There was a moment in Jusant, maybe a couple hours in, where as the nameless traveller I walked to the edge of a precipice and looked down and outward towards the desiccated landscape of a once bustling nautical township. As I stood, taking in the sombre vista, my companion — a creature whose kind I learned via a note was called a ballast — came out of my backpack and perched their squishy body atop my shoulder, following my gaze to the land that their kind once thrived in. Eventually, Guillaume Ferran’s ethereal beat slowly began cascading into the background like a gentle stream.
In this moment, these otherwise parenthetical minutes of a playthrough that was comprised of many other notable events, I felt I understood what Jusant’s story was trying to tell me. What its characters, most of whom were relegated to missable journal entries, experienced during the catastrophic events that led to this desolate future. A story of persistence, community, loss, mystery, and eventually — hope. Unfortunately, it’s a story that though in some ways I’m thankful it allows itself to be told with restraint, leaves an underwhelming impression due to the vagueness of its execution. For as satisfying as Jusant’s core gameplay loop can be, its narrative and important message becomes lost in the background of a world whose history I otherwise wanted to be entranced by, beyond just its striking visuals.
Within the first minutes of playing Jusant there’s an instant, tactile satisfaction as your character grabs on to their first of many ledges. I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that this was French developer Don’t Nod’s nth time making a 3D platformer hyper-focused on a specific traversal mechanic. Yet, that isn’t exactly the case. Their previous outings mainly consist of narrative-driven, episodic adventure games like Tell Me Why and the Life Is Strange series. So, to see them return with a game with a focus that is not in dialogue-driven storytelling, but in its sole mechanic of climbing, is a welcomed change — though only if their execution of said mechanic is successful, to which I am pleased to say is mostly the case. Making a mechanic once only seen as a way to diversify the core gameplay of 3D platformers, an accessory to the “meat” of the platforming, and turning it into a core function that is not only enjoyable to play, but interweaves with the narrative themes of the game is a great challenge. Thankfully, Jusant succeeds in doing just that, even if it loses its footing every now and again.
Climbing is fairly simple, each trigger of the controller controls each of your character’s arms while you use the left thumbstick to aim where you want to grab next. As with most climbing mechanics in modern games, there is a stamina meter here as well, which you will need to be privy to so to not exhaust your character and fall. Though, death is not a part of Jusant. Even if you lose your footing, miscalculate a jump, or exhaust your stamina meter, your character is always tethered with a carabiner to a device that anchors your rope before beginning any climb. You also have three pitons that you can attach to almost any surface to create a new anchor point; almost like a manual checkpoint. Erasing death is a decision that is narratively sound as the Jusant’s themes of hope and persistence encourages players to reach the pinnacle of this adventure. However, this doesn’t mean that Don’t Nod have made the trek a cake walk. Each chapter brings about new challenges that you’ll have to overcome. From using momentum to reach new heights, climbing across moving surfaces, timing your piton placements, and understanding environmental hazards like wind. Jusant manages to keep the gameplay fresh and rhythmic by always introducing a new obstacle just before things get repetitive.
There were a few times where some of my character’s movements felt a tad floaty, almost akin to that of Wander from Shadow of the Colossus, which is interesting seeing how that is another game where climbing is also the primary focus. I never felt as if I was completely not in control, however some moments of imprecision or lack of visual cues did lead to frustration and a fall or two (or ten). Beyond the standard climbing, you also uncover a couple chapters in of the abilities your little companion — whom I named Blob — can perform. A mysterious creature with powers from a world long gone, the squishy ballast can revive dead fauna to create new pathways, tell you where your next objective is, as well as “speak” to strange symbols on the ancient walls of caverns. I was hoping Blob’s abilities would expand as the chapters went, or that their powers would affect the environment in more interesting ways, but alas the little thing was only capable of so much.
The tactile satisfaction of climbing in Jusant is propelled by its beautiful audio and visuals. From the opening cinematic, to the closing credits, and every foothold in between, this is a gorgeous looking game. Its pastel-poly art-style can be a little jarring at first, given its almost flat shading and textures that look like they have yet to be rendered, but the colour work and focused direction give it a truly unique aesthetic. When it comes to sound design, Jusant does a wonderful job in making you feel the weight of your character as they climb, with the thunks of carabiners, patters of your character’s steps, and flutters of their clothes in the harsh wind. Guillaume Ferran’s compositions also bring a somber yet hopeful emotional weight through the course of your climb. These melodies do such a great job in establishing the tone that, though I understand playing them only at key narrative beats is purposefully done, I wished could be heard more frequently.
Speaking of narrative, it’s here where the lion’s share of my criticisms will lay. Jusant’s story is one of importance. Its story is about resource scarcity and working together to build a community after an apocalyptic event, yet it’s almost as if the game doesn’t want you to experience this story. Almost every piece of the narrative is scribbled away on a journal entry from some former resident of the location you’re traversing. This is a storytelling mechanic intrinsic to the video game medium, and one that I am not opposed to. The problem, however, is that it’s never clear when approaching a note if it’ll be something of consequence. I never knew if I was going to get a journal entry from Bianca, whose entries helped build the history of this world and were well written to the point where she felt like a genuine character, or just another nondescript former resident complaining about something or another. I trudged to find every note I could for the sake of wrapping my head around this story, but doing so felt more like a chore and broke the momentum of climbing.
There were some genuine moments of awe and emotion, like when I found my first seashell and saw my character hearing the now silent rooms that were once filled with bustle and laughs of old residents. But for as well directed as these moments were, and for as well written some of the journal entries were, they only helped to raise more questions. Questions that never got answered by the time I rolled credits after my five hour playtime. It was frankly disappointing to finish the game and feel that its ending could have resonated far deeper if only I had a fuller understanding of its narrative. I can commend Don’t Nod for not telling its story in a trite, ham-fisted fashion that bludgeoned its players over the head with its environmentalist themes, but I feel Jusant went the complete opposite direction. So many more in-game mechanics could have been used to tell its story effectively, while keeping that aura of mystique and mystery. Still, to say that I wasn’t moved by Jusant would be inaccurate. I am merely frustrated that I couldn’t be as invested as I knew I potentially could have been.
Shaz played Jusant on Xbox Series S via Game Pass.