Year Walk is an odd beast that won’t appeal to everyone. It’s a slow-paced, quiet and ambient title, nailing its atmosphere better than anything else. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t do other things well, because it does. The story focuses on an ancient Swedish ritual and vision quest known as “year walking.” If successful, those who choose to undergo a year walk would allegedly be able to see into the future.
And so begins your journey as a nameless, silent year walker. The controls are simple at first, swiping left or right, up or down, as if leafing through the pages of a book. Which is an apt description, as I would consider Year Walk somewhat of an interactive novella, riddled with mind-bending puzzles.
As you traverse through the snowy Scandinavian landscape, the wind whistles, the snow crunches beneath your feet. Just as important are the completely silent moments in the game, which work to heighten that feeling of tension and dread. The forest serves as a fittingly eerie setting and truly the best way to experience the environment is with a pair of headphones. After your first true scare (and trust me, the game has numerous) you’ll sometimes catch yourself too terrified to take another step.
Soon after getting to learn your surroundings the puzzles begin. Night falls, your year walk starts and you notice strange markings on trees, a locked box sitting in the snow, a creepy doll hanging in a shed. Every puzzle is unique and often leaves you stumped. I normally have no issues with puzzles that leave me scratching my head; that’s often the sign of a good mind-bender after all. Yet, I wish Year Walk was clearer on what kind of touch inputs are required. It becomes too much of a guessing game and I found myself in trial and error territory most of the time as I swiped frustratingly at the screen, trying to understand what the game wanted me to do.
Keeping a pen and paper handy is essential, as many of the puzzles will have you jotting down information necessary for puzzles later on. It’s a nice touch, making you feel more engaged and a real, tangible part of the year walking experience. When the puzzles work everything comes together in one seamlessly unsettling package.
The visuals are something out of a picture book, very minimalist in design, much like the game’s sound. It all works cohesively, luring you into a false sense of security before making you realize this isn’t one of those books you read as a child. And again, the scares take you completely off-guard, making you resent how endearing the visuals are. It all works in a smart and slick way.
It’s extremely important to explain that Year Walk requires you to download a secondary free app titled the “Year Walk Companion.” In order to truly appreciate the entirety of the game, the companion is essential. Again, my comparison to a novella rings true, as the companion is all about reading back-story and learning more about the Swedish folklore of year walking. But if that doesn’t interest you, simply wait until you’ve finished the actual game – the companion will come into play in an exciting new way that will truly surprise you.
Giving myself a few days after I completed the game before writing this review, I’m surprised to find how Year Walk has stayed in my mind. Walking through those woods, I was there. I was a part of it all as the story began to unravel. Maybe in the moment, the obscure puzzle design will take you out of the experience. But once it’s all said and done, the visions feel like they’re yours. Year Walk isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve read this far it probably is for you. Treat yourself to something different. At the very worst, you’ve just experienced something wholly unique on your mobile device. At the very best, all of those feelings Year Walk made you feel will resonate with you for years to come.
Written by Phillip Maciel