Developed and published by Broken Rules.
Available on Mobile, PC, Switch, Xbox One and PS4.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
When I reached the end of Old Man’s Journey after about an hour and a half, I was disappointed. While at first glance it looks to be an interesting and sweet adventure, its fragmented and predictable narrative ultimately does more harm than good. It’s gorgeous art style does go some way to improve the overall experience, but there is little else to accompany this. It’s a game that seems to try too hard to gauge emotion from the player and stand out, but it frequently stumbles in its execution.
As the game’s title suggests, you play as an old man who goes on a journey. At the start we see him receive a letter from the postman, he gathers the necessary belongings and heads out to begin his journey to some unknown destination. It’s not long before we get to see the unique mechanics the game has, where you move through the environment, manipulating the terrain to allow the protagonist to walk between different sections of the levels. At first, this proves to be a really interesting concept that does help the game stand out. Parts of the terrain (usually hills) can only be manipulated a certain degree, so they can only be pulled up or pushed down a certain amount. This provides some interesting light puzzle solving the entire way through.
There are also other aspect that crop up to add a little more difficulty. Waterfalls will cause you to fall down the level if you attempt to walk on them, meaning you have to find another way across. You will have to herd sheep between different patches of grass, requiring you to smartly move the environment around to help you progress through the section. There are also some times when you’ll need to slide barrels down hills to provide openings in walls. In one section, the old man will be riding a train and you must quickly raise and lower the terrain so that the journey can progress smoothly. If you’re playing on console, this becomes frustrating due to the inaccurate controls. While these do provide a bit more variety to the different levels, it doesn’t stop the gameplay from becoming tedious pretty quickly. Since this is pretty much all you do in the entire game with very little to break these chapters up, it does become a chore.
You can also click around on certain things, like people, animals or other objects to cause a reaction, but the novelty of this wears off. As mentioned earlier, the controls aren’t great, especially when paying on a console like the Xbox One. The amount of times that the cursor was literally pointing at one section of the terrain, but grabbed one a fair distance below was staggering. It caused unnecessary frustration that made the gameplay that more tedious.
The main thing that makes games of this style work, is having an engaging and interesting narrative. The story is perhaps the biggest issue this game has. It’s a very predictable tale with little depth. At the end of each chapter, we get to see a snapshot of a particular moment in the old man’s life. We witness his wedding, times on the sea, and how he leaves his family to go on expedition around the world. Or at least, that’s what I assume happens due to the flawed storytelling. Because we only get to see about 10 or so singular snapshots of his life, it’s difficult to understand the character and his motives. From my standpoint, the old man was too obsessed with his older days and abandons his wife and young daughter to pursue the life of adventure he wants. While there are moments that are meant to make us sympathise with him, it never really works, causing the ending to fall flat. Others might interpret the story differently, but there is very little there to see a different perspective. What made the game Oxenfree so great, was that the story was interesting and helped propel the limited gameplay, Old Man’s Journey doesn’t do that.
What’s clear though, is that this game has such a beautiful art direction. Slowly moving through the world felt like I was looking through a children’s picture book. The greatly detailed levels never fail to amaze me, taking me back to when I was younger and reading lots of pop-up books. It really is the highlight of my experience and helped keep me going through the mostly disappointing ‘Journey’. There was so much expression in the game despite having no dialogue whatsoever. It really worked perfectly with the games’ mechanics and style. The music is also quite strong, boasting relaxing melodies that accompany the atmosphere of the game.
After finishing Old Man’s Journey, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” felt particularly apt for my experience. At first glance, the gorgeous and cute art direction might sway you to play this game, but the reality is that the gameplay, while unique, gets quite tedious very quickly with little to help break it up. It doesn’t help that the story leaves very little to be desired, feeling quite shallow and predictable. It’s a game that’s very much style over substance in my opinion, where there are many, much better games in the genre, like Oxenfree.
Score = 3.5/10
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