Things were bleak on the platforming front in 2006; the Belmonts might have enjoyed methodically hopping from one tiny block to another, but it wasn’t everyone’s jive, and neither was Sonic’s acid-induced need to shoot past scenery at nauseating speeds. These classics were brilliant, in their own way, but some gamers were anxious to find a cosy middle ground, one that didn’t involve an Italian plumber.
Luckily there’s been a bit of a platforming renaissance in recent years, as indie developers with fresh ideas came to the rescue with accessible quirky gems like Little Big Planet and introspective, arsty puzzle platformers like Limbo and Fez. Coldwood Interactive’s Unravel series is the perfect fusion of these ideals: it’s easy to pick up, yet challenging; cerebral, but in a Campbell’s soup can kind of way.
In a world teetering on the edge of hyperrealism – a Swedish postcard with shades of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids – you (or with a buddy over local co-op) play as Yarnies, tiny woollen creatures who are connected at the hip, quite literally. Using the short thread running between, you’ll swing your partner over obstacles, build bridges to vault them higher into the air, all while avoiding hazards such as fire, water, and one especially annoying trout.
This is classic platforming but with a refreshing twist. While playing solo is enjoyable, and the ability to have one Yarnie to piggyback the other through certain sections cuts down on the micromanagement that controlling two characters often requires, it’s far more satisfying to have a friend along for the ride. With each of you controlling a Yarnie and two minds working through the puzzles, things just feel more natural.
Leading you both through the ever-changing environments is a firefly-like light that represents the main link between the silent Yarnies and a much larger world which mirrors their own journey. As you progress, so does the plight of a boy and a girl fleeing the clutches of an unsavoury looking bunch of individuals. It’s left up to the player to interpret who these characters are, as the kids and their antagonists appear as ethereal spectres in the background.
That ghostly mood carries over to the silent film-esque artistic direction and accompanying music; fast scenes are underlined with jaunty Swedish folk ditties, while other, more gloomy levels feel claustrophobic when paired with melodic voices and the groan of a taglharpe (a northern European bowed lyre).
The secret to Unravel’s appeal is not only in its world-building, its realistic yarn physics or inherent oddness, but in the way it utilises and expands its basic mechanics over seven chapters. While the Yarnies have a fairly limited array of tricks up their knitted sleeves, each mostly self-contained puzzle section so well designed, that you’ll always need to think of inventive ways to use what you have learned. And if a puzzle or a tricky platforming section has you stumped, there are hints and a nifty slow-mo feature to help out.
These hints will come in handy to hunt down all secrets and complete the game’s extra challenge levels, added tidbits that are much appreciated in a title some might accuse of being a tad short. Tips are handy for the less eagle-eyed among us, because in certain sections it can be difficult to distinguish between the foreground and background, which is problematic if you get stuck on a disintegrating branch while trying to wrangle your Yarnies (not a euphemism) and you have trouble spotting where to swing to next.
Unravel Two is not your granny’s knitting basket, and cynical gamers might frown at its mass appeal, but they’d be missing out on the joys of smoothly jumping from a metal wall to a rusty vent, getting caught up in the exhilaration of swinging from garden post to fishing pole, and carefully navigating through the crushing innards of a packing factory. As puzzle platformers go, Unravel Two is pretty swinging.