Well, I’m sure we’ve done this rodeo… many, many times.
From Portal to Pneuma, Qube to Quantum Conundrum, Braid to The Bridge, blah blah blah, we have another one after so long. The ol’ narrative puzzle-platformer dance that’s been executed across many a universe, and many a pretension. Welcome to The Sojourn.
This is the debut title from UK-based studio Shifting Tides, founded by four people. Formed in January of 2018, the three leads all saw work at Raspina Studio, developers of the middling FPS E.T. Armies, whereas their musician has been working on titles like the recent Children of Morta and the Kickstarter darling Lona: Realm of Colors. The publishing is also being handled by Iceberg Interactive, the Icelanders responsible for publishing titles like Killing Floor 2 and Conarium.
You play as umm… damn, uhh… well, do you remember the into to Pneuma: Breath of Life? Ok, imagine that, but instead of some annoying snarky Brit who thinks he’s God, it’s two orbs of concentrated light that brighten your way forward. They’ll be helping you banish the darkness, while also helping you take advantage of it for the game’s many, many puzzles.
Now, with these first-person puzzle platformers, it’s typical to see both the narrative and gameplay take turns to be the center stage. The Bridge and Braid were infamous for this, seeing you complete truly mind-bending puzzles, and then your reward would be a soliloquy written by a guy who loves run on sentences. People in glass houses aside, The Sojourn seems to have more a focus on gameplay, and letting the narrative become purely environmental in framing.
The Sojourn’s main puzzle ingredients come from dual-world gameplay and various types of statues. While in “the dark world”, you can activate certain objects, like statues you can swap positions with, stone harps that play melodies which build bridges, and duplicators for statues. There’s a lot of variation on this one trick, and over the course of your 10-to-15-hour adventure, you will see yourself tested.
There’s no real world strategies you can apply, you’re only allowed to do what Shifting Tides allow you to do in their own rule-books. For example, If there’s a tunnel of “Dark Light” aiming at a statue that you can swap with, then you can still swap with it even if you yourself are not in the dark world. It sounds a bit silly when I put it like that, sure, but it’s still really fun to figure out and understand.
Playing through The Sojourn was like playing Portal if the lead designer was Gerry Kasparov. What seems like a boring game of “activate the bloody switch, fat-ass”, quickly turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of opportunities and “Oh shit, of course!” moments. Both gratifying and easy to understand, but hard to master.
Part of the beauty comes from it finding complexity in simplicity. You’re never not playing with stationary statues, and there’s usually never more than 5 at a time. Hell, some of the most evil puzzles use the least pieces. Placement is everything, and there’s always a deeper meaning. It shows foresight, but as time went on, solutions became more… well, easy.
Once you hit Act 2, the scenery changes, and so does the difficulty. Beyond wildly different spikes of challenges, it seems like you can always strong-arm the solution with a pixel-snipe, and I hate that in puzzle games. While it’s true that you can almost always break the will of a 3-D puzzle platformer by pixel-sniping, it feels more apparent in The Sojourn than it does in, say, the Tool-Assisted Speedruns of Portal.
Regardless, you can still find meaty puzzles thanks to an evolving playground for you tinker in. There are exceptionally easy moments, sure, but you can still find gratifying solutions that don’t come from the statues going “Psst. Hey! Over here. Just look a little to the left. That’s it, good boy”.
You may have noticed that I haven’t spoken about the story much, but it’s like I said, it’s all in the environmental icing instead of the gameplay cake. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you’ll usually find buildings and monuments dedicated to letting you know what happened to this world. The smaller ones which are situated within the games levels and not the skybox are the main story it tells, but they feel inadequate.
It never feels like The Sojourn has a full foot inside the narrative door. You’ll see themes of devotion, courage, adulthood and deception, but they never form into a cohesive shell of whatever story needs to be told. If only there was a way we could read borderline exposition to find out what the point in all of this was… maybe if it was tied into the games levels as a reward for completing them? Hmm… A-ha!
Yes, various levels of the game have secret bonuses inside them. When you finish a normal level, there’s the possibility of it opening up another mini-puzzle inside of it, that holds a collectible as a reward. There are also various levels that are dedicated to simply obtaining these collectibles, but what are said collectibles? Fortune cookies.
Okay, fine, they’re not literally fortune cookies, they’re scrolls dubbed “Merits of Life”, and each one you obtain has a different message. It’s the same kinda thing you saw at the end of Worlds in Braid and The Bridge, or the rewards in Ascendance, and to this day, Braid continues to be the only title to do it half-decently.
It’s such a disconnect from the nuance and underlying storytelling The Sojourn was attempting to do, and offers nothing but the bare minimum in “fake woke” writing. It rarely ever has a connection to the story either, it’s just a semi-tangible stream of consciousness that serves nothing but self-indulgence in favor of the devs.
Seriously, why is still a thing? It’s not even an auteur decision that can be accepted or forgiven, it’s a mere placeholder for lacking narratives, although The Sojourn suffers less than other contemporaries. For one, it has an aesthetic which can be enjoyed by a generic demographic. Pastel waterfalls and vibrant shades of purple and teal brighten the world with a heavenly hue at first. The second world plays with darker colors and sinister shading, but it can still be a comforting beauty, despite deeper tones.
The music can also be a tad grating at times. Not the ambient music that plays in the world, since that’s a perfect companion piece to the wonders set before you, but the harp melody that plays within the statue. It’s a very nice harp piece, but it stays with you for ages, and after a while, hearing it repeated with multiple Harp statues playing was maddening.
At the end of it all, I can’t say The Sojourn doesn’t try, because it most certainly does, more than most entries in the genre. The story it may be trying to tell with such dead-set specific environmental executions may not be appreciated, but damn, the gameplay is surprisingly smart. Smarter than what I may have described.
In the end, The Sojourn is a smart but narratively lacking title that fails to make an impact beyond its physical proceedings. Whether you get your moneys worth is whether you can pay attention and withstand the sheer pretentiousness given to you by the written pieces. However, it plays well, it gives you plenty of “A-ha!” moments, it looks nice, and it sounds good.
What a description I’ve given. I should write press releases.
This Review of The Sojourn was based on the Xbox One version of the game. A review copy was provided by the publishers for the purpose of this review.
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