Release Date: June 9, 2018
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
Developer: ColdWood Interactive
Publisher: Electronic Arts
One of the most exciting new trends of the past couple of E3s is developers announcing and releasing a game on the very same day. One such title is Coldwood Interactive’s Unravel 2, which was revealed during EA Play and made available to download instantly. And what a pleasant surprise it is: the follow-up to one of the biggest indie hits of 2015 outdoes its predecessor in every way, delivering precise platforming, more sumptuous visuals, and a core premise that tugs on the heartstrings.
You’ll be doing quite a lot of string-tugging yourself as you navigate the game’s expertly designed levels, mostly because this time around, you can bring a friend along for the adventure. Telling is the developer’s decision to spell out the game’s numeral, as the puzzle-platformer can only be completed by a team of two perpetually entwined Yarnies, whether you’re playing couch co-op (no online mode) or solo (a simple button press allows one player to switch between characters instantly).
The perplexing, picturesque levels are designed in a way that supports both solo and co-op gameplay, which couldn’t have been an easy thing for Coldwood to do. Playing with a friend, though, offers a more fulfilling experience, not just because it’s more fun to tackle the game together, but also because forging a meaningful bond with another person is the core theme of the poetic, lilting narrative that plays out in the background as you trudge forth.
The Yarnies’ journey unfolds from essentially a bug’s-eye view, with birds, blades of grass, and common household items dwarfing the pint-sized protags. But in the distance, you can occasionally see little scenes played out by hazy apparitions of two children who seem to be escaping from a fraught foster home. These visions are fleeting, and the story is told intermittently and from a distance, so it’s hard to keep track of exactly what’s going on, especially when you’re so deeply engaged in what’s going on in the foreground.
But while some players may find the gauzy narrative to be too nebulous and imprecise to pay any attention to, I found the background shadowplay to be the secret ingredient that makes the game feel not just artistic, but inspired. Yes, it’s difficult to absorb the runaways’ story with any measure of clarity, but I think that’s just what Coldwood intended. These scenes are like whispers in the wind, meant to be atmospheric and evocative, eliciting emotions or moods that are often reflected in the foreground action quite beautifully.
For instance, in one particularly tense moment, you see the children sitting peacefully under a tree, when suddenly they’re startled by something we can’t see. The ghostly figures are parted by a very real, very angry turkey, who proceeds to chase and try to gobble up your Yarnies as you scramble through a succession of obstacles.
There are several sections throughout the game that involve fast-paced platforming like this, but most of the levels are comprised of head-scratching puzzles that constantly introduce new concepts and force you to combine them in unexpected ways. Most of the game’s mechanics are based on physics, with the two Yarnies pushing, pulling, swinging, and hoisting their way through the levels with the most adorable mix of MacGyver-like ingenuity and rock-climber reflexes.
Some scenarios seem simple at first: two suspended, spinning wheels must be mounted by one Yarny each at the same time. But figuring out how to actually accomplish this requires a lot of trial and error, with the actual solution involving a keen understanding of every skill you’ve picked up along the way. I often found my Yarnies literally tangled up in themselves as I looped them around various objects and each other, and the fact that the yarn that binds them interacts with the environment and is only so long adds a tremendous amount of depth to the experience. You can let these limitations frustrate you, or you can use them to your advantage (leverage is key!). If you get helplessly stuck, the developers have mercifully added a hint option that can either nudge you in the right direction, or if you’re really lost, reveal a puzzle’s solution step by step.
Coldwood has created an incredibly challenging game at its core, but the overall experience is one of melancholic, serene, ephemeral beauty. The scenery is of photorealistic ambition, with sharp textures mimicking real-life materials convincingly, and a heavy depth-of-field effect is used to make foreground objects pop and to impart an overall sense of dimension, like you could reach into the screen and pick up your little Yarnies and pet them. The character animations are cute as a button, with the little girls/guys/things sometimes high-fiving each other after a close call, or throwing their little arms up in celebration when you finally unlock the secret to a particularly tough puzzle. Presentation-wise, while it isn’t exactly a graphical marvel, the game has absolutely ravishing art design and enveloping sound that’s mostly low-key but swells and crashes when the onscreen action calls for it.
While the first game was profound in its message of love and longing, Unravel 2 explores the idea that, to truly connect with and support someone, you must give up a piece of yourself. Both game’s stories are deeply felt, but it’s in the core gameplay that the sequel improves upon its predecessor. The controls are tight, the puzzles are brilliant, and the levels are perfectly paced, developing a sort of rhythm as you oscillate between instinctive run ‘n’ jump action and the calmer, more cerebral sections.
There are extra stages, too, challenge levels that will push your skills to the limit. Despite the length of the campaign (it’ll take you around five to seven hours to complete), there’s actually a lot of good, high-quality content here, and it’s clear from the artistic flair Coldwood has infused into every inch of this indie adventure that this game was a labor of love.