The world of Old Man’s Journey is a work of beauty. As lovely as the finest paintings of Van Gogh, as drenched in the wonder and splendour of the world as any National Geographic photo, as richly vivid and vibrant in its colors as a perfect blue sky day. Old Man’s Journey at its essence is just as much a love letter to the style and subtle beauty of the natural world as it is a meandering, hit or miss journey of love, pain, and regret.
Opening with the lone old man of the games title at his homestead where upon delivery of a mysterious letter he suddenly trudges inside only to remerge for the great journey to a far away destination. Not a single line of dialogue will be spoken or any text given to aid you on his story. Instead the scope of the man’s life will be shown via a series of still, gorgeously drawn images from his past that will come rushing forward before dissolving back into the mists of time.
These images, ranging from scenes of unrestrained joy and love at its fullest, to bitter sorrow and pained remembrances of mistakes and regrets, serve to add depth and life to an otherwise simple game with puzzle elements. Each and every time the clouds of mist started to form and a new image emerged, I found myself slightly breathless at filling in yet another shade of the journey of this titular man and at experiencing yet another image filled with such emotional richness and depth.
Yet, a story of this length (you can beat the entire game in probably one hour) is hindered by any narrative hiccups and Old Man’s Journey is hobbled early on by a slow burn. As you travel through a truly beautiful environment of such sharpness and crisp colors that are constantly bursting from the scene, the story largely wanders on, more a thing that is happening in the background then something you feel involved in or that even really demands your attention. In many ways, Old Man’s Journey is more an advert for the newest series of Planet Earth then it is a game with any real interest in telling you a story. This all changes with the game’s heartfelt and tearful finale, but the first half to two-thirds of the game is missing the energy and drive of the final act.
The true thing that keeps Old Man’s Journey from greatness though is the games oftentimes wonky controls for the Switch. The gameplay of Old Man’s Journey is simple enough, each time the character enters a new environment the player is presented with a series of hills, valleys, or mountains that they will need to lift or lower by dragging them up or down to allow the elderly hero to be able to navigate the given scene. All of this is well and good and indeed even works sometimes, but at other times the Switch seems utterly bewildered by this. The fact that this is all controlled via motion control and that I’m not just able to use the analog sticks to control how high or low the given object is was a bizarre choice by the developers of the game.
The controls constantly serving as a source of frustration on the Switch was only compounded by the fact that oftentimes you needed to be spot-on with matching the various elevations in order to complete the given scene. Over time I learned more about how to work around the Switch’s wonky design, motion control issues, and frustrating mechanics then to work with them.
Old Man’s Journey is thus a bit of an odd experience. Featuring environments and locales of wonderful beauty and color, mixed with a story that, if perhaps not the most original and more than a little slow to start, finishes with a lovely and heartful series of images that pushes all of the right emotional notes. This is finally mixed with a gameplay mechanic of solving elevation based puzzles that are oftentimes clever and enjoyable enough, until the Switch invariably decides to act up again and either work against you or frustrate what you are actively seeking to do. Old Man’s Journey is thus far from perfect, but long after the frustrating and wonky controls, or even its heartfelt finale fade from memory the lingering remembrances of the sweeping, verdant vistas of the game will stand alone, a beautiful testament to one of gaming’s loveliest art designs.
This was reviewed with a digital code provided by the developer on a retail Nintendo Switch.