Solve strange puzzles and encounter stranger creatures on a quest to foresee the new year.
PC Release: March 6, 2014
By Ian Coppock
My entire life, people in religious communities the world over have advocated fasting to me as a means of self-improvement and seeing into the future. Never are the holes in this theory more obvious than when starvation-induced delirium hits the frontal lobe. If I go more than four hours without my coffee, for example, that’s when I’m most convinced the world is out to get me. Year Walk taught me that fasting will also cause you to run headlong into a frozen forest and hallucinate, among other things, a vampire doll, a woman who lives inside a tree, a horse that eats drowned babies, and a demonic goat that lives in churches. You tell me what’s so great about fasting and I’ll consign myself to a church of your choice. But, while you’re prepping that argument, I’ll tell you what’s so great about Year Walk.
Year Walk is a ghoulishly charming indie gem whose title refers to an ancient Swedish method of vision questing. Participants spend the entirety of New Years’ Eve locked in a dark room with no food or water, and then venture out at midnight to roam the landscape and see what joys and horrors await them in the coming year.
The custom has been dead for centuries, even in Sweden, but Year Walk seeks to resurrect the practice by placing you in the shoes of a… what would it be, a year-walker? Anyhoo, out we go.
After telling my secret love that I was off to conduct a year walk, despite her protests that it led to a cousin’s violent death, I set off into the frozen Swedish forest to see what the coming year held in store for me. The first aspect of the game I want to point out immediately is its one-of-a-kind combination of side-scrolling and 3-D movement. Your character moves from side to side in a first-person viewpoint, but can jump into upper or lower scenes of the game whenever the need arises. It’s a neat way to move about.
The second aspect of the game I immediately liked was its extensive encyclopedia of Swedish folklore, compiled by a history professor who worked with the dev team. The encyclopedia contains entries not only on the tradition of year walking, but on the many creatures and puzzles you might expect to bump into out here. I’m disappointed that this exposition wasn’t woven into the narrative, but the entries are just vague enough to preclude you knowing exactly what to do when you find one of its topics up-close.
Within the first ten minutes, Year Walk was reminding me less of reflecting upon the New Year and more of The Divine Comedy or Heart of Darkness, in which a protagonist is shunted along a series of fascinating and horrifying spectacles. In order to get to the church and see your future, you need a key, but the creatures of the forest are inexplicably hell-bent on preventing you from getting it. Not even at the end of the game is this antagonism fully explained, but it does provide a vehicle for the encounters waiting for you in those dark woods. Each meeting comprises a handful of puzzles aimed at getting you that key, before the next creature takes it and sends you storming after them.
Some of these encounters are less than pleasant.
Like I said, many of these creatures are not friendly, but jump-scares are very rare and you’re never in mortal danger. Much of the game is also spent exploring this strange forest, rich in atmosphere and strange sights. Sometimes you’ll come across something you can interact with, like a burnt out fireplace or a stranded cart, and these props add some exposition that’s otherwise all stuffed into the encyclopedia.
Year Walk‘s narrative is propped up almost entirely by puzzles. Some are clever, others are stupidly easy, and some are entirely vague. The game includes a hint system if you get stuck, which you will, because many of these puzzles rely on anything but logic in their solutions. Finding the proper number of dots corresponding to a random configuration of gravestones sounds more like a trial-and-error frustration-fest than a true puzzle, and indeed it was frustrating.
A good puzzle is not running around a forest finding random clues and rubbing them together to hope for a solution. A good puzzle relies on logic, pieces that fit together, a sequential order of things. Almost as much as bugs or glitches, bad puzzle design can take down a game like that. You don’t want to see this sort of thing in any game, but luckily for Year Walk, it’s not overly common. You may need to consult that hint system once or twice, though.
Year Walk‘s saving grace in the face of occasionally frustrating gameplay is its atmosphere. The game’s visual style is gloomy and foreboding, with soft textures that look like they were spun together by a Victorian-era occultist. Year Walk also benefits from good sound design; the cold winter gales, the soft trudging of snow, sounds in the dark, all create something that is very pretty to both look at and listen to.
My recommendation of Year Walk depends on your love of atmosphere and your patience with a few badly designed puzzles. I quite enjoy these little atmospheric trips, enough to overlook these flaws and still enjoy the game, but if you have a short attention span or are a puzzle-holic who will take nothing less than Portal-levels of puzzle design, I’d save yourself some anger.
The game could also have benefited from having more exposition presented in the narrative itself, rather than hidden away in some encyclopedia. Maybe some sort of ghoulish wood nymph or Wednesday from the Addams family could have showed up in-game to guide you. That would probably mean more character development (which is nonexistent as is because your character is a silent one) and a chance for more dialogue.
My final word on what was wrong with Year Walk is that I had little reason to care about the protagonist. Year Walk’s apathy toward its character is exacerbated by the reason why the creatures are hindering your progress, or perhaps more accurately, the apparent lack of a reason. Cause to care for your character’s well-being creates a stronger bond between character and player and thus a more powerful experience. Year Walk remains powerful, but it and games like it could be so much more so if they caused players to have a bit more heart. Year Walk has less to do with a personal journey and more to do with visiting some haunting museum pieces.
End rant. I don’t hate this game, I promise.
You can buy Year Walk here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.