Just over five years ago, thatgamecompany released Journey, a game which nailed exploration and wonder like - arguably - no other game before it. Ever since, there's been a steady stream of games that share a similar ethos. Lose the traditional gameplay elements and lose yourself in a world of pure discovery. No game has perfected the art since Journey. So, can the latest game in this small but ever-growing line - Future Unfolding - provide something on a similar level?
Future Unfolding is a top-down exploration game and the first thing that hits you is the colour. It's easy to find yourself fatigued with the AAA stream of grey so it was truly with joy that I saw my first world fill my screen. In truth, it wasn't just the colour but the whole game. It's drop-dead gorgeous. As your character pops onto the screen and the music kicks in, you feel like you're in a sensory experience. It feels like part of a museum exhibition. The game soon introduces you to it's simple mechanics, press B or press A. Press and hold A to run and you'll leave a blue trail behind you - a trail that looks like a stroke of a paint brush. It's a lovely touch which chimes with the game's overall 'painted' aesthetic. Beyond this early indication of the buttons, Future Unfolding quickly leaves you on your own.
Teaching without teaching is where it excels, the world that you're born in to is a complete mystery and there's only one way to figure it out. Experimentation. Learn by doing. What do those seeds do? What's that pyramid? What's that creatu.... OH MY GOD IT'S COMING RIGHT FOR ME! As you explore the lush environments, there's a sense of wonderment - figuring out how to solve puzzles is something you must do by yourself. There's no hand holding to guide you through. It's here that I found the most joy. The large majority of games tell and for not doing that, Future Unfolding deserves huge credit. It not only does it, but it perfects it.
Teaching without teaching is where Future Unfolding excels
It also all but perfects procedurally generated worlds - each world that you pop into is generated around a set of rules and puzzles but the randomisation gives every player a unique experience, a unique path to the end of their story. I use the word 'story' very loosely as there is a basic narrative that carries you through but really takes a backseat to your progression. Throughout the game, you'll encounter fantastical creatures that spew some philosophical mumbo-jumbo your way. While it fits in with the game's relaxed tones, it adds little to the game. This despite the odd snippet of how the world works.
You'll also run into - and make use of - many other animals, so much so that they form an integral part of the experience. Much like with some of the puzzles, you'll find yourself scratching your head at what the point of some of them are but I think that is a fundamental part of what Future Unfolding is about. It strikes me as an odd thing to say, but the presence of the unknown definitely adds to the weight of the game.
In the early moments you'll figure out that death is not necessarily a bad thing and that outlook will serve you well while playing. Future Unfolding, much like Journey, is about, well, the journey.
However, within the first few hours, you'll have seen most of what there is to see. The sense of wonder drains away, leaving behind a simple but, at times, frustrating game. Frustrating because sometimes it fails to be a puzzle game and instead simply turns into a game of 'what did I miss?' The game provides a map of your surroundings, a basic fog of war is in play - to uncover the map, you walk around. As you advance, you'll find yourself skirting around levels in a bid to make sure you didn't miss anything - a path, a cave, an oddly laid-out group of plants. Sometimes it's worse, you'll solve a puzzle but have no idea how - which in itself is hardly the crime of the century, until you have to solve the puzzle another couple of times. Having a basic idea of how to solve it doesn't help when enemies come in to play. That's not the end of the world but it is frustrating to have to retrace your steps - a task that becomes all too common. And when I say 'too common', I mean it - there are whole puzzles dedicated to retracing your steps. It's simply not fun.
Picture a table full of donuts. All for you. One of those donuts is real. The others? Made out of... Styrofoam. You, however, cannot tell the difference. If you want the real donut, you're going to have to walk 10 metres to it and bite into it. Unfortunately, you don't get the real donut until you've bitten in to 8 of the fake ones. Okay, there's a delicious prize at the end of the road, but the road is full of Styrofoam in your mouth. Or something. Like my analogy, these puzzles aren't particularly smart, they aren't particularly fun, and I'm not sure that they even count as puzzles/donuts.
While these problems cause frustrations, the music becomes a little overbearing and instead of making you feel like you're relaxing in "Alan's Deep Bath", it makes you feel on edge. I hadn't muted a game in a long while. Future Unfolding's biggest weakness however, is that the world just isn't incredible enough. I keep harking back to Journey but throughout it's (albeit short) run time, I was constantly in awe. There simply isn't enough of that in Future Unfolding. Phoning Home has the same problem - there's too much of it. I often get the feeling that a game could have been great if only the developers had left out the filler and shortened the game, in turn creating a much tighter experience. Unfortunately, Future Unfolding is another to add to that list. As you reach your third or fourth world, the sense of discovery is almost completely lost among the things that you've already seen.
After two hours, I felt bored, which in turn lead to the frustrations that I mentioned above as I went back and forth, as I randomly clicked my way through some puzzles. I felt like I needed to progress the story but those hurdles stopped me in my tracks. I then stopped playing the game. Not in the literal sense, of course, but I started to just let the game carry me through. So I need to go back to where I came, is that such a problem? As it turns out, no, not really. I found myself enjoying the experience despite earlier threatening to cut off my own toes just for something to do.
Review code authorized and provided by Spaces of Play UG.
Future Unfolding exceeds at letting you find your own way through puzzles and game mechanics, something in which most games fail. The first hour or so is exciting as you discover what is and isn't possible, as you stumble upon brief moments of pure joy. These moments however, are too far in between and when combined with the frustration of retracing your own steps, spoil the experience somewhat. An enjoyable enough experience but ultimately fails to provide the same sense of wonderment as Journey.
- Drop dead gorgeous
- Forces you to learn the universe's mechanic on your own
- A few moments of pure joy
- You'll too often find yourself retracing your steps
- Some puzzles are simply a game of 'what did I miss?'
- Most things have been seen within the first few hours