameplay and vice versa.
Anyway, the first big problem is that Journey's narrative descents are nowhere near as abrupt, shocking, and ultimately effective as when the power line sparks and burns out in Flower. Journey's are more about trepidation, and though the first such moment (when you are chased by beings clearly less natural than anything you'd seen before then) is definitely unnerving, it lacks the same genius. The second one, where you slowly freeze while fighting a bitter wind, is frustrating because you can be blown back and lose your forward progress, and because you lose your freedom of movement. It is a decent example of gameplay and story merging, and it makes the subsequent scene of redemptive, joyous freedom of movement all the more enjoyable, but Flower's was less frustrating because the restriction of movement was mostly in your mind-the forbidding atmosphere and dark colors discouraged freewheeling flight. In addition, the final moments as you freeze are strongly evocative of Uncharted 2 (as is much of the area's visual style).
The second big problem is in the narrative conflict. At the end of each "area", there are cutscenes that appear to tell the story of the decline of this world. These cutscenes serve little purpose because the end of the game is a hugely ambiguous fade into white, conveying personal redemption or transcendence. Your connection to the ruins is tenuous at best; unlike Flower, you can do almost nothing to restore them, and so the cutscenes add almost nothing while clashing with the ending, which is all about personal redemption. Perhaps the ending is meant to signify that you have risen above your fellows whose folly led them to ruin. An analysis of Journey could certainly make for some of the first true academic game criticism.
The result of this narrative clash is a lack of investment. You are merely a passerby in this ruined world; you can do nothing about the dead and ruined monuments, whereas Flower was all about restoring color and life to a dying world. Yes, Journey is more about personal redemption, but in my opinion you spend much of the game doing little more than sightseeing before you consider the story's meaning.
Tying into this, the developers missed an absolutely golden opportunity with the credits. Flower's interactive credit sequence is one of the best in gaming, and a perfect, serene cap to the experience. Journey's credits are wholly uninteractive, minimizing their emotional impact. Certainly, the scenes shown in the credits tie into the theme of redemption, but wouldn't it have been so much better to play it?
Ultimately, I found Journey disappointing because I was hoping for something superior even to the genius of Flower, and Journey is similar but inferior. It certainly looks the part most of the time, but gets bogged down by some overly monochromatic sections. It is a combination of other factors, however-less-immersive controls, muddled music, a less-involving world and narrative-that ultimately hurt the game. Rather than reuse a formula that had worked wonders once, perhaps Journey would have been better had it been a much more radical departure in design from Flower.