Unravel E3 Hands-on Preview: The ties that bind

Sitting snugly in Electronic Arts’ E3 conference, it’s almost too easy to get lulled into a false sense of assumption.

Your anticipation is tempered by an air of expectancy; we’ll have iterative improvements to the likes of FIFA and Madden, of course, and the incessant namedrop of the publishing behemoth’s biggest-selling franchises and latest acquisitions is a sure thing, too. That’s not to insinuate that it’s even remotely a bad thing. After all, the majority of these titles are truly excellent to play, and you may have already read and/or watched our impressions of a vast array of them. But it’s sometimes hard to get excited about titles that have either already been formally announced or rely too heavily on a sort of pre-rendered concept trailer that leaves you a little muted in response. Sometimes, however, you get something left of field, something that takes you aback from both a conceptual and executory standpoint.

And that’s where Unravel comes in. Developer Coldwood Studios’ new platforming excursion that brings emotive navigation and puzzle-solving to the fore. You play as Yarny, a singular strand of bright-red thread who must negotiate the perils of the real world while uncovering the past memories of a now-old woman who had once trodden those very steps before. What sets Yarny’s journey of discovery apart from the norm, however, is the fact that he is composed entirely of a single thread of red yarn that slowly unravels as you make your way throughout each of the levels. Naturally, puzzles which expend your quota of yarn are housed in these levels, meaning you, as the player, have to be smart with how you disburse your bodily makeup, as it were. Of course, there are balls of yarn within different parts of these aforementioned levels so you’re able to replenish and trudge on in your journey, but they’re not so plentiful that you can afford to be inconsiderate of your ever-decreasing stock of yarn.

Speaking of puzzles, Yarny finds himself able to swing his thread of yarn with a quick push of R2, and it’s incredibly useful for traversing gaps by way of latching onto the multiple trees dotted throughout each section. Alternatively, if a vertical ascent is necessary, it’s possible to create a makeshift trampoline with Square by tying two sections of thread tightly. Unravel’s level design is such that trial-and-error is intrinsic; the possibility of completely unraveling yourself creates a much more cerebral reflection of your surroundings. Each puzzle is far more about analyzing your environment than it is about little Yarny’s button-mapped abilities. From what I played, the sense of gratification from cracking one of these puzzles is truly palpable. And while my short drop into Yarny’s adventure isn’t indicative of the game’s overall difficulty, the puzzles I tackled were incredibly balanced and never caused pacing to suffer. In other words, I thankfully didn’t get stuck, which is always a worry when you’ve got a developer on hand watching intently and playfully judging your cognition.

A moment on general aesthetic: Unravel immediately elicits comparisons to Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet, with its out-of-focus backdrops and dynamic movement–even Yarny’s general disposition feels like it’s straight out of the SackBoy school of motion. And that’s a good thing, most definitely. Unravel’s pseudo-floated feel works well in the grand scheme of things and it never feels laborious repeating sections over and over again. It also matches the game’s general temperament initially, allowing the price of entry to effectively be non-existent. It’s a welcome change, for sure, since the game manages to employ relatively niche mechanics yet still feels completely accessible to just about anyone willing to try.

But if Unravel’s aesthetic and gameplay sensibilities are extracted from the likes of LittleBigPlanet, then its emotive impact is most certainly parallel to that of Journey. Yarny’s trek is a one of immense struggle and perseverance; our little protagonist’s bodily makeup is, at its core, emblematic of the ties that bind. Much like Roy Batty’s iconic self-reflection at the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, memories are but fleeting moments ‘’lost in time like tears in rain’’; that is, if no one’s present to subsequently carry on that memory. Yarny’s singular bright-red stretch of thread thus represents that point of connectivity; he is the conduit to which memories are tied together and remembered. This noble undertaking brings about an untold amount of hardship for little Yarny, and during our hands-on time, we did experience a more visibly weathered and frightened character than the one that cheekily popped up on-screen during Electronic Arts’ conference. It’s an intriguing shift of focus, certainly, and one that elicits quite an emotive response.

It’s interesting because Yarny’s playful demeanor draws you in almost instantly and you’re immediately rooting for him, so by the time the hardships and challenges rear their head, you’re already so invested in his plight that you can’t help but feel imbued with the sense that you’re in this together. It’s a narrative ploy that, when synced with the game’s refreshing mechanics, makes for an experience that’s shaping up to be truly special. It seems that, while Swedish-based Coldwood Studios has been around for quite some time and has the diverse back-catalogue to prove it, Unravel could be its opus; the sum and product of the team’s Scandinavian naturalistic background and innate creative vision. In all honesty, we wouldn’t bet against it.