Rock climbing has always been one of my passions that for one reason or another, I haven’t had a lot of chances to actually do for a number of years.
So I was excited to try out Jusant by developer Dontnod, best known for their Life is Strange series. Part platformer, part visual novel, part puzzler, Jusant is a unique experience that not only intrigues but also knows how to leave just enough threads unwound to keep the experience from becoming stale.
Jusant follows the experience of your young nameless hero who appears out of the lifeless, monochrome desert to climb a now-abandoned tower of rock and stone. Where the land and tower once held water and life, now all that remains are the vestiges of a close-knit, vibrant, but dying community as they grapple with ever-decreasing natural resources. Your job is to climb this tower, moving from climbing hold to climbing hold ever upwards. There’s never an express reason given for you doing this, but, not to give too much away, as you do it becomes clear why it’s so important you finish your climb.
The tower is split into a number of biomes, each different not only in look and feel but also in environment-specific gameplay mechanics. The lower levels are simple enough, but soon you are learning how to use your new skills in chains and combinations that while never difficult, are increasingly challenging. From simple movements going from rock hold to rock hold, you move to swinging via ropes, and managing your stamina over marathon climbs. It all adds up to a great experience that is shaken up enough not to feel too repetitive. Plus, there are some other abilities unlocked that I’ll save for your own discovery.
A game about rock climbing could be incredibly frustrating if the penalty for falling were to be extreme. Fortunately, there are a number of tools Jusant gives you to keep you from getting too frustrated. You can create an anchor point practically anywhere, which acts as a sort of mini checkpoint in case you do fall. There are relay stations which reset your rope length and stamina, and the game is smart enough to give you enough stopping points along the way to reset and recharge before the next climb.
At these stops you’ll find the remnants of a civilisation whose lives centred around the tower. In letters, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and diary entries you’ll come to know the daily goings-on of some of these inhabitants. As you climb, the tone of these writings are increasingly more desperate. As the water disappears and lives are more deeply affected, people try to adapt or leave for the unknown in the surrounding desert in search of something that could save the tower, or just themselves.
The writing is powerful, and the gorgeous environments tell their own story of everyday life and despair. Otherwise, there’s no talking or dialogue at all, so it’ll be up to you to discover these entries if you want to know what is happening in the world. I would have liked to see a little more explicit motivation for the main character, who seems to be a passenger in their own journey but if you’re willing to dig there’s a powerful story to be told.
Jusant could have been tedious, with long stretches of repetitive movements and each mechanic used a few too many times to be interesting without getting bored or frustrated. But developers dontnod know when to move on to a new environment, mechanic, or setting to keep things mixed up, even if each idea could have been used in perhaps a couple more dramatic ways before it was discarded. It felt like there was a chance for a slightly more impactful denouement for each climbing challenge and mechanic. Instead the drama is reserved for a narrative payoff, which some might prefer anyway.
Playing Jusant made me consider our own world.
What happens to us when we are faced with a changing environment – do we have blind faith that it’ll all work out, do we reach out to the unknown as a last-ditch hope, do we adapt and curl up until we stop? Jusant’s lone wanderer doesn’t have any specific answers to addressing environmental collapse. But they do show us we should be working at it, to play an active part, to climb, as it were, our own tower.
Released: November 2023
Platforms reviewed: PC
Developer: Don't Nod
Publisher: Don't Nod