Published on April 17th, 2013 | by Liam Dean4
The prospect of finding out what happens in the future is attractive to anyone. Any number of possibilities could lead to a person becoming wealthy, finding their true life’s calling or even avoiding dangerous situations. Someone might put up with a lot to find out this information, but not many people would starve themselves in solitary confinement for days on end before wandering through a forest full of supernatural terrors. This is the task that is forced upon you in the iOS exclusive title Year Walk, and if nothing else it certainly highlights the virtues of surrendering oneself to fate and circumstance.
The year is 1894 and the location is somewhere deep in Sweden’s rural, snowy countryside in the depths of winter. Evocative and spooky images of a cabin in the woods, a windmill and a church are flashed in front of the viewer. As the narrative progresses, it is clear that the person the player is inhabiting is embroiled in a forbidden love affair — something that they care about so much they’re prepared to go on a “Year Walk” in order to discover its fate. A couple of cutscenes later, and the player is turned loose on a forest at night: a gloomy maze of chin scratching puzzles and unknown horrors.
As someone who really appreciates a good fairy tale, I love the lore surrounding Year Walk. It is supposedly full of legends taken from actual Swedish folk stories, and the inventiveness with which they have been woven into the game’s world is refreshing to say the least. I can’t think of many other games that would use adversaries like a Brook Horse (a ghostly two legged horse that takes children to a watery grave) or a Grim (a goat-man hybrid that lives under a church and feeds on dreams) but somehow it pulls it off.
As well as having a very unusual premise, Year Walk is quite special in the way it makes the player interact with its world. It is intended to be played across both an iPhone and an iPad, with the main game on the tablet and the Year Walk Companion on the small screen. The companion app, whilst not essential to complete the game, definitely fleshes out the fiction surrounding the game’s world and interestingly makes the puzzles themselves easier to solve. On more than one occasion, I found myself unable to figure out the strange circumstances in which some of Year Walk’s supernatural abominations related to one another. After a quick flick through the companion, I was able to at least identify what it was I needed to look for. Not only that, but the biographies for each creature are morbidly fascinating to read for anyone who enjoys that kind of thing.
The actual gameplay of Year Walk is two parts point and click adventure and one part puzzle game. Most of the game involves the player scanning 2D landscapes with horizontal finger swipes, and transitioning to new areas by tapping arrow prompts as they appear onscreen. Occasionally, however, the game confronts you with a puzzle that requires the use of unusual multi-touch gestures and sometimes even a reorientation of the iPad’s screen to progress. On paper it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, but in the context of the game it is far more interesting. Exploring the forest and getting lost in the rabbit’s warren of pathways is all part of the experience, and it undoubtedly adds to the feeling of going on a journey.
Although it’s not the scariest game you’ll ever play, Year Walk certainly has a few good jump scares up its sleeves. Whether it’s a hitherto amenable ghost suddenly rushing screeching towards your throat or the flashing image of a dead face in the middle of a puzzle, you’ll want a clean pair of underpants on hand at all times. Sometimes, though, there are more subtly creepy sights to enjoy like an area you previously visited having a wooden doll that wasn’t there before, or disquieting sounds in the distance that grow in volume as you get closer. It’s something that you never get used to as you play, and impressively the game can still surprise you right up until the end.
This scary atmosphere wouldn’t be much without the excellent art direction and the ominous sound design. Although the visuals are comprised of 2D planes which make it appear like a Flash animation, the world of Year Walk has remarkable depth. Things in the distance of the forest look progressively more out of focus and ambient effects like fog and dynamic shadows serve to keep the trees shrouded in mystery. If this wasn’t enough to establish a distinct feeling of isolation, the soundtrack itself is mostly made up of moody weather effects and disquieting orchestral scores that use sparse cellos and violins to set the player’s nerves on edge.
Year Walk is a complete package and a very enjoyable experience not only by iOS standards but by any gaming benchmark you care to set. Its puzzles can be complex and difficult to solve, it has unique interplay between the main game and the iPhone companion app, and it successfully brings the obscure genre of Swedish folklore to life in a wonderfully ghoulish fashion. Clocking in at just over two hours for the average person, it isn’t an incredibly lengthy experience, but at this price point it’s pretty hard to ignore. I wholeheartedly recommend the game, and if you can run it, the companion app as well. Trust me when I say that this is one trek through the woods after dark that will stay with you for a very long time to come.