Make no mistake: Year Walk is a beautiful and enigmatic game that creates a bleak atmosphere you won’t find in other titles on the App Store. There’s some serious artistry going on here. And rather than explaining anything to players, it trusts them to suss out its many mysteries. You might be enchanted by the game. You might become obsessed with it. On the other hand, you might find some puzzles indecipherable, waste a bunch of time walking around fruitlessly, and rage-quit, never to open the app again. It all depends on how patient, smart, and lucky you are.
Developer Simogo says the game is based on Swedish folklore, but you won’t learn anything about the subject unless you download the separate (and free) Year Walk Companion app. The companion app has informative write-ups about the mythological creatures you encounter in the game (plus a big secret of its own), so if you play Year Walk, you definitely need to download the companion.
A “year walk” is an ancient Swedish tradition of walking through the woods at night to see what your future holds. (We’ll take the game’s word on it, because neither Google nor Wikipedia turns up any information about this tradition). At the start of the game, the woman you love warns you that going on a year walk is a bad idea, but you pay her no mind. And she’s right: the moment you step outside, you find yourself trapped in a nightmare of disturbing visions, lonely exploration, and cryptic puzzle-solving.
Most of the environment is open to you from the start, and the game lets you wander around, poking at oddities and following mythical creatures to your heart’s content. It doesn’t tell you where to go or what to do; instead, it trusts that you’ll figure it out on your own.
As you wander around, you’ll find mysterious hints and curious objects that you’re not sure what to do with. There’s a box with a dial on it, for instance, and you can turn the dial to highlight different symbols, but it’s clear that the answer to this puzzle lies elsewhere. Most of the puzzles have you do standard adventure game things like tapping items in a certain order or carrying objects from one screen to another. Sometimes the solution is obvious, but other times it’s elusive– often frustratingly so. There are no hints or nudges in the game aside from what you can find by exploring the environment.
Whether or not you appreciate this kind of hands-off gameplay approach largely depends on your level of patience. We got through several of the puzzles easily (and felt smart doing it), but before long found ourselves stuck, with nothing to do but run around, baffled and annoyed and wanting to move on. The game world is large, complicated, and sparse enough to be a pain to navigate through, particularly when you’re searching for hints you’re not even sure you’re going to find.
Other games, like The Room, have managed to find a happy medium between challenging puzzles and rewarding solutions. But too often, Year Walk tucks the puzzle solutions away where they’re annoyingly hard to find.
And that’s too bad, because Year Walk is a gorgeous, atmospheric game. Will appeal to a certain type of player? Absolutely. But we found it too cryptic and frustrating for our tastes. Thankfully, several online walkthroughs have already sprung up, so even if you find yourself stuck you can see how it ends. And whether you need assistance or not, be prepared to do a lot of reading in the Companion app before you reach the “real” ending.
Trying new things in any market is risky, and developers should be rewarded for attempting something beyond the standard game tropes we’ve seen hundreds of times. Year Walk does that. But it’s also a game, and games should be enjoyable to play. Year Walk is unique, but we can’t say we enjoyed playing it very much.