A Walk to Remember
After releasing two well received games in 2010 and 2011, Swedish developer Simogo broke through last year with the fantastic Beat Sneak Bandit. It's a wonderful and smart game, combining music and stealth elements to create something entirely new. Not only is BSB an excellent game, it was totally different from Simogo's other two games, which were each very different in their own right. Clearly not a studio content to churn out sequels or dwell on one genre, Simogo have returned just a year later with Year Walk. Year Walk is the most interesting, unique thing Simogo have done so far. Whereas their first three games at least had a cute, colorful aesthetic tying them all together, this new game is a total departure in every way. Simply put, Year Walk is one of the most impactful, thought-provoking, and downright fascinating games I've played in a while. It's one of my favorite games of 2013 so far, and it also happens to be one of the scariest games I've played in years.
When a game is based on obscure Swedish folklore, it's a safe bet that it won't be a typical gaming experience. Year Walk is loosely set around the idea of Årsgång, which translates to the game's title. In a nutshell, it's a tradition that involves fasting in isolation before embarking out into the wilderness at night. The “year walker” is said to encounter supernatural beings on their journey, with the idea being that they will see into the future. Naturally the player controls a character named Daniel as he sets out on a year walk. The view is in the first person, and the player swipes their device's screen in order to move through the world. The game world is interesting; it's set up in layers, and the player can move left and right through each screen, and also advance or retreat to other layers at specific junctures. It's kind of hard to explain on paper, so check out this video:
It's a simple presentation, but it's really effective. I loved the art style, and the overall mood is impeccable. The game manages to foster a pervasive sense of unease right away, and it only ramps up from there. The grain filter makes the whole thing feel appropriately trippy, and the subdued colors create a really somber tone. I think the use of first person is really smart, as it helps put the player right in the shoes of Daniel, allowing for some really memorable and uncomfortable moments. There were times when I found myself holding my phone at arms length, terrified of what I might find on the next screen.
Year Walk is a masterful horror experience. I haven't been spooked this badly by a game since Amnesia, and it was great to be reminded how effective games can be when they do horror right. Year Walk succeeds at scaring the player because it's really smart about how it doles out the frights. Yes, there are some “jump scares,” but they're not cheap fun-house fare. Crucially, they're earned with patient pacing and smart design, and they come at appropriate junctures. Most importantly, they're not overdone. The big scares are mixed in judiciously so they don't become played out. Most of the game is a slow burn of terror created by the mood and the threat of something horrible happening. Often it was the anticipation that was the worst part, and I caught myself gritting my teeth as I wandered into each new area. There were moments when I legitimately needed to take a breather before I moved on; I was that freaked out. Year Walk truly is one the scariest games I've ever played, and fans of good horror should get it for that aspect alone.
There is fortunately some excellent gameplay to go with the brilliant atmosphere and scream-inducing moments. This is a puzzle based adventure game, and the good news is the puzzles rock. On the whole they're pretty tough, but perseverance and creative thinking will yield success and tremendous satisfaction. The puzzles are presented organically, with essentially no explanation, so it's up to the player to be smart, think critically, and experiment with the environment via the touch screen. Year Walk really respects the player and rewards intelligent thinking, and I appreciated that. Without giving any explicit hints, I'll say that the game makes excellent use of the iOS medium, taking advantage of the touch screen and other abilities of the iPhone and iPad. These are puzzles that couldn't be done on any other platform, and a lot of them have really creative solutions. Some of them are borderline obtuse with their lack of explanation, and that could frustrate some players. All I can say is that I'm of average intelligence and I saw my way through the adventure. I did end up brute forcing one particularly devious puzzle, but that was just dumb luck on my part, and very much an exception to the overall experience. By the time I finished the game, I filled two notebook pages with symbols, words, and random notes that were invaluable to progressing. The only thing that kept me from playing with the lights out was the frequent need to jot something down. Quick side note: headphones are a must for the Year Walk experience, trust me.
The only real qualm I have with issuing a full recommendation for Year Walk is the game's length. I beat it in just under two hours, and smarter folks will likely get that number down close to an hour and a half or less. At $3.99 it's definitely on the short side, but I feel that the experience is so strong and so one-of-a-kind that it's worth it. In a really smart and cool move, Simogo created a companion app for the game that actually offers up a second ending while extending the play time a bit. I highly recommend playing the game once, and then using the companion application. It doesn't beget an entire second playthrough, but rather it helps the player solve a puzzle that couldn't be completed without it. The app is genius – it's a journal the player reads through, written by someone in present day who has gone to Sweden to study Årsgång. The writer's story ends up becoming intertwined with that of the main game, creating a brilliant meta-narrative layer. It doesn't add a ton of playtime, but it does give the player something to do after the game has ended, and I really can't applaud Simogo enough for this genuinely creative inclusion. I ended up playing through the entire game a second time, just because I wanted to experience it again with the knowledge of the second ending. Short though it may be, Year Walk is simply incredible, and I think puzzle and horror fans can't afford to miss it. The story, art style, puzzles, and overall atmosphere combine to create something really special. Anyone who cares about artful, intelligent gaming needs to go year walking immediately.