Don’t call it free advertising, but we almost feel obliged to put a link to the Steam store page of Journal just so anyone interested in it after reading this review can actually find the thing. It apparently never occurred to Locked Door Puzzle that “journal” is the sort of word that crops up a lot on the internet and their game isn’t exactly Google friendly. At least call it Richard Perrin’s Journal or something; the game drips with the sweat of a “personal project” so it wouldn’t exactly be inappropriate.
Journal is one of those “walk-around-em-up” games which are commonly branded as “art games” by lazy journalists, so one benefit of it being hard to Google is that fewer people will find this review and leave “well you just didn’t get it” comments. Rest assured; as smart as it may or may not be Journal gives you no opportunity to not get it. It has a chunky monologue at the end which pretty much explains everything and throws personal interpretation to the wind, and you spend the first 10 minutes or so of the game talking to the characters about your journal and pretty much all of them say something along these lines:
“What?! Your journal that you write all your thoughts, feelings and memories in has mysteriously gone blank? No, I don’t know anything about it. Say, you remember when you broke that window last week and blamed it on someone else? YOU DON’T?! Well good luck with dealing with the fallout of that, go talk to X.”
So that’s the basic premise; from there you play a teenage girl and you walk around talking to a cast of stereotypical characters and little problems pop off here and there, but there’s an underlying sense that something bigger is going on that the player isn’t aware of yet. The only real part of “gameplay” involved in the package is little decisions presented here and there, and this is where Journal sometimes doesn’t really work.
Journal has a nasty habit of giving you choices but not enough information to make actual decisions based on the story. For example, early on there’s a choice where your best friend is upset because she’s being accused of breaking a window at school and a choice pops up for you to respond with either “curiosity” or “suspicion”. Well at this point: you don’t know who did it, you don’t know if she did it, you don’t know anything about this character and you don’t know anything about the relationship between these characters, so what do you base it off? This is perhaps the part where the “you just don’t get it” comments roll in, but if the point of the decisions is to remove player agency to the degree where they may as well flip a coin for all the difference it makes then that’s a pretty dumb point.
Not everything in Journal is like this though; the choices actually work when you’re given decisions that affect other characters instead. So you actually talk to characters first, get a feel of the situation they’re in, decide what characters you like and what ones you don’t and then are presented with a choice that you actually care about. What holds it back from being as good as say, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, is the fact there’s not enough consequence in whatever you choose. Sometimes when you make a decision, your character will have a little monologue about how she feels about the whole thing and what she did which magically adds itself to the journal, but most of the time the situation doesn’t really come up again and the game moves on.
Probably the biggest issue with the story itself is the main character. As stated earlier most of the other characters are sort of cardboard cutout stereotypes, and considering the length of the game (around 80 minutes) and the number of them, we probably couldn’t hope for much more. The problem here is that this town appears to have nothing but a batch of easily identifiable stereotypes and your character appears to be friends with all of them. This means your character is friends with the nerdy loner guy, the bitchy popular girl, the bland popular boy, the quiet weird girl and everything in between and the conclusion we can come to from this is that the girl we have to play is the blandest, most indistinguishable person ever born. This sort of hurts Journal later when deeper personal issues start to factor into it; her lack of personality and the disjointed nature of different parts of her life make it more challenging to have the appropriate “feels” when the time comes.
The standout aspect of Journal is the art style, with the game taking place inside a sketch book complete with page flips when entering new locations. It does look very nice, even if it does get a bit glitchy at times when moving through a lot of locations quickly. But for gosh golly’s sake Richard Perrin, if you want your game to look great and be taken seriously don’t give it a jump button when it has no use for one as most gamers will just hop around like the entire world is covered in hot coal.
For all its shortcomings, Journal does pull itself together at the end when all is revealed. The final punch may not knock you out for the count but it pretty much works and the game builds its way there competently. Journal is far from perfect and the concept does fall flat on its face occasionally but the bits of it that work do work well, and more importantly for a game of this kind it never feels insincere. It’s not award-baiting in any way; this is clearly something the people behind it really wanted to make, and that alone should carry it for the people who are into this kind of interactive storytelling.
And as promised, the Steam store page - http://store.steampowered.com/app/261680/
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Journal is a very personal game that works in places and falls apart in others. Those who can get on board with it from the start will find a satisfying 80 minute experience.