A couple months have gone by since I had the opportunity to preview Jusant, the latest release from developer Don’t Nod. The demo wasn’t a complete homerun, particularly when it came to the more straightforward elements of its storytelling, but I left the experience heavily enticed by the game’s beat-by-beat climbing gameplay and unique atmosphere.
As of October 31st, Jusant is now available in full on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S, and I began the game with no small amount of curiosity. Would the game hold up as successfully in its full form? Would I still feel the same way about the storyline after I got to see all of it? Would the novelty of its atmosphere eventually fade?
Jusant begins with our climbing gear-lugging protagonist venturing across a vast desert peppered with the decaying remains of shipwrecks surrounding a towering monolith of stone. After the climber turns his gaze upward, you gain control of him a ways up the tower with the singular objective of venturing to its highest reaches.
When it comes to specifics, Jusant’s narrative holds its cards close to the chest. There is no dialogue, and as such, the game relies exclusively on environmental storytelling and the long-forgotten writings and letters strewn about from the tower’s prior denizens to paint a picture of the overall plot.
In my preview, I expressed a thorough appreciation for the former, but had a much more muted reaction to the latter—a feeling that unfortunately carried on rather seamlessly into the full experience. There’s no shortage of text boxes to read through, and they all tend to cover very similar themes and types of interactions, with very few standing out or deviating from that formula.
The exceptions to this are the writings from Bianca, whose story unfurls in a more contiguous manner as you ascend higher and higher. There’s a prevalent theme of dealing with the consequences of one’s actions and learning to live with them, even if the outcome wasn’t what you’d expected or hoped. It’s very apt theming for a game about exploring the ruins of a lost civilization. Aside from them though, Jusant’s written portions feel a bit characterless at best and outright banal at worst, which just feels odd when the rest of the title oozes so much charm and offers a pretty singular feel.
The game is very much at its best when it’s not telling you anything directly, but letting you fill in the gaps yourself. Mercifully, that’s what the game spends a majority of its time doing, but it’s hard for the writing to not stand out for the worse when compared with the rest of the experience when it’s the most forward-facing element of the story.
If there was one thing that makes Jusant stand out the most among its contemporaries, it would be its climbing mechanics. Rather than climbing a surface by solely pushing the analogue stick or holding down a button, each press of the left and right triggers causes the protagonist to clutch his respective hand.
After familiarizing yourself with it for a bit, it reveals itself to be a highly intuitive system that grants Jusant’s vertical progression an intrinsic, almost visceral feel. And it isn’t just climbing one rock at a time; you’re also able to swing, rappel, and leap your way through each area as well. Perhaps most importantly, however, the level design of each tier of the tower is able to keep pace with the climbing and thus keep things from getting stale.
Each section throws new twists into the formula, such as needing to time your movement within specific windows or utilizing moving elements of the environment to expedite your progress. Granted, there’s nothing wildly challenging or unexpected about these gameplay alterations, but they keep the fun level consistent and support the already solid foundations of the climbing.
Jusant also establishes its sense of scale as wonderfully as you would expect a game about rock climbing to do so. Especially in moments where you’re climbing a steep incline and can see the gargantuan extent of the monolith above you, the view’s practically dizzying. It’s impressive, even, and it was always a treat to disappear into the innards of the tower to come back out and see just how much distance you’ve gained.
In terms of collectibles outside of the penned notes from the previous inhabitants, they largely serve little purpose other than urging you to explore more thoroughly and discover offshoots. They’re rewarding insofar as they let you experience more of the beautiful game world, but mechanically lackluster.
The shell collectibles are fantastic, however. When you discover one, the climber will put it up to his ear and listen to the echoes of events that occurred there when the tower was still populated while the camera hones in the way things are in the present. Seeing a decrepit, dry basin as you listen to the ephemeral laughter of children and splashing of water is quite the juxtaposition. It’s engaging and invites the player to imagine the way things used to be.
With all that said, if there was one major gripe to take with Jusant, it would be its lack of difficulty. I used the word consistent to describe the gameplay earlier, and that’s exactly what it is. The game does ask you to use its different elements in a way that keeps things from getting boring, of course, but never in a way that really puts your execution to the test and certainly not for very long. I would have liked be pressed more by the game, at least a time or two.
The game is also a bit little short, with credits rolling close to the six-and-a-half hour mark on my playthrough. Jusant does a lot more with the time it has than a lot titles manage to, but I still felt like there could have been a few more twists and challenges thrown into the mix to elevate things further.
Ebb & Flow
As alluded to above, atmosphere is one of Jusant’s greatest strengths. The gorgeously stylized assets, the varied implementation of lighting, the ambient soundscapes, and reserved utilization of its music are all balanced in such a way that its aesthetics alone are engaging to take in. I found myself consistently wishing I could hop into a first-person view to really stop and appreciate everything around me.
Keeping in line with the gameplay differences, each biome offers a distinct look and feel from those that precede it as well. From the lower dry canyons to the tower’s humid, mossier heights, the turn of every corner and the surmounting of every ledge will greet the player with something brand new more often than not. This attention to detail pays off massively for the way it affects the pacing of the game, but it also goes a long way in making the abandoned tower feel like it was once lived in.
Jusant’s brighter environs are pleasing and invite you to explore them more thoroughly, while the darker interior sections feel ominous as you work your way through them. This is particularly true when you listen to a shell and hear the remnants of bustling crowds while looking at the deteriorating state of things in the present.
The soundtrack is also phenomenal, essentially to the point of being a storytelling tool all its own. Given the game’s relaxed pacing music can be pretty rare for certain stretches, but this just makes the moments where it returns all the more impactful, heightening the effects of its heavy crescendos and staccato jingles.
Jusant is not a game for everyone, but if you expect it to be one you’ll appreciate, it probably will be. Its noteworthy climbing mechanics are kept fresh throughout the adventure by asking you to utilize them in different ways, its ponderous atmosphere is top notch, and the environmental storytelling within its detailed world really gets your imagination going to a degree I hadn’t remotely expected.
But it isn’t perfect. It’s more traditional storytelling elements are weaker, it doesn’t challenge the player very much, and it runs short at about six or so hours long. These detractions end up being minor disappointments in the face of a very successful adventure game, but they’re still there all the same, and it’s a shame Jusant doesn’t eschew them to become something even more special than it already is.
Review code provided by Don’t Nod for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Don’t Nod.