My name is Izsak Barnette and I normally don’t like indie games.
However, against my preferences–and at the behest of editor Patrick Murphy–I’ve decided to dive headfirst into the indie genre. I’m going to spend the next four weeks playing at least one new indie each week and cataloging my findings here.
I have no idea what’s going to happen, but it should be interesting.
A Pretty Picture
Perhaps my biggest critique of the indie genre is its tendency to focus on delivering a game “experience” rather than a product that’s fun to play. Sure, I get it, most indie games don’t have as vaunted of a development team, as large of a budget, or as high expectations as their larger counterparts, so they focus their talents on what they know best.
However, I feel that some indies make the mistake of making an otherwise well-designed, atmospheric game an absolute chore to play through. That’s what this week’s game, Old Man’s Journey, is guilty of doing. As a 2018 Switch port of a game released on mobile and PC in 2017, Old Man’s Journey manages to be breathtakingly beautiful while being an absolute chore to play.
The game’s basic plot, in which the titular “old man” goes on a journey after receiving a mysterious letter, is actually quite good. The story flashbacks tell a well-crafted and heartrending story about the titular character’s past. Shown in beautiful, full-frame pictures, these flashback sequences are the highlight of the game and served as encouragement to push through some of the game’s more boringly obtuse levels.
The music too, is another high note. Whether sweet, melancholy, or ominous, composer scntfc did a good job complimenting the level design with the appropriate tune. Soothing melodies help to sell the game’s atmosphere, while excellent sound design makes the world come alive in small, subtle ways. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it does it’s job well, helping to lift lesser aspects of the game from mediocrity.
Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops for Old Man’s Journey.
A Puzzling Puzzle Game
The rest of the game, whether it’s the controls, the puzzle design, or how the game feels to play, varies between mind-numbingly mediocre and poorly designed. The controls, in particular, stand out for their complete lack of finesse. In an attempt to emulate touchscreen controls, the game utilizes the left analog stick to simulate a cursor and the A button to simulate a click of the cursor. The player needs to click the ground where they want the old man to move instead of using the control stick to move him. If that sounds super-clunky, that’s because it is.
Old Man’s Journey revolves around manipulating the environment to allow the titular old man to progress throughout the level. The player needs to pull hills and other pieces of the environment together in order to open up the path forward. Unfortunately, this aspect of the game’s design, which might have worked great on mobile and PC, causes issues with the Switch’s control scheme. Even using the touchscreen while in handheld mode comes with its own issues, as it doesn’t feel like the Switch registers inputs as well other touch-enabled devices like smartphones and tablets. It all just feels wrong to play.
In a game like Old Man’s Journey, where the focus is more on atmosphere than actual plot, the controls and puzzle design both needed to be excellent to avoid immersion breaking annoyances. However, that’s not the case. The puzzles in Old Man’s Journey don’t ever feel like more than half-baked concepts, lacking clever execution or a feeling of satisfaction most of the time.
Some of the best puzzle series, such as Professor Layton, achieve their greatness by building the player’s puzzle-solving skills as they play the game. Old Man’s Journey doesn’t do that. Its puzzles stay at the same, boring difficultly throughout the entire adventure, rarely awing, but never terrible or easy enough to make the game shorter. It’s occasionally clever, but never clever enough to relieve the tedium of playing it.
Ultimately, for what it is, an $8 port of a mobile game, Old Man’s Journey isn’t bad. Excellent art design and a high potential story feel weighed down by a poor control scheme and mediocre puzzles. It’s easy to feel the love and craft that went into Old Man’s Journey, but harder to see why the development team couldn’t have refined some of its basic structural issues or sought a better control scheme when porting to Switch. For $8, this is a hard pass for all but the most passionate puzzle fans. At a sale price of $5 or less, however, it’d may be worth the pickup, if only for the game’s gorgeous graphics and good story.