Review: Old Man’s Journey
Developer: Broken Rules
Supported by: Indie Fund, Vienna Business Agency
Platform: Windows, Mac, ios, Android
Rating: none (recommend for ages 4+ on App store)
Price: Cdn$8.79 on Steam
Old Man’s Journey is a relaxing, lightly puzzle-based game about a man who sets off on a hopeful adventure to find redemption. It features some incredible art and poignant music that lend themselves to a touching story, in turns heartbreaking and uplifting. The mechanics are a little wonky at times, which detracts a bit from the fun, but the overall experience is wonderful.
The whole thing took me only 1:45 to play. It’s short game, but the quality makes it worth the price and it’s slightly cheaper on mobile devices (Cdn$6.99 at the Apple App store). Although I played on PC, this seems like a great game for mobile devices. Each level takes no more than a few minutes, making it ideal to pick up briefly to kill time, while on transit for example. The mechanics seem built with touch controls in mind.
The game opens at the old man’s seaside home, where a mailman delivers a letter. The man reads the letter and the journey begins. You never see exactly what’s in the letter, since there’s no dialogue, written or voiced. The game is all told through its world and art.
As you move away from your home and start clicking around (or poking, if you’re using a mobile device) the basic mechanics become clear. You’re creating a path for your character by manipulating the landscape.
For example, you may face a series of unconnected hills. You can grab the crest of a hill and pull it up or down to connect it to the hill you’re on. You begin to build a path. Check out the trailer to see how it works.
When you reach the end of a section, the old man sits down for a break, and to reminisce on his past and the choices he’s made. They play out between levels in chronological order and you slowly learn who this man is and why he has embarked on this journey. The memories take the form of gorgeous hand-drawn pictures of scenes from his life. Their quality is so good that I lingered to appreciate each of them.
In later sections, the puzzles get a little more challenging and the gameplay mechanics expand. I’d sometimes get a little confused with these new mechanics. Fairly early on, you begin to encounter waterfalls that you try to step across and fall down. But it sometimes looks like there’s an area on the other side you might be able to reach. And by clicking on the water, you can stop the flow, perhaps allowing the old man to walk across … or so I thought, since I fell every time. This may have just been a bit of interactivity, but it felt like I was being given the tools to get somewhere and I was doing it wrong.
You also encounter herds of sheep you can’t pass. They graze on patches of grass and on nearby hills are more patches they can be moved to. So it becomes a puzzle to manipulate the land to create a path from one patch to another for the sheep to travel to, while not getting in your way. I didn’t know what I was looking at at first, so I ended up just forcing my way through the sheep with lots of clicking, which I’m fairly sure I wasn’t supposed to do.
This all comes back to the developers’ choice not to include text or voice. It’s a great idea for storytelling so I can see why they didn’t include tutorials, but it can leave the player with questions.
But these were minor frustrations with what was mostly a joyful experience. The gameplay is not terribly challenging – in fact, I found it relaxing. It allows you to appreciate the bright, colourful, handcrafted scenes. Each level brims with life, the standouts being the sun-soaked environments early and late game. The crisp and lively illustrations are a pleasure.
The music reinforces the tone of each level and the overall themes of loss and hope. It’s rare that a big smile pops across my face when I hear the first notes of a tune in a game, but it happened more than once here.
I won’t go into any detail with the story because it’s one of the best parts, but I will say I found it very touching and relatable. Perhaps the specific story of this old man isn’t relatable to all, but the themes are human and my heart was doing loopty loops.
Although the story is slowly revealed and you don’t know all until the end, a sense of tragedy permeates from the beginning. I may have got choked up a time or two, especially in the scenes depicted between levels. But I had also seen The Notebook for the first time the night before, so my emotions were a wreck. So take that for what it’s worth.
Sam Stewart, an actor, has a diploma in theatre studies and a degree film studies. He also works in the tech industry and loves to indulge his lifelong passion for video games, from the classics to new releases. He tries to look at video games from a broad perspective: as a gamer, but also as someone who wants to know what a game is telling its audience, how it’s advancing the genre and industry, and how it challenges the player.