Wonder: that's what we've been missing. This console generation has been defined by technological horsepower driving digital worlds of increasing verisimilitude. Yet these approximations of realism offer little but empty spectacle, sights that provoke admiration rather than astonishment. Our eyes widen at the latest tech demos and target renders, but rarely do they make our jaws drop and our synapses fire with genuine delight. That Journey – a downloadable release, no less, costing less than ten pounds – should regularly provide moments of genuine, dumbstruck awe is quite the achievement.
Such instances aren't merely reserved for its beautiful setting, but this breathtaking world is a remarkable feat of engineering. At times you consider that Journey may have been delayed so as not to embarrass Naughty Dog: many said ten minutes wandering through the desert as Drake was a brave move, yet Journey proves this to be hollow hyperbole. For starters, its sand effects are significantly more convincing. Its billions of particles form a fluid surface, endlessly shifting, undulating, grains gently splashing up and out with every step you take. It shimmers gorgeously underneath the sun's rays; later, it's flecked with tiny bronze highlights, glistering faintly in the gloom.
Often you'll be gazing at a yawning horizon, but elsewhere you'll spend as much time looking up. Quite aside from the imposing light-emitting mountain that represents your final destination, you'll frequently be dwarfed by ancient monumental constructions that lie in ruins. Sometimes your presence will awaken ancient mechanisms that whirr and clank into life, triggered by the strange musical noises that represent your only means of communication. You're regularly made to feel very small indeed, even as you gradually come to realise how important your place in this strange, enticing world is.
Such is its allure that you begin to believe it's the ideal game to show non-believers to convince them of the medium's value. Trouble is, there are no other games quite like Journey, even if, in many ways, this is thatgamecompany's most conventional release to date. That's not to say all its ideas are unfamiliar: during one exhilarating sequence it evokes a trick-free SSX, while by introducing gentle puzzle elements to your curious probing of ancient ruins, it's oddly redolent of Tomb Raider – or, indeed, Uncharted. On occasion it filters its exploration through stealth and survival horror tropes, while its narrative flow closely mirrors that of its predecessor, Flower. And in its bleak, windswept vistas, it owes a substantial debt to the works of Fumito Ueda. Mostly, it echoes the desolate solitude of Shadow of the Colossus. But it's Ueda's other game that casts a longer shadow.
Because Journey is two games in one. It is a single-player experience of unrivalled atmosphere, of thoughtful, considered pacing and contemplative, elliptical storytelling. But it is also a two-player game. When connected to the PlayStation Network, you may occasionally glimpse a fellow explorer, another lonely soul discovering the veiled secrets of this enigmatic world. You won't know anything about them, other than the fact that they're not on your friends' list, the online setup ensuring you'll only ever encounter strangers. Your initial response will likely be one of surprise, then apprehension. You might tentatively approach them. You might find they'd prefer to experience this particular journey – their journey – alone, as might you. You might, however, find that, like you, they're seeking companionship; someone to help them make sense of their trek to that mysterious glowing light at the peak of the world.