"May the road rise up to meet you" is the first line of an ancient Irish prayer on behalf of travelers. It goes on to wish for a journey of warm sunshine, soft rain and a fair wind.
Old Man's Journey is like the video game version of that old blessing, in which the mutability of the road traveled is the focus, rather than the traveler.
At the beginning of this game, the old man of the title receives a letter at his home, which concerns him greatly. He sets off on what looks to be a long journey. There's no dialogue in this game, but he's taking a large backpack and a walking stick.
He soon comes to a point where the road seems to stop, but pleasant hills grace the background of his two-dimensional landscape. So I point and click on one of those hills and line it up with the old man's position. And so, he is able to hop onto the new hill and proceed along his way.
This is, essentially, the entire game's activity. It's a series of puzzles in which I figure out how to move ridges and slopes so that they create a path forward. The hill on which the old man stands cannot be moved, so sometimes I have to point and click him someplace out of the way, while I line up the land.
There is no tutorial. No text whatsoever. Whenever I get stuck, I point-and-click my way through the puzzle. If I see something that looks interesting — a bell, a bike, a bucket — I click on it, and am sometimes rewarded with cute audio or cheerful animation.
Vienna-based developer Broken Rules is best known for And Yet It Moves, a 2009 game about paper shapes and environmental manipulation. In Old Man's Journey, it has introduced interesting variations that illuminate this theme, such as sheep who serve as obstacles that must be wrangled out of the way.
Later puzzles add a nice dash of complexity, including large wheels that are sent crashing down steep hills in order to bulldoze stone walls. There are also sections in which a train and a truck serve as rapid transportation, requiring almost arcade-like responses to the landscape in order to progress. These are less successful, but add a welcome change of pace.
In a way, this game is like a platformer, in which the platforms are the variable item, and the protagonist is almost incidental, at least insofar as the action plays out. I focus on tilting and shaping the landscape, rather than conquering it. It's a curiously creative feeling, even though it's basically mechanical.
Old Man's Journey successfully presents a 3D world constructed from two-dimensional materials. Many surprises appear once hills and mountains are moved around. As a result, the relatively straightforward puzzles managed to hold my interest for the duration of this short game.
At the end of each chapter, the old gent takes a rest and we are treated to a memory of his past, a story that adds up to regret, love and redemption. The story is told through lovely images that bristle with color, energy and meaning.
A simple mechanic and a basic tale are really only augmentations to Old Man's Journey's main attraction, which is its beautiful rolling pastoral. This is a wonderfully pretty game.
Presented in a hand-painted style, it conveys the simplicity of a children's book, with the complexity of a layered world, based on an idyllic French countryside. The old man ventures through quaint villages, hardy country roads and breezy seaside lanes that offer wheeling vistas and outdoor scenes. He is assailed by weather and he comes across ominous ruins of an ancient land.
Sometimes he stops to do a bit of people watching — young lovers, a working man, a bad tempered old woman — and as often as not, these remind him of his own past, and off we go to the land of bittersweet memory.
Through these vignettes, the simply drawn old man becomes a whole human being who has lived his life and made his own choices, not all of them wise. Throughout the story, it's not clear how much of his life is a source of regret, and how much is an acknowledgement that he is who he is, that character is destiny. This gives the game an added feeling of narrative depth.
The result is a game that reminds me of a picture postcard, or maybe a whimsical poem written by a friend on a long vacation. Old Man’s Journey is sweet, meandering and undemanding, a pleasant while-away that's full of feeling, at least for as long as the wandering lasts.
Old Man's Journey was reviewed using pre-release "retail" Windows download code provided by Broken Rules. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.