The developer of The Sojourn, Shifting Tides, seems to have beaten me to it. Strewn throughout the game are a series of messages – I’m convinced they’re quotes from a developer diary – that review it quite well. It begins hopefully: ʻWe first picture the world as a piece of art, painted with the unknown that our eyes observe.’ There are some flickers of doubt: ʻWe are shaped by uncertainty. Uncertainty is quelled by how we shape ourselves.’ There is trouble: ʻWe open our eyes in hopes of seeing what lies before us but all we realize is how alien our world is.’ And there is a post-mortem: ʻWe venture beyond what we’ve learned to see the truth, so we can understand how our views were obstructed.’ This is a strange development. Do we criticise the inherent conflict of interest in a self-critique, or praise the emotional honesty?
Let’s begin with what our eyes observe. The Sojourn is a first-person puzzler that has you following a capering swirl of light. The puzzles are cleverly crafted affairs filled with moving parts you can interact with: statues you can swap places with in a blink; harps whose melodies morph platforms into place; booths that duplicate statues and others that open doors. Most of these can only be activated in the dark world, which envelops you when you touch blue fire. At the end of each sequence, you free another light, and you’re whisked back to the main hub, which you inch through, puzzle by puzzle, until you’re off to the next one – be it a castle, a crumbly desert town, or a watery refuge of rock. The uncertainty that blights The Sojourn is thematic; it grasps at the ghost of a message, but can’t pin anything down.
Each world is a clump of earth cocooned in its own gravity – always a handy, if hoary, metaphor for minds, be they breaking apart or drawing together. There is an unspecific, vacuum-sealed prettiness on show – polar-white banks of snow, streams cascading into the clouds below – and it all runs at 60fps, ensuring each scene stays undisturbed by any threats to immersion. (Not that I was ever truly immersed; the airy mood only allows for a pleasant paddle.) And all the while we are washed with ambient music that runs in one ear and out the other. There’s a fair share of The Witness blowing through The Sojourn. Note the statues, planted and posed in a variety of vaguely symbolic positions, the textureless surfaces, and the clean colours that could only have been clicked, not brushed, into being.
But it lacks that game’s slow-drip satisfaction – the sense of a gradually learned visual language. The good news is this: lurking under the dreamy gloss is a series of puzzles that doesn’t pull its punches. The title is to be taken as a guide: don’t be afraid to stop a while and take it all in. As each level loaded into view, stone and soil whipped up fresh from the void, I would often pause to get my bearings. You might see, for example: one statue, two cloning capsules, a tablet of ice-blue fire, and a gate on a raised platform. The prickle of challenge in the puzzles is often eked out halfway into your attempt to solve them; I relished the moments in which my logic was thwarted, only to have the second ray of a solution shine through.
In fact, The Sojourn is all about second winds, and third and fourth winds, for that matter. I can only admire Shifting Tides, not only for the precision of the puzzles on offer – often teasingly spare of clutter – but for the pace with which fresh mechanics are levered into play. To reach the later hubs and still be wrapping my head around new kinks and complications left me in little doubt that the design on show comes from a talented team. If only there was greater reward in the solving than being led, with little ceremony, onto the next puzzle. It will take more than a few dropped props – a pile of swords in a corner, a splayed book, a set of blindfolded figures – to convince us of any grand theme, other than, as the game’s website suggests, ‘the nature of reality.’ If Shifting Tides does indeed venture beyond what its learned here, toward an unobstructed view, count me in.
Developer: Shifting Tides
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: September 20, 2019
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