The last time I played a game that stayed with me for days was Journey. Those kinds of experiences are so rare in gaming that there's something precious about that needs to be savored. The two or three hours I spent with Year Walk, for iPhone and iPad, have stayed with me for over a week. Go someplace quiet and solitary, dim the lights, and plug in your headphones, because this is best played alone and in the dark.
Parents should be warned that despite appearances, this is not a game for kids. Year Walkis dark and gothic with unsettling imagery, venturing into horror territory at times.
Year Walktakes you on a spirit walk through Swedish folklore. Historically speaking, “year walking” is an ancient practice where individuals would follow very specific guidelines — which include wandering through the winter woods, as you do in the game — to attempt to peel back the veil of eternity and look into the future. Like a primal look into a crystal ball, Swedes would undertake this ritual most frequently on the last day of the year, when the veil was believed to be at its weakest. But it was an extreme measure at best, because it brought you into direct contact with otherworldly entities somewhere between the ghostly and the demonic.
In the game, you play as a man whose true love is agreeing to marry someone else. At his wits end and desperate for help, he decides to undertake a year walk, knowing full well that it’s a very dangerous activity.
There are no traditional menus or standard UI or HUD. And it put me off a bit at first how the game takes place almost entirely within a narrow, horizontal space in the center of the screen. (A pair of bulky black letterboxes enclose it.) You interact with Year Walkby swiping back and forth, or pinching to move forward or back. It’s unusual, most of the time feeling like sliding sideways on a skateboard, back and forth. Some specific items can be tapped on to interact with, but there are fewer of these than you’d expect. There are other touchscreen gestures you’ll need to use here and there, but discovering how to interact with the game is such a big part of the experience, I don’t want to spoil any of it.
Discovery is a huge element of the game, perhaps its most dominant. A lot of your time is spent wandering through the lovely, papercraft woods, at times rather aimlessly, looking for something to interact with. It will surprise players to find that the confusion Year Walk creates is intentional, and that’s part of what makes it so refreshingly different. Most games go out of their way to ensure that you never feel lost or confused; Year Walk actually wants you to feel that way. Everything from the distinctive art style to the minimal, atmospheric music is designed to give you a feeling of uneasiness. You never quite know what’s going to be on the next screen.
Without giving too much away… There’s more to Year Walk than the main game. There’s also a free Companion app that’s an absolutely essential part of the experience. The companion app is a sort of mini encyclopedia, explaining the Swedish folklore and what various parts of it mean. The Year Walk Companion holds some crucial secrets of its own, but that’s all you’re getting out of me.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Year Walk is that it was created by Simogo, a celebrated touchscreen games developer who until now has crafted cute, all-ages titles like Beat Sneak Bandit and Bumpy Road. With Year Walk, Simogo has unquestionably grown up. This isn’t business as usual for them, or even a natural evolution. This feels more like a dramatic leap ahead, four or five games down the line from everything they’ve done before.
Year Walk is bold, it’s risky, and quite frankly, it’s a phenomenal game that pushes the entire medium forward. The time you’ll spend with it is more like undertaking a journey than playing a game. But whatever you want to call it, you’ll find it to be unforgettable.