Waves. I hear the rushing and swirling of water, which should inspire comfort, relaxation. But it doesn’t. White light floods the screen and when my eyes adjust I see the protagonist — dark-haired, cloaked in overlapping black scraps — walking amidst decaying chaos. Just above noticeable tattoos, the solo trekker’s eyes slide across a one-time seaside landscape now desiccated and littered with overgrown, long-abandoned vessels.
Looming over this haunting scene is a word: Justant. Not only the title of the game, the word’s definition greets me when I first jump into the game. It’s a French nautical term that refers to a receding tide, and, after watching the cinematic introduction scene, I realize it’s a tide that’s never coming back to this world. Here we set our scene: a world bereft of ocean and scarce of human life finds a young champion traveling towards soaring cliffs with a mysterious, small companion in tow.
Though I don’t know why yet, my task is clearly to scale the miles-high cliff face. The developers describe Justant as an action-puzzle game and I soon discover how apt that description is. Unlike most climbing-focused games, my character doesn’t do anything automatically. While making my way ever higher, I have to control every grasp. The right and left trigger buttons map to the corresponding hands on my character, and I always have to have one engaged to continue holding on.
My gaming muscle memory, which expects a character to cling to a rock face even if I’m not touching the controller — betrayed me a few times, causing me to plummet from my perch. Luckily, I lug an impossibly long climbing rope and a handful of pitons with me wherever I go. It wasn’t long before I wised up to placing one of my metal spikes into a wall if a tricky segment was coming up.
The placed piton would catch me if my footing wasn’t as sure as I thought, keeping me from clambering back up the same stretch of stone over again. Most of the gameplay centers around figuring out the best way to navigate the various handholds and unhelpful gaps. This is the puzzle in the “action-puzzle” label.
Every so often, I’d pull myself up onto a plateau or cave structure. This would afford a wonderful view of a minimalistic but striking vista and often presented an opportunity for environmental storytelling. I never run into another living soul, but the letters, journals, or belongings they’ve left behind point to a community trying to make do with few resources in a changed world.
I emerge from a particularly spacious cave system to sunlight too radiant for my eyes. The glittering rays alight on a long, smooth bridge stretching over a clouds as far as the eye can see. At the end is a two-spired tower. Obviously, this is my goal and the camera pulls out for an absolutely epic shot as I walk towards it.
Getting to the top forces me to combine everything I’ve learned about climbing thus far. In good puzzle form, my path is constantly changing and keeps me engaged in the seemingly simple effort of climbing. At the summit, my unrevealed helper shows itself.
And it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
Blue and aqueous, I instantly dub the creature Squish — though the developers call it a Ballast. Squish climbs its way out of the pouch I’d been carrying it in and, with endearing determination, sets to helping me unleash the powers of a horn I’ve discovered atop the tall structure. I sound the gigantic instrument and Squish resonates with a particulate magic. Then the structure erupts in vegetation and my tattoos — now glowing — begin to cover my arms.
Again, I don’t know exactly what’s going on. The perplexing ritual answers a few questions but brings up several more. I know I have live-giving abilities and I’m seeking out special places to exercise these. But what that ultimately does is still a mystery. The kind that makes me want to set off on my next climbing challenge to get the answers.