Mobile gaming really got the shaft due to greedy, lazy developers who prefer to make a buck than make a game. There was this period of time where it seemed like there was going to be a renaissance of quality titles and genuine experiences that would spring up on handheld devices, and then someone found out you can charge 99 cents to play an extra 15 minutes and a lot of people would do that, and everything went straight to hell. There are still plenty of great and even amazing games that come onto the Google Play Store or the App Store, but they get lost unless you know where to look. So I was skeptical when I found out that Old Man’s Journey had received so many accolades and praises…from mobile review sites. Because I’m prejudice and I want to keep the Switch’s quality higher than not. Well, I’ll be the first to admit: I was an asshole, because this game is amazing.
Old Man’s Journey is what can only be described as a unique take on nonverbal storytelling through visual design and clever pacing, mixed in with a light amount of puzzle solving to keep the player involved. The game centers around the titular Old Man, who receives a letter in the post one day and immediately leaves his home with just a pack on his back and a stick in hand. What happens next is a long, colorful and multi-faceted journey through the world and through the Old Man’s mind as he harkens back to days gone by. Someone could easily guess (and guess correctly) what the letter says after just a few flashbacks, but I’m not going to spoil things simply because I think they’re obvious. In fact, the obviousness of the setup is what makes the journey all that more beautiful and, inevitably, heartbreaking.
Let’s just get a few things out of the way first, because I don’t want them soiling the rest of the review. Old Man’s Journey is a game where you must manipulate the landscape around the old man through some clever terrain elevation, occasional interactive machines, and asking the old man to walk to places, as you cannot simply raise or lower the ground he’s standing on. What ends up happening is very gentle but critical thinking of where you should go next, moving things into place, and then setting them into motion. Since this game went to the phones first, the PC second and the Switch last, the entire thing is very intuitive with touchscreen or mouse controls, but less so with the buttons and joystick configuration. It’s a damn shame someone hasn’t figured out how to make a PC touchpad or even a mouse work with the Switch’s dock, because using the controller to navigate and tell the old man where to go is a laborious chore and feels infinitely less smooth than touching the screen. The tradeoff is that this beautiful game is then cradled in your lap instead of projected up on the television, and you sincerely want to see this game on the big screen.
That’s it. That’s my only sincere criticism of Old Man’s Journey, and everything else from here on in is pure gravy. Firstly, the appearance. Old Man’s Journey is done in this delicate, hand-drawn style that has moving colors and very humanizing errors to it that keeps you locked in on the whole quest. Starting out in very realistic and believable places, the Old Man soon seems to enter into this realm of the surreal, where it’s not clear whether these legs take place in reality, in his mind, or a careful blend of the two. When I suddenly realized I was journeying under the sea, it gave me pause to wonder if I was imagining this moment, and, in the same breath, I realized it didn’t matter. My steps into the deep blue were necessary for my forward motion, and the Old Man wasn’t going to be stopping for anything except the occasional remembrance.
The world around our Journey is a beautiful one indeed, and not just due to color tones and hues. As you move along towards the ever more apparent endgame, you engage, usually afar, with various people and animals that are simply a part of your world, even if only for a second. Maybe it’s a loving couple sharing a moment on the roof. Maybe it’s a cat who simply wishes to walk about. Maybe it’s a kindly truck driver who would give you a ride if he could. The way Old Man’s Journey presents itself, it seems to evoke feelings of sonder and smallness, just having snapshot glimpses into other people’s lives for a second. They don’t even realize they’re a part of the Old Man’s mission, and even you, the player, are just an observer, a slightly omniscient presence in a much greater story.
The pacing of the unfolding truth of the matter is done in an unhurried, gradual time frame that fits in perfectly with the Old Man himself. You don’t get a complete history of his life and those he loved: you get singular moments that are spurred on by people, things and even weather that dig up those warm and hazy memories. You cannot die in this game, nor can you create an impossible situation to move out of. If you feel frustrated or boxed in by hills that won’t bend how you want, or slopes that refuse to line up, take a deep breath and look to our protagonist. He is determined, but he isn’t anxious. This is a necessary trip, one that he both wants to and must make, and he will accomplish it in due time. There is always enough time to live, to love, to laugh and cry, to say hello and say goodbye. The Old Man will get there, and you will guide him.
Set against an incredibly ambient, almost picturesque soundtrack, Old Man’s Journey is the definition of gaming as art. This may only be a one-way trip for most, because there aren’t multiple endings or hidden achievements, but sometimes it only takes one time, one touch to change the course of your life. Many have tried to bring artistic experiences to the Switch, and not all have succeeded wildly. But, if you’re open to the idea of a story that can be told without words and take to you a mindset you may not be ready for, then you should follow the Old Man. He has much to show you on this journey.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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