Every now and then I come across a game that surprises me in ways that I never would expect from a video game. Most of the time I’m lucky enough to not have to review them as they’re very difficult to summarise into words. Some games are, after all, meant to be experienced without expectation and be a complete mystery. Year Walk is one of them and can easily be an incredible experience or a dull one, depending on what your interests are.
Year Walk in a nutshell
Without giving too much away, Year Walk is game that expands on an almost forgotten Swedish tradition called the Arsgang (year walk). The purpose of a Year Walk is to see your future or what you will achieve in the following year. According to folklore, which is included in the small but insightful encyclopaedia provided in the game, Year Walkers would starve themselves for a day and remain locked up in a dark room until the stroke of midnight on a special day like Christmas or New Year’s Eve. After midnight, the person would leave their house and walk to the nearest church, where they would, allegedly, meet the Church Grim (a goat-like man priest thing) who shows them their future. However, there’s a catch, the person would face great evils from the creatures of the night. In order to be successful, they would need to outwit the creatures and surpass their temptations.
It starts off as a seemingly sincere and beautiful game that takes place in a small idyllic Swedish hamlet. A man visits his sweetheart at the town windmill, where she tells him that his plans for the Year Walk is dangerous and that he shouldn’t do it. Regardless of what she says, he performs the ritual and begins his haunting tale.
A Game With An Eerie Atmosphere
I must mention right now that although the game has many creepy moments and is based on a fairly unsettling piece of folklore, the game itself is not a “scare your head off” horror. Rather, it succeeds in making you feel uncomfortable and unsettled all the time. What it also does well is that despite its unsettling aura, it feeds your curiosity, even though you know nothing good will come of it. Sort of like hearing an odd noise outside, and instead of calling the cops, you grab a frying pan or knife to see if someone has jumped into your yard.
A Beautiful Pairing of Visuals and Sound
How the developers accomplished this is through their choice of visuals and sound. It’s almost the perfect blend and makes me wonder why I haven’t seen more of it. Visually it reminds me of an old projector film meets pop-up books. That old grainy film with cut-out characters that look like they were cut by Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman.
In terms of sound, it’s not filled with a lot of music, but relies heavily on ambient sounds that gives it its eerie and goosebump inducing vibe. It does start off with music though, and although cheerful, it has a menacing undertone. The best description I can give it is that it’s a mix of old ballerina jewellery box tunes and circus-fare music played through an old wind-up record player.
Together, the visuals and music pair beautifully with the storytelling, and then I found out why. The game was originally intended to be a movie as it started out as a film script. It was then redrafted to fit the new medium. History lesson over, this is why the game’s ability to captivate the player is so strong.
A Simple Puzzle Game
As a game, you know, with mechanics and stuff, it works really well. My only criticism is that it’s far too simple. You move left to right, like you would in a 2D game, but from the first person perspective. You can move up and down into new areas as well, often moving into background or foreground. The game area is relatively small, so navigating the town isn’t a problem. Fortunately the Wii U gamepad serves as a wonderful map, among other things.
The calling card of the game is that it’s meant to be a puzzle solving game. While some of the puzzles are interesting, most of them are very simple to figure out. The only one that really stumped me was the tune puzzle, where you had to select the right tune to continue. Being tone deaf, I found this puzzle particularly challenging, but the rest were easy. With regards to the puzzles, the gamepad also serves as a notepad, where you can quickly jot down a puzzle sequence to use later on.
Sometimes Short Really is Too Short
Another criticism that I have is that the game is very short and has almost zero replay value. But the funny thing about that is what happens after you’ve finished the game. I won’t spoil it for you, but I personally found what happens is very interesting and very interactive. But after that, there really isn’t a need to play the game again – no achievements, no collectibles and no secrets. Just the chance to walk again.
As someone who loves mythology and learning more about folklore, I found Year Walk absolutely fascinating. Its descriptions of Swedish creatures and the inclusion of their backstories made me want to learn more about them – which I have. Its haunting atmosphere and story really left a mark on my gaming soul. If you enjoy games that introduce other cultures and elaborate on folklore, like Never Alone (but not in terms of gameplay), then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this one. If you don’t find it interesting, then you’d probably think this is a video game version of a history lesson.