Unravel Review

February 17, 2016

Martin Sahlin’s presentation of Unravel at E3 last year was one of the highlights of the event. It was pretty clear that he was really happy to finally be able to talk about the game he and his team at Coldwood Interactive had been working on. Despite his clear nervousness and on-stage awkwardness, he managed to excite the audience about what seemed, on the surface, to be a simple platformer, mostly through his shear earnestness.

Now Unravel is finally here, and earnest is a good word to describe the game. It is trying, so very much, to get you to like it. It starts out with a note from the developers that boils down to ‘please like our game’ and features a main character so endearing and adorable that it’s hard not to get sucked in.

The risk with taking this kind of approach is that the game will come off as twee and pretentious; deliberately awkward in order to hide a lack of depth. It doesn’t surprise me that a few people seem put off by it, and that’s a shame, because Unravel is both genuinely great, and emotionally honest with the player.


The endearing and adorable main character is Yarny, a humanoid creature born from a dropped ball of red yarn. The obvious comparison is to that other material-based platform mascot, Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet, but Yarny is much more a character, mostly due to the fact that he doesn’t have to be an avatar for the player as Sackboy does. He has subtle little movements that suggest he’s as fragile as the yarn that he consists of, but also that he’s affected by what’s happening around him in each of the game’s twelve gorgeous stages.

The visuals in Unravel are stunning. The game uses a wide-aperture narrow depth-of-field effect that works effectively to bring the incredibly detailed environments into focus. The result is visuals that feel almost photorealistic, as though somehow this was a film-school animation project rather than a game. The narrow depth-of-field effect lets the game get away with backgrounds that don’t need to be as detailed in order to maintain that foreground detail, and the brain simply fills in the blanks.

The level design is pretty good, too. This is a puzzle-platformer, and while there are creatures that threaten Yarny’s life, they’re usually part of broader puzzles to figure out, like obstinate crabs that need to be convinced to move out of the way, or enraged birds that see Yarny as a useful addition to their nest. The puzzles themselves aren’t especially difficult, and most of the time come down to being observant of the particular area and knowing that the game’s physics operate in a very predictable manner. Even if Yarny comes to his demise, the checkpoints are pretty close together, so little progress is lost.

Unravel isn’t really about difficulty, though. The game is more focused on telling a story, and the level environments are a masterful way for the game to do just that. Combined with strange, ghostly images that pop up as Yarny progresses through the stage and a photo album that unlocks more and more photos of the story and events as the game progresses, Unravel tells a story of life, love and loss in a remote community. Without going into too much detail, I found the story to be both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and Yarny’s reactions to the various scenes really sell their impact. It’s a unique and clever way of getting a story across without bashing the player over the head with endless cutscenes and exposition.


What really sells Unravel’s story, however, is the game’s magnificent soundtrack. The music is designed to highlight the onscreen action, and bring to life the more touching moments in the game. It’s also very effective at creating the atmosphere for each level, helping make the beautiful grassy fields, foreboding forests and bitterly cold snowstorms feel even more real than the visuals already make them out to be.

On the surface, Unravel appears to be a simple puzzle-platform game that offers a moderate challenge, but has little in the way of impediments to progression. Scratch a little deeper, however, and it becomes clear that communicating the sense of place and atmosphere, as well as telling what is a very touching story is really the goal here. Going forward is much more about seeing what can be revealed next, and the plot unravels (see what I did there?) in a very satisfying way. It’s not totally story-focused like, say, a Gone Home-style game, but it isn’t trying to be LittleBigPlanet, either.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Unravel, however, is that it exists at all. The fact that it came out via EA, a publisher not really known for delving into low-budget creative platformers, or for letting its studios off on leashes long enough to even come up with something like this, is really impressive. It says a lot about how other big publishers (especially Ubisoft and Devolver) embracing these kinds of games is changing the industry for the better. It’s becoming a very lucrative part of the market, so getting Unravel under EA’s banner makes a lot of sense (it probably helps that Coldwood Interactive hail from the same country as DICE, who have shown over the years that they have a real eye for creativity, despite what they’re best known for). If this really is part of a new direction for the publisher, then bring it on, because Unravel is great, and there need to be more games like this in the world.


Gorgeous visuals
Magnificent soundtrack
Touching story
Adorable protagonist


Not especially challenging
A lot of puzzles rely on trial-and-error

Overall Score: