Both the Xbox One and PS4 have exclusive downloadable games that are good enough to make people who own the other system, but the week’s biggest release — Unravel — is available on both platforms. The platformer, which resembles LittleBigPlanet and Yoshi’s Woolly World, tells an emotional story while keeping the gameplay lively. Klaus, which has nothing to do with St. Nick, is a dark mystery on the PS4, and Oxenfree, a coming-of-age tale about teenage friends who deal with the supernatural, is Xbox One-only.
(PS4, $20, Everyone 10+)
Like many of his game protagonist brethren, Klaus is conveniently stricken with amnesia at the start of his tale, unaware of who he is or why he’s stuck in a basement. He gets to work, moving boxes and shifting the background to climb his way out of his predicament. As you work your way through each level, the backstory begins to unfold via background clues, filling you in on the grim circumstances behind Klaus’s predicament.
The Super Nintendo-style graphics are an apt fit for the platforming and old-school style stage-and-boss structure. Physics-twisting elements — which force you to manipulate gravity and magnetism to solve the puzzles and advance — stay lively and unpredictable. As you make your way through, you unlock collectibles that serve as symbols for what Klaus went through in his pre-amnesia life, and frequent story twists keep redefining what you’ve learned. Although the puzzle-based nature of the game robs it of replayability — once you know how to solve everything there’s not much challenge — Klaus is an engrossing journey the first time around.
(Xbox One, $20, Teen)
A compelling mix of horror and teen coming-of-age film, the sterling indie Oxenfree dives into the drama and insecurities of youth, exploring them in ways games rarely can manage. The story follows a group of friends who accidentally open a portal to the spirit world. You play as Alex, who brings his new stepbrother to an overnight rager that goes south quickly. As much visual novel as game, much of the gameplay comes in dialogue you select and people you align yourself with. In the backdrop, social cares melt away as life and death starts to hang in the balance.
The branching story changes depending on the choices you make. Small, seemingly insignificant moves — such as saying something supportive to an acquaintance — can alter the story in major ways. The scope of the plot broadens and the stakes only rise as you play on, and the unmerciful auto save makes you live with the tough choices and often disappointing outcomes that result. As cool as the supernatural elements are, Oxenfree is at its best when it focuses on the relationships between the kids, who are just as much lost souls as the spirits they contend with.
(Xbox One, PS4, $20, Everyone)
Art styles that render worlds in craft items are starting to become so common that they lose their charm and whimsy, and have become as much a part of the norm as your standard ice and lava level tropes. Unravel, which stars a character named Yarny who tosses out strands of thread like Spider-Man, is the latest game to take on the gimmick. Tight controls, inventive level design and varied challenges help Unravel stand out from the pack of Yoshi’s Woolly World, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Paper Mario, LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway.
Swinging, dangling and grappling through the whimsical worlds is a joy. Since many obstacles have multiple ways to use your thread to overcome them, your creativity and quick thinking often make the difference between moving on and having to restart. The tone and visuals make Unravel seem to be aimed at children, but the level of challenge can give most any experienced gamer a hard time. Unravel is a smooth, kinetic experience that gets better as it rolls on, and is a pleasant surprise for the early part of the new year.