Why Datura fails where Journey succeeds

Coming off the back of Journey was always going to be tough for Datura, this week’s odd little PSN release. It wasn’t long ago that Thatgamecompany raised the bar for innovative, thought-provoking experiences with its critically-acclaimed hit, and it can’t help but put the latest title from Linger in Shadows developer Plastic to shame.

It might seem unfair to compare these two by simply filing them under the label of ‘a bit weird’, but there are some striking similarities between them that warrant the close up. Both take players on a journey unlike anything else seen in gaming (one, of course, a bit more literally), on a trip that touches on a personal level. Journey is a story that highlights the different paths everyone can take in life, while Datura’s reoccurring themes might suggest a very dark path that the protagonist has already taken. Then there’s each game’s lack of traditional direction, both simply dropping you into their respective worlds and letting you push on by yourself.

But while Journey’s two hours are filled with wonder, emotional highs and heartfelt sentiments, Datura’s similar run time leaves an empty, frustrated feeling that could have been avoided. Here’s a look at where Plastic slip up.

Losing control

So let’s get the obvious out the way; Datura does not control well. Journey’s input-lite scheme compliments the game’s astonishing simplicity, but here the varied Move palette often hinders the player before helping them. The game’s controls are actually quite smooth once you master each and every task, but it’s the 30–60 seconds of fighting with the wand while figuring out what to do that breaks the immersion. Pressing the Move button takes the player forwards, but turning by angling the control is a sluggish affair, giving the exploration a feet-dragging pace.

The game’s DualShock scheme, which could and should have been its safety net, turns out to be a complete disaster with an over-dependency on SIXAXIS tilting. It’s an awkward mess that turns those clueless-seconds into hopeless tens of minutes with some actions. There’s absolutely no way to experience Datura’s visual splendour and innovative ideas without a consistent frustration that hurts it considerably.

Meanwhile, Journey smartly offers both SIXAXIS and joystick controls for the camera. It breaks down barriers between player and game with just two buttons; a jump and a tuneful call out, and then finds intriguing ways to communicate with the player through these two options. With Journey, less really is more.

Keep up the pace

Journey’s objective is clear roughly 10 seconds in; walk forwards until you get to the top of a mountain. Its expansive environments only block the player from straying too far, still allowing for plenty of exploration, but it’s always clear where to go in each area.

For Datura’s opening, players are dropped into a wood dotted with various objects to interact with. There’s a wonderful sense of curiosity-scratching as you inspect each out-of-place ornament, which transporting you to different sequences, each of which seemingly carrying a message to infer. But as you find more and more of these scenes, there comes a longer stretch of wondering around in the ‘hub world’, not having a clue what to do. Paired with the aforementioned controls, this makes Datura a hauntingly dull creature at times.

Journey doesn’t give your mind a chance to wonder; placing new eye-candy and twists every few minutes. It’s the ultimate in crafting an engulfing adventure that almost demands a single-session play through. Meanwhile, despite the short length, I had to return to Datura after a break from meaninglessly pandering around the woods after a while.

Lost the plot (completely)

While neither game enforces a clear, decisive plot on the player, Journey’s linearity paints a better picture of the game’s lore and a more satisfying sense of progression as you push forward. Another problem with Datura’s loose leash is that the various sequences taking place outside the wood feel disconnected, leaving the player struggling to find any real relevance to each one, let alone decide if they’re even connected. Throwing potatoes at a pig, shooting cardboard Nazis, removing a life support system – every action undoubtedly has some sort of weird meaning to it. But it’s not linked together tightly enough to get a bigger picture.

As suggested up top, it might be that Datura is recounting the life of a much-troubled individual, but red-herrings and out of place events detract from any real answers. There are a few constants as you travel from sequence to sequence, but it’s a battle to really decide if it means anything against the sheer randomness of the sudden acid-trips and time-traveling adventures.

Without spoiling anything, both titles also have endings that leave a lot to the player’s interpretation. But, having overcome such a disperse set of events in Datura, there’s an incredibly hollow feeling greeting you come game over. It’s hard to link up the memorable moments (of which there are admittedly many) into any kind of cohesive whole.

The result is a game that doesn’t make you harken back to the path traveled as the credits role, rather an empty mess that invites a second playthrough only to try and simply remember what had actually happened in certain parts. Datura simply finds itself struggling to leave any kind of impact on the player despite its intriguing premise.

All that said, I didn’t hate my time with Datura. This year’s other ‘out there’ options like Dear Esther are definitely better picks for alternative gaming, but all the same I saw potential for the Move in some of the more intuitive exercises, and its failings ultimately make it unlike anything else out there.

At the root of Datura’s problems are the controls that slow things down to a crawl, but anything that can inspire the kind of discussion written above is worth a look in my books.