In an age of increasingly violent games filled with enemies to shoot, slice up, or otherwise destroy, EA made the anomalous decision to back Coldwood Interactive’s categorically violence-free Unravel. Nestled in the middle of their 2015 press conference among the presence of heavy hitters like Mass Effect Andromeda, Battlefront, and their collection of sports titles, Unraveled instantly stole the show as creator Martin Sahlin nervously presented the protagonist Yarny to the audience, and half a year later, Yarny’s adventures are releasing to the world.
Yarny is made of..what else? Red yarn. As he moves forward, his yarn unravels behind him until he’s just a frame and can’t continue any further. Yarny can grab this trailing thread to backtrack. He can also throw a bit of yarn forward to use as a lasso and grab specific points to navigate the environment. This mechanic is the core of Unravel, finding ways to solve puzzles to move forward by tying off yarn in specific places and creating swings and places to walk.
At the Heart
The heart of Unravel centers on Yarny representing the ties that bind us to loved ones and memories. It’s stunning visual presentation is decorated by strands of yarn tied about each level as you progress. Little Yarny is surprisingly emotive as he makes his way though the massive world around him. Whether he’s shivering in the rain or picking himself up and dusting himself off after tumbling down a steep incline, it’s hard not to feel for Yarny as he seeks to be the connection between an old woman and her estranged family. Sometimes he will be strained, stretching himself until he can find the next bit of red yarn to continue. The themes are thinly veiled, but the palpable presentation works well because Unravel is so full of heart.
Through each level, Yarny collects memories, and those memories are not always happy ones. Starting out in a beautiful country backyard, those happy visions are soon replaced by a rainy and dark mine, plagued by what seems to be some kind of ecological disaster. Yarny’s journey becomes increasingly difficult an hard to push forward on. My thoughts continue to go back to the lonely old woman in the house and I wonder what happened in her life to leave her all alone.
In Unravel, you are quite literally controlling the threads that tie this woman to her family and memories. The puzzles represent the difficulty in maintain those bonds, and the player overcoming each obstacle is…well, it’s just that. It’s a beautiful story and again, the presentation spectacularly brings a whole new life and scale to a world that most of us tend to overlook. Yarny’s size allows us to get a new perspective on our own backyards — if only we were so lucky to live in as beautiful a place as the development team.
Hanging by a Yarn
The emotional presentation is periodically hindered by hiccups in the gameplay painfully inherent to physics based puzzle-platformers. While swinging from a yarn lasso like an adorable version of Pitfall is quite fun most of the time, I occasionally had difficulty with getting the physics to work in favor of advancing to the next area. These moments distracted me from the thematic overtures as the only emotion they instilled were frustration as I fought with the finicky mechanics.
There are also some bizarre mechanics that make a single appearance and never show up again. One early level requires Yarny to grab on to a kite and navigate it through the tree branches as it blows in the wind. It took me a few tries to successfully figure out how to steer the kite, and once that part is over, it never comes up again. The gameplay is a lot of fun, but complex puzzle sections are peppered with predictable areas featuring simple swinging from one place to the next, or building a yarn ramp to haul a rock or other small object up.
The other side of puzzle-platformers is when the experience is too easy, conceivably to calmly guide the player into experiencing the narrative without the distraction of frustration. It’s a tough balance. While players shouldn’t be frustrated with a title like Unravel, keeping it too casual makes the experience little more than a flash in the pan. If I had to put Unravel on a slider scale, I’d say it leans more on the casual and lighthearted side. The experience, while beautiful, is like a shooting star. A magnificent sight, but most people will consume it in full in a matter of days.
There are 12 levels altogether, and each one takes an average of 20 minutes to beat (some longer if you take in the sights, some shorter). That means that the whole thing is done in about three to five hours, and replay value consists only of finding five “secrets” in each level, which amount to little collectibles that require a little bit of extra attention to reach.
From the moment that little ball of red yarn tumbled down the old woman’s steps to the last bit of yarn that I strung from place to place in the old woman’s memories, I enjoyed almost every step, swing, and catapult. The emotive little Yarny had me feeling for him as I traversed the dangerous terrain with his ever unraveling figure. Though the gameplay falls victim to ebbs and flows of being too frustrating at times and too easy at others, it was still an overall enjoyable experience. Like the fading memories of the old woman, it may not stick around in your immediate cognizance, but taking this expedition with Yarny over a weekend afternoon will certainly make an imprint on your heart.
Unravel review copy provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.