A year walk -- or "Årsgång" -- is an archaic form of divination in Swedish folklore, in which a person would deprive themselves of sleep and food in a dark room for 24 hours to then venture through the woods towards the local parish. Certain nights, such as New Year's Eve, were said to be better suited than others for a successful journey. The practice was said to offer visions of the coming year.
This forgotten mythology forms the basis of Year Walk, a title from Swedish developer Simogo originally released on smart devices and later on desktop computers. At heart, the game is a tale of love. The story centers around two clandestine lovers, each from a different social world, set in late-19th-century Sweden. Distressed about their future, the player character embarks on a vision quest to learn more about what fate awaits them.
A puzzle-y, adventure-y title with an intriguing premise, brain-tingling gameplay, and unnerving atmosphere to spare, Year Walk shines thanks to some really clever, subversive design, doing equal work to draw players in to this dark world and disorient them enough to keep things slightly unnerving. Previously released on smart devices and PC/Mac, developer Simogo has teamed up with Dakko Dakko to bring the title to Wii U in what they're calling the "definitive edition." We're inclined to agree with that sentiment.
Mechanically speaking, Year Walk is a first-person game on a 2D plane, with most of the action taking place on the main screen. The view is locked facing north, and environments are explored by panning east and west. Defined paths allow north-south movement between areas, with environmental cues to signal where the path goes. Helpfully, a small white arrow appears at the top of the screen pointing up or down to signal a traversable path.
On paper, this locked-view thing sounds like a horribly restrictive way to explore an environment. In practice, however, Year Walk would be a lesser game without it. This viewpoint causes just enough disorientation to lend a labyrinthian quality to the small forest, contributing to the overarching theme of otherworldly mystery. It's a subtle change that makes maintaining your bearings a puzzle in and of itself.
Subtlety is perhaps Year Walk's secret weapon. The divination ritual is a deadly serious journey for the protagonist, and the game treats it accordingly with gravity and precision. Nothing in Year Walk is superfluous -- from the sound of snow crunching underfoot to thoughtfully arranged scenery, every element is deliberately placed to bring this journey to life. The fixed viewpoint allows Simogo total control over each scene, empowering the studio to craft each moment to be the most impactful. Cryptic clues are doled out at the perfect pace to keep you desperate for more information. More than once we found our jaws dropped after a masterful, unexpected reveal when idly panning the camera around to find a path.
Similarly jaw-dropping is how well Year Walk fits with the Wii U GamePad. Only a handful of games have made critical use of the Wii U's dual-screen setup, and Year Walk does so with aplomb. Everything works so lovely that the game may as well have been conceived with the GamePad in mind.
Primarily, excellent use of the GamePad brings the game to life outside the confines of the screen. The second screen gives access to all sorts of useful information and makes for an effective extension of these dark woods into the real world. The Encyclopedia has entries on each of the creepy supernatural beings encountered --critical reading to fully understand the game world, in addition to being deeply fascinating folklore. A handy-dandy map helps you orient yourself, and a hint screen will nudge you in the right direction if desired. New on Wii U is the Notepad, which does exactly what it says on the tin -- not the most glamorous of features, but a practical necessity to keep track of the cryptic hints and symbols that appear throughout. And you'll want to keep the GamePad speakers cranked up, lest you miss out on additional atmosphere and key audio clues. A few other subversive surprises await -- some that put a big, dumb grin on our face -- but we won't spoil the fun.
Year Walk co-opts the GamePad's gyroscope for interacting with the environment: hold ZL to bring up a cursor and tilt the GamePad to move it around the screen. Click ZR to "tap" or hold it down to "grab." Adaptation of multi-touch controls work well enough in most scenarios, but can be fiddly when rapid manipulation or steady movement in a certain direction is required. The gyro is functional but cumbersome in these cases -- it won't stop an action from happening, but for a moment the design's overall elegance drops a touch.
It won't take long to see all that Year Walk has to offer -- thoughtful players will reach its conclusion in a mere two hours or so. While the experience may be short-lived, Year Walk feels like a more complete and satisfying experience than many games 10x its size. Like most great art, though, Year Walk sticks with you well beyond your time with it.
Year Walk is an immensely satisfying master class in atmosphere and subtlety, and this "definitive" edition on Wii U is the new best way to have the experience. Playing it is like flipping through a storybook of yore, one passed down through the ages and meant to scare the bejeebus out of children with dire messages and dark illustrations. Fascinating mythology, clever subversions, and a satisfying storyline make Year Walk a must.
Those who've played the game already may find little reason to pick up another version, but anyone who's missed out so far has little excuse not to dive in now. Set aside an evening and dim the lights: Year Walk is worth the trip.