Terrible Name, Great Game.
The name Year Walk refers to an ancient tradition in Swedish folklore known as Årsgång or 'year walking'. (Keeping the “-ing” would have made for a better title, by the way.) Year Walking starts by fasting on the last day of the year. One gives up their religious beliefs—in the case of the Sweds, Christianity—and treks off into the dark forest to make peace with the demons that reside there. The process ends in a church, where beliefs are restored for the coming year.
This is exactly how the game begins. You might not get the inference of religion or that it’s even the end of the year, but you will find yourself outside a log cabin in a snowy forest. There is very little by way of a tutorial, to make the player feel intentionally lost and isolated, but a little frustrated too.
I never played the mobile version, but on the Wii U the controls are best described as storybook-like. An arrow will occasionally appear, urging the player to go up which moves the image closer or right like turning a page. It sounds better than in execution. Essentially, it means you're looking at 2D pictures from a first-person POV, while your GamePad can be used as a map to keep from getting lost. Not gonna lie—the first ten minutes were hard to get acclimated. I wanted to get lost in the story, but getting stuck simply because I didn’t notice an arrow marker to take me to the next sequence was annoying. You can also use the GamePad for motion controls, but it never felt right.
Okay, that’s the bad stuff. This was a game originally meant to be played on a mobile phone so any hope for intuitive controls was probably going to be a futile endeavor, right? If you can get past the wonky controls, though, this is a wonderfully moody journey that's also terrifying. It’s about an emotionally wrecked being who takes the year walk to get back the love of his life no matter the cost to their soul.
The art style appears to be inspired by stop-motion animation. Colors are muted with images on the verge of disappearing into the blinding snow. Character's heads and limbs look slightly off. Like Limbo, the tone is not easy to shake off even after finishing the game two hours later. This is a very gripping tale of interaction fiction that I wish I could own in some capacity as a real book. Then again, I’d also love a real pop-up book of The Babadook, so clearly I’m just asking for bad things to happen to me.
There are plenty of puzzles in this Scandinavian landscape. As one would expect, most of these are environmental ones that refreshingly encourage note-taking. This is because the answers to these mindbenders are not always onscreen. In the last few years many games present puzzles that are confined to one environment, which means if you just look hard enough the answer it can be found. That simplification is gone here.
The very nature of the storybook means each “page” acts like a memory. Nothing is permanent. In a way, the whole experience is like one giant game of concentration. This lack of handholding is appreciated. Of course, there are times when frustration leads to old-fashioned trial and error, but those moments were few and far between.
The aforementioned note-taking can be done with a simple paper and pen or on the second screen of the GamePad. The screen is also chock full of info on the beasties encountered and includes further tales, which give backstory to the world of Year Walk. A hint section allows you to get help for parts of the game if you're stuck. There’s also something else there that I don’t want to spoil for those that haven’t played it yet.
Year Walk is one of the gems of the year. Developer Simogo worked with Dakko Dakko to produce what they call the "definitive edition" on Wii U. I’m gonna say this is probably the best version too as the visuals look great on a big HDTV, along with the haunting sounds through a stereo, and the all those extras features on the GamePad. At $6.99 this is a steal. Yes, the controls are not at all intuitive, but don’t let that keep you away from such a haunting trek in the woods.