Wandering through the wintery Swedish forests of Year Walk is an eerily disquieting experience. Snow drifts silently across your view as you make your way down paths lined with ominously suggestive carvings and monuments, and the screen flickers and speckles like dusty old celluloid being passed through a rusty projector. The only audible sounds are that of the natural – the underfoot crunch of snow, the gentle trickle of a nearby stream, and occasionally, the unnerving drones of the wholly unnatural.
Based on the 19th century Swedish folklore of årsgång – an ominous prophetic vision quest intended to reveal fortunes for the year ahead – Year Walk is a horror game with a brooding ambience so thick that it envelopes like few other iOS titles. It brandishes its teeth every now and then with a few well timed jump scares, but it’s the suggested horrors, the hanging wooden dolls and trails of blood, that give it such an effective atmosphere, much like the unsettlingly tense early Silent Hill’s.
Year Walk is the antithesis of the socially connected, bite-sized distance runners and cutesy puzzlers that saturate mobile gaming, and a change of direction from the whimsical titles Malmö based developer Simogo made its name with. It’s a dark, deeply engrossing adventure that demands to be played, prologue to conclusion, in a solitary late night sitting with a pair of headphones in a dimly lit room. Scratch away at its fettered exterior, however, and you’ll find the same elegance of design that made Beat Sneak Bandit and Bumpy Road such joys to play.
Simogo’s understanding of iOS’s capabilities and limitations as a platform are evident throughout the construction of Year Walk’s simplistic design. There’s no start screen, no option menus; only some introductory prose before you open your eyes in the beautiful paper cut-out styled woods.
This forest setting is constructed from a sequence of parallel plains interconnected by multiple pathways, which limits navigational complexity, ensuring that the challenge remains on figuring out puzzles, not figuring out how to get to the puzzles. Similarly, first-person movement is effortless, with sideways swipes dragging the silvery grey trees of the foreground across your view and pulling on the soft fading white arrows that appear at the vertical edge of the screen, indications of backwards and forwards pathways, unfolding the adjoining scene. Even interacting with the games’ environmental puzzles is a simplistic affair, requiring nothing more than movement, multi-touch, and in one inspired mechanical twist, clever use of the iPhone’s tilt-sensitive accelerometer.
Throughout, Year Walk is an intuitive delight to interact with, which is essential considering the confusing progression of narrative events. A Year Walk is an abstract journey, one that challenges the mind with the macabre and metaphysical, and the ever increasing obscurity coupled with the open world maze-like construction of the forest can often confound progression. Tree-carvings, gravestones and ghostly premonitions all serve as guiding lights, but in the instance that you’re left tracing circles around scenic footpaths in search of a missed clue, the atmospheric tension so carefully engineered through its aesthetic design isn’t nearly as effective.
As an antidote to this lack of direction Year Walk comes with a free companion app containing a reference guide to the folklore that inspired the game; a book of mini-essays that proves both useful and educational in equal measure. All of Year Walk’s puzzle-sequences are structured around the mythical creatures said to be encountered during årsgång, and the companion app is structured similarly, with a page dedicated to each. Within, clues are nestled inside riddling descriptions, adding both an extra layer of depth and a smoothing stone to wear down the rough difficulty of progression.
Simogo’s integration of these two disparate apps is another wisely judged and well-balanced element of Year Walk‘s design; evidence of the studio’s crystal clear artistic vision. Throughout, Year Walk extols all of the simplicity driven design virtues of its host platform effortlessly, with harmoniously attuned mechanics and aesthetics breathing character into its unusual narrative.
It’s the depth and execution of its vision, matched only by Capybyra Games’ majestic Superbrothers: Swords and Swocery, that makes Year Walk something of a rare treasure within the realms of iOS gaming. It’s a simple, beautiful, if sometimes confusing puzzler, whose original premise and disturbing atmosphere will linger in your mind long after its brilliantly suggestive end-sequence.