Year Walk

It’s a grand mercy that Year Walk is from a simple Indie studio, released exclusively on iOS for an all-too-generous $3.99. I can’t fathom the tactics a PR team might have employed to sell this game:

“Year Walk is cardiac arrest and existential terror in the palm of your hand!”

“Year Walk is a disturbing odyssey into Sweden’s dark heart, with puzzles!”

“Say goodbye to pixel-hunting and inventories, Year Walk is the digital embodiment of your most crushing nightmares!”**

Year Walk is all of those things, and an imposing measure more.

Right from the first note of pale light that shines through the iPhone to the last chilling image fading away, Year Walk is one of the most arresting games I've played in some time. The player is without a name (or is he?): a simple peasant in the Swedish hinterlands who has locked himself away without food or drink until Midnight, upon which he ventures into the surrounding woods to make his “year walk.” While on this ambulatory vision quest he meets spirits both benevolent and vengeful, who conspire to show him his future. It is a dangerous and terrifying risk that must be seen through once begun.

Year Walk is presented on a horizontal plane, traversed by swiping from side-to-side, and moving forward and backward at predetermined points. The art-style feels equal parts painterly and papercraft, like a storybook with excellent sound design. The crunch of snow under every step and the low hum of wind moving through the trees perfectly capture the setting and make the environment feel much larger than the screen rendering it.

The early minutes of exploring the forest and finding the first puzzles impart a sense of personal abandonment and isolation. However, the forest quickly proves more populated than initially thought, and more sinister than impartial. Venturing deeper into the wilderness is hair-raising, and made more urgent by the complexity of the puzzles. Year Walk is best played in the company of a stiff drink and a means to take notes of everything you see. Nothing is wasted here, and everything found along these beaten paths serves to inform another puzzle or detail of the creatures that await you.

Year Walk’s ingenuity isn’t just applied to its environmental storytelling, but also to its puzzle mechanics, which make both standard and unexpected use of the iOS interface. There are no menus or extra-textual elements to be found, but several of the later challenges use clever artistic cues to tell the player to “think outside the phone,” so to speak, leading to some puzzles that literally upend the expectations for a touch-based adventure game. Year Walk’s gameplay elements are crafted to work in uniquely particular ways, never repeating the same trick twice, but always working only one way. This makes replayability somewhat moot, given how interested one is in seeing the story again, but it is perfect as a stand-alone experience. Likewise, some of the puzzles might be too obtuse for players to figure out, but fortunately the atmosphere is so engrossing that taking a moment to track down a walkthrough doesn’t detract from the journey. The game takes care to separate the puzzles from the payoff, while still making them feel integral to the tale- a difficult and impressive achievement.

As a game, Year Walk would be an effectively scary little one-off, but when played in concert with the Companion App, it becomes an indispensable classic. The Companion is ostensibly a brief encyclopedia that gives players a primer for the Swedish folklore that the story is based on, but without spoiling anything, it soon proves to contain far more information and intrigue. It takes Year Walk to even greater harrowing heights, enriching the game tenfold. Make no mistake, it would be a grievous error to play Year Walk without reading the Companion App alongside it.

The difficulty of explaining Year Walk without giving its secrets away is self-evident at this point. Anyone reading this who has already played it knows what I mean. For the laymen though, and those who are merely curious, I’ll just say that it’s one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played, and also one of the most terrifying horror experiences in recent and bygone memory.

**be sure to play it with headphones!