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Unravel Tugs at Balls of Yarn and Heartstrings

NEW YORK — Gamers tend to view Electronic Arts as a company that pushes out a lot of action and sports games year after year, but now and then, the company does something delightfully different. Unravel is a side-scrolling puzzle/platformer that pits Yarny, a cute, knitted protagonist, against the beautiful Swedish countryside, with understandably poignant results.

I tried out a hands-on demo of Unravel at an EA press event, and was absolutely elated to play alongside Martin Sahlin, the game's creator. You may remember Sahlin from his charming, heartfelt presence at EA's E3 press conference, and his passion for the project shone through every part of Unraveled. I played through a tutorial level as well as a more difficult section from later in the game, and both seem gorgeous and more challenging than I expected.

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In the first level, I took control of Yarny, a feline creature made from red yarn, as he set out from his home: the knitting basket of an old lady who clearly misses her children and grandchildren. The wordless story communicates a lot through visuals and music, and it was interesting to see a game focus on an elderly woman's story about her family rather than a grizzled, middle-aged dad with an ax to grind.

The game itself is a physics-based puzzle/platformer. Yarny has a very limited move set: He can move from side to side, jump short distances, lasso his yarn to distant targets and create bouncy bridges between two of said targets. As such, a lot of the game is about taking advantage of your environment. For example, when I reached the old woman's backyard, I had to fill a fountain with water, then push four apples into it to create a makeshift bridge across.

While figuring out Unravel's simple puzzles feels fairly rewarding, the biggest treat of the game is seeing Yarny interact with his extremely realistic environments. The setting is based on northern Scandinavia, where Sahlin grew up and continues to spend a lot of time. (Yarny himself emerged from Sahlin trying to come up with a game pitch while on vacation at a remote cabin with nothing but yarn to inspire him.) From snow-covered rocks to thorny tree branches, and from overfilled trash cans to hungry crows in the background, there's a wonderful feel of magical realism that pervades the whole game.

The puzzles are rather satisfying as well. In the second level I played through, Yarny had to go through a complicated sequence of lassoing targets, creating bridges, and jumping from platform to platform, making use of objects like crushed soda cans to gain just a little more altitude. Unravel may look like a relaxing, artsy game, but it's got just enough bite to keep players on their toes.

Although the controls could be a little tetchy, especially when trying to lasso onto targets and swing from point to point, the game was generally forgiving enough to let me make a few mistakes on the way. Still, if EA can tighten up the game's controls before launch, doing so would only work in its favor.

So far, it seems that Unravel is well on its way to providing a satisfying, offbeat adventure with some real emotional resonance. The game is slated for release in early 2016, although it has no set price yet.