Review

The Sojourn Review — Puzzlingly Pretentious

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The Sojourn aims to capture big themes in this first-person puzzler. Created by London developer Shifting Tides, this beauteous art piece follows the life journey of a young boy as vignettes of blindfolded statues tell his tale between puzzle stages. While the colourful, unfolding levels and harp-plucking soundtrack invoke a sense of calmness, the heavy-handed moralising of the game’s writing pulls the player away from its peaceful atmosphere. Overlong and overwrought, the bright sparks of creativity within The Sojourn are dimmed by its missteps.

Upon first impression, The Sojourn is undeniably beautiful. As the player takes their first steps, an abandoned sandstone city springs to life around them, bricks self-assembling into walls and pathways. The different stages of life are represented by different structures, with the game world winding around a grand library, a forest full of wells, and a dark desert landscape. The art is gorgeous and would be better appreciated if the game did not contain text. Trite, motivational poster-type messages pop up throughout the playthough, feeling as though the game is constantly prodding the player on the shoulder to make sure they understand its themes. This awful writing is even offered as a reward for completing bonus challenges, proffering wisdom such as “Lullabies are many and sang by those who want you to sleep,” or “Wearing your truth on your sleeve is brave, even if others mock you for it.” The journey of the boy’s life is already clear from the statues, and the story as a whole would be stronger without the writing, trusting the player to come to their own conclusions.

The puzzles themselves are generally solid. Each one involves the player switching between light and dark worlds to get from the entrance of a room to its exit. The dark world is used to power the various types of statues found in each level, which can be used to traverse the world in different ways. Initially, the puzzles feature just one method of entering the dark world; a portal to step on, and one interactable statue, an angel that the player can swap places with. By bouncing back and forth with the statue, a path to the exit is found. While in the dark world, the player can swap places with the angel statue as much as they like, but once the player has moved a certain number of steps, the world returns to light, rendering the statue useless. The dark world timer is communicated poorly, as one can easily make the mistake of thinking the switch was measured on time spent rather than distance moved, leading the player to needlessly run around like a headless chicken. Once the mechanic is understood, however, the levels flow nicely, ramping up in difficulty and introducing new elements such as duplication fields, which temporarily duplicate a statue, and harps, which rebuild adjacent paths for a short time.

When a new life stage is entered, the difficulty drops back down, presumably to accommodate learning the new statues. A vast array of devices are offered, such as relics that can power a statue in the daylight, mirrors that create tunnels of darkness, gates that switch the world between light and dark, and an eyeball that must be stared at to switch to the dark. Allowing time to learn each new gadget is wise, but the difficulty of the game ends up forming an unusual wave pattern, rather than a curve, building from very easy to very hard and then repeating every 12 or so levels. This variance works well in the library and forest levels, which give access to four or five puzzles at a time, but is frustrating in the final act, which resumes a linear structure with access to a single puzzle at a time. With all of the devices from previous levels at play, these last levels are very complex, so access to several different puzzles at a time would give a stuck player more to work with. The player is also unable to backtrack to previous life stages, so any skipped bonus levels are gone for good.

Adding to the frustration is how long the player must take to set up a complicated chain of statues again if they have made a single wrong move. Sometimes a mistake can be rectified easily, but often the player will need to run through the whole puzzle again to have everything in just the right place for them to succeed. An “undo last move” button would help with frustration tremendously, without dropping the difficulty of the game—it would just remove some of the busy work.

At a bit over 14 hours, The Sojourn overstays its welcome. Little irritants at one hour in, like the difficulty in redoing a puzzle, are infuriating by hour 10. The last mechanic added, the eyeball that spawns darkness, feels sloppy compared to the other statues, requiring awkward strafing and moonwalking to get across obstacles. The ability to carry the eye around also means the potential of placing it in the incorrect position is of a magnitude higher than the other puzzle devices, which are either stationary or can only be moved to very specific spots. The Sojourn overstuffs the end-game puzzles with dead ends and fiddling about, losing the tight flow the mid-game puzzles achieved. When a puzzle is finished at this stage, it gives a sense of relief that it is over rather than of achievement. Some of this frustration would be alleviated by playing the game at a leisurely pace, rather than as fast as possible as is required for a review, but the final act would still benefit from a large rework.

The Sojourn gameplay screenshot

Most of the game mechanics are explained fairly well, with the combination of a text box explaining a new idea in the corner and an easy puzzle to test it out. That the mechanic around relics is introduced so poorly, then, is baffling. A relic can be placed in a statue so it can function without darkness. The mechanic is not introduced in a level, like every other aspect of the game, but in a small chamber between the first life area and the second. The player can see a harp, an angel statue, and a switch. The angel statue needs to be moved onto the switch, but the area offers no way to go into the dark world. No text mentions the new mechanic. The player needs to walk directly up to the harp to see that it contains an object, remove it, and place it in the angel statue.

The puzzle is obvious in hindsight, with relic-containing statues emitting a special glow, but since the mechanic had never been used previously, the player would not realise that they suddenly had a new way to interact with objects. The game needs to be consistent with how it communicates with the player. In a wordless game that was all trial and error, this setup would be okay. Since The Sojourn has established a text box is used for new ideas, it needs to use the text box. Having players stuck on a non-puzzle for 10 minutes because they are provided incomplete information is poor game design.

The Sojourn gameplay screenshot

Despite its flaws, The Sojourn has moments of greatness. Weaving a web of dark tunnels or daisy-chaining angel statues to the exit feels wonderful. The game world is stunningly beautiful, and wandering through the vistas is quite peaceful. However, the poor communication with the player, nonsensical greeting card writing, and frustrating final act leave The Sojourn a mixed bag of great puzzles and crappy idioms.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. 

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