Review: Charming ‘Unravel’ Will Tie You in Knots

Image: EA

It’s easy to fall in love with Unravel.

How could you not? The highly anticipated downloadable game stars a little person made of yarn who leaps across chasms, swings on branches, and scrambles up hills modeled after the idyllic Swedish countryside surrounding independent game developer Coldwood’s office. It’s an atmospheric platformer built to tug at your heartstrings, an Etsy project you control with a gamepad.

So another emotional, precious indie, then? Pretty much, yeah. And in terms of style, Unravel totally delivers. Vibrant graphics and interesting mechanics set the stage for a memorable journey. But over time, Unravel’s handwoven charm gets knotted up by problematic design and repetitive puzzles. Yes, it’s easy to fall in love with Unravel, but it’s easy to fall out, too.

Unravel tells the adventures of Yarny, a yarn doll who emerges from the knitting ball of a kindly old woman living in a big, cozy house. Yarny heads off into the lush landscape of rural Sweden in search of his caretaker’s lost memories, eventually filling the pages of a battered old photo album and filling the tear ducts of players slowly piecing together the touching, esoteric narrative about love and loss.

There’s no getting around it: the diminutive Yarny is cute as a button, and thanks to wonderful animations that see him marveling at the sight of a crow or rubbing his shoulders to keep warm, you will undoubtedly feel as much a protector as a player. The size of a dandelion, Yarny isn’t built to survive nature’s rough edges. A bookcase is a mountain; a pine comb, a boulder. A toothy gopher is a Yarny-sized direwolf. Water, fire, hell, even a runaway pebble is a potential threat when your body is made of loosely wound wool.

His world is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Each level is a gorgeous, crisp environment torn from the pages of National Geographic. Forest paths, irradiated factories, and mountain passes alike are vividly detailed; soft focus backgrounds hint at wildlife (or worse) rummaging around in the distance. It’s just really pretty.

Yarny’s vulnerability works to both draw out empathy and set up the game’s driving mechanic: using yarn to navigate physics-based platform puzzles. Yarny unravels a bit of himself to grab objects, grapple across gaps, build bridges and more. Everyday items — a tin can, an acorn, and a crank — are transformed into platforming cogs in a kooky yarn machine.

Image: EA

The catch? Yarny has a finite amount of yarn, and with every step and action, he unspools, mysteriously tethered to something offscreen. You’ll often reach the end of your rope, so to speak, and need to wind yourself back up a bit to figure out how to solve a puzzle as efficiently as possible. Checkpoints dole out new yarn spools, turning each level into a smaller series of challenges.

At their best, Unravel’s levels make you feel smart and creative. Tinkering with the various ways to play with yarn to solve puzzles — what if I I tie the yarn to this side of the cart and then loop myself around the nail to form a makeshift pulley?— is its own reward, and though the game’s twitchy jumping isn’t as spot-on as it should be, rarely are you stuck because your timing stinks. Unravel might look like LittleBigPlanet, but in practice it’s the kinder, gentler Limbo.

Until you start dying. Unravel’s feelgood vibe nosedives when, for instance, you can’t figure out how to properly fling yourself up to a ledge and instead fall into a vat of water, like, 13 times in a row. Its difficulty spikes wildly; one minute you’re pleasantly Tarzan-ing across a busted bridge, the next, you’re banging your head trying to open a stupid hatch. Excessive trial-and-error can stall you out for a good thirty minutes; unlike Limbo, in which getting stumped was intrinsic to the deathly overtones of the whole experience, Unravel’s frustrating moments don’t mix well with its relaxing, mellow aesthetic. It’s like someone spiked your Chai tea with a few shots of Red Bull.

Image: EA

Equally troubling is the game’s struggle to keep new features coming. Unravel runs out of steam roughly halfway through its six-hour lifespan. The last few levels, while just as aesthetically pleasing as the first few, recycle solutions and fail to add much to the game’s vocabulary.

Unravel’s poignancy and delivery are compelling enough to carry you through the rough patches, though. You’ll need to manage your expectations — this isn’t quite the whimsical masterpiece it looks like on paper — but it’s a lovely little game about lovely little things, and that’s a thread worth following.

: Gorgeous, vibrant graphics; simple, emotional tale; clever yarn mechanics

: Uneven difficulty; excessive trial-and-error; grows repetitive despite short run time

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