More so than board gaming or rollerblading, the hobby that really took off post-COVID was rock climbing. Bouldering, as I’m told it’s called, has arguably never been hotter, with calloused fingers and strengthened upper bodies found in every direction. I don’t know if these horizontal thinking folks use it as an outlet for stored energy, or to get fit, but it’s everywhere, and those in the hobby will tell you all about it, all the time. Perhaps bridging the gap between boulderers and gamers, DON’T NOD’s newest title Jusant is a relaxing narrative puzzle game that takes the form of a rock-climbing platformer that digitally recreates the literal highs of scaling vertical surfaces. To me, Jusant is everything that bouldering is not – peaceful, beautiful and pain-free.
The French word jusant describes the moment that water, or the ocean, recedes. An apt name, as the game opens with our young protagonist stepping from a seemingly never-ending desert, onto a rocky tower that stretches far beyond sight into the sky. Long abandoned, this pillar is filled with desolate villages, with huts and makeshift ladders made from old boats. With little more than a glance upward, it’s made clear that our intrepid climber’s task is to ascend the tower and uncover what has befallen it.
Jusant isn’t a puzzle game that features a lot of climbing, the climbing is the puzzle. Though it takes a moment or two to wrap your head around, the core climbing mechanics are deliberate, yet accessible. When playing on a controller, each of our mountaineer’s hands are assigned to a trigger, with the direction of your reach controlled with the left thumbstick. This requires you to stop and think about your hand placement ahead of time, planning out your route before beginning the climb. You’ll want to think carefully, too, as you’re bound by a stamina bar that depletes as you climb and jump. This can be partially refilled by taking breaks mid-climb, but it’s not sustainable, as the meter begins to diminish permanently until you find solid ground.
Overcoming particularly difficult climbs is satisfying and relieving
No mountaineer worth their salt attempts to scale a spire without gear, and our silent protagonist is no rookie. Life and progress-saving rope accompany you every time you begin to climb, with three additional pitons on hand that you can use on any flat surface to act as a safety net. These pinned points can also be used to swing from if you need to reach a far-off ledge. Holding the jump button, you’re also able to jump, and even double jump, to find purchase on the cliffside.
The final piece to the puzzle comes in the form of your watery blue companion, a mysterious little creature known as a Ballast. This little cutie can chirp, creating a little pulse that interacts with the natural flora and fauna of the tower. This can be used to grow vines that can be used as handholds and gather fireflies that give you an upward boost to name a few. This interaction with the world, coupled with the well-designed climbing mechanics make for an engaging gameplay loop that I grew to love over the course of the five-hour story.
New challenges and gimmicks are introduced with each new area, such as the scorching sun limiting your stamina, or violent winds that can either carry you higher or send you flying back to your last piton. I largely enjoyed these environmental alterations, although I found myself getting frustrated when a new addition would get in the way of my momentum. Early on, you’re introduced to small crab-like creatures that can be used as moving handholds and, while they’re mechanically impressive, working exactly as they should, they move like molasses and come to a stop after a short time, which interrupted my groove.
I love this little blue guy, I’m just not convinced that the protagonist does as well
The five different locations, spread out across as many chapters, offer more than just a new spin on gameplay. The distinct biomes are visually unique, featuring their own vibrant colour palettes and designs. The game’s visual style is gorgeous, with a beautiful, minimalistic approach that’s accentuated by earthen tones, offset by the occasional flourish of bright blues and greens. It’s simple, and that makes it all the easier on the eyes.
The game’s narrative is told largely through notes that have been left behind by the tower denizens, forced to move on due to a prolonged lack of water. Some notes depict everyday townsfolk, while most chronicle the trials and tribulations of a woman named Bianca. Exploring themes of family, separation, and climate change, much of the story is left to interpretation. There are several beautiful moments, but I never bought into the bond between the protagonist and Ballast, making some moments fall a little flat.
Various collectables such as interactable charms and cairns can be found during your ascent, incentivising exploration. More often than not, you’ll have multiple paths in front of you, giving you a few ways to approach the climb, and a few forks in the road to pick between. Delving into the nooks and crannies will have you cave diving and encountering small grottos, which is intriguing, if a little tricky. The lighting in interior sections is balanced severely toward darkness, making it difficult to find climbable walls and paths forward, forcing me to pump up the gamma on occasion.
I’ve been guided by cairns before, but never to these heights
I don’t have the upper body strength or ambition to take to the multicoloured wall, but if the act of bouldering was half as serene and beautiful as Jusant makes it seem, I would be getting a membership this very moment. Once accustomed to them, the deliberate climbing mechanics combined with the environmental elements create an engaging and enjoyable experience. Despite a lack of emotional depth, the subtle story carries an important message, and the constantly evolving visual style surprises and delights at every turn. It may lose grip every once and a while on the ascent, but Jusant confidently reaches the summit.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- DON’T NOD
- DON’T NOD
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
- October 31, 2023