A beautiful meditative puzzler.
Unraveling brain-busting puzzles room by room isn’t normally as meditative as it is in The Sojourn, but that’s partly what makes it special, even among a growing number of genre counterparts. Whereas Portal kept players invested with its humor and The Turing Test relied on its narrative trolley problem, The Sojourn imbues its world with an overwhelming sense of mindfulness and unexpected relaxation that eases players into solving puzzle after challenging puzzle.
It’s not long after you begin The Sojourn when its mood swallows you whole. With vibrant blues, greens, and golds decorating the early levels, it’s visually stunning, and possesses a dreamlike quality aided by an inability to rush through its world. There’s no sprint button, and while there is a jump button, it hardly does anything and I’m not sure why it’s there in the first place.
With its slow-moving soundtrack, The Sojourn evokes a feeling stronger than any first-person puzzle game I’ve ever played. It’s precisely the feeling it’s going for, and given how pauseworthy the puzzles can get, you’ll rarely need to rush anyway.
Like the genre is known to do, The Sojourn introduces its complexity one step at a time. Every puzzle utilizes an ethereal world which you can step into in several different ways. While in this alt-world, you can interact with various stone statues. Those of birds can swap places with you, to be used as weights or to circumnavigate obstacles your corporeal form can’t pass through otherwise.
Giant harps play a quickly familiar tune and build temporary bridges. Their instructive melody helps you understand just how much time you have before the song’s magical properties revert back to nothingness. Globe statues, meanwhile, emit tunnels of light blue ether, like the short-term time travel pathways in Donnie Darko. They can be spun and redirected to alter a given puzzle room.
Later mechanics continue to introduce complexity to The Sojourn, like relics that can ‘awaken’ these devices even when you’re not in the ethereal realm, and different kinds of obstacles that require you to carefully tread through each enigma. Throughout the appropriately brief game, it rewards progress with consistent ‘aha!’ moments. The puzzles fall just shy needing to be googled, which not only keeps the pacing strong, it means you’ll repeatedly feel smart and satisfied for having found your way out of another difficult chapter.
That sense of progress is even more rewarding than the game’s sometimes touching, but more often platitudinal scrolls which sit at many finish lines. Later on, you’ll need to solve bonus sections of puzzle rooms to unlock these scrolls, but because their messages tend to equate to fortune cookie musings, they don’t often feel worth the extra effort.
Story elements are better, albeit more cryptic, told through human statues depicting the lives of a particular family. Starting with the birth of a newborn baby, these statues reappear regularly throughout The Sojourn as they silently and motionlessly let players decide what it all means. Thematically, when you consider the game’s name and some of these frozen-in-time displays, it all seems to be a reflection on the transitory nature of our lives. It’s profound at times, and suits the meditative tone completely, even as it’s sometimes undone by the scrolls which never read as deeply as they were written.
Still, the trance-like quality of the game is its greatest attribute. First-person puzzlers have a tendency to irritate eventually as their learning curves get too steep or they begin to break their own established rules in the name of complexity. The Sojourn commits neither of these familiar genre sins. Each time you enter a new puzzle room, you’ll plainly see all that you need to consider to beat it. Nothing is hidden out of your perspective from any angle, and every piece of geometry is carefully crafted. The end result is a deep trust between player and puzzle where the former can be assured if it’s present, it’s important.
This immaculate level design is made even better by the way it’s all built right before your eyes behind every new door. The world swiftly but gracefully morphs into shape and the smooth textures in their gorgeous hues are stunning from beginning to end. It’s an effect that never gets old and welcomes you to each new challenge. Collectively, it’s all such a peaceful experience despite also being quite challenging.
The Sojourn doesn’t break the mold of the first-person puzzler. Its room-by-room design is akin to so many genre greats that came before it. What it does uniquely, however, is tell its tale and present its problems with such a soothing sense of relaxation and meditation that it becomes a breath of fresh air amid a hectic game release calendar so often focused on intergalactic wars and gritty anti-heroes saving the day.
The Sojourn’s stakes aren’t so dire, but it still has something to say if you’re ready to listen. Put on some headphones, turn off your phone, and let The Sojourn wash over you. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
[Reviewed on Xbox One]