Space, the ultimate frontier where everything will try to kill you, including the ruthless laws of physics. Can The Long Journey Home, an indie game with procedurally generated star systems, tell a story worthy of our time?
The space mission was supposed to be a glorious success but if anything can go wrong in space, it surely will in a most spectacular fashion imaginable. You pick your crew from among a roster of characters with different backgrounds and abilities. Choose a ship and a planet lander and off you go into space, where you will learn the basic of maneuvering. And you will die. Because of starvation. Radiation. Failure of the life-support systems or harassed by an angry alien who gave you some money and you “forgot” to give it back.
The Long Journey Home basically consists of three modes: interplanetary travel, planet landing as well as resource and gear management. Some really fine talking.
Let’s break down each of those elements as their understanding is key in determining whether The Long Journey Home delivers or fall flat mid-journey.
To the Stars!
Or rather, keep away from the stars. The interplanetary travel mode is all about moving through solar systems, picking up distress signals, coming into contact with aliens and trying to find planets with enough resources to keep us alive just through another interstellar jump.
Don’t think, however, that navigating your ship through space works like in just about every other video game in a similar atmosphere. Oh, no, space is not the sea. You can’t just point in a direction and start your engines (though sea navigation is not that simple after all now, is it?). You have to use your engines and booster the smart way, navigating around planets and suns, employing their gravity to your advantage. Gain too much speed and you’ll fly by your target planet, then spend precious fuel to get back on course or plot a new one to circle the sun and return to your destination. And pray that this time you didn’t overdo with the acceleration.
This is without a doubt the most enjoyable element of the game. Simple in its visual side, yet strangely beautiful and immersive.
To survive, however, you will need to land on planets’ surfaces and mine for resources such as fuel for your engines and metal for necessary repairs. And this is the moment where The Long Journey Home hits its first bump on the road to something truly unique.
The lander missions are hard and artificially so, because of the horrendous controls. Your craft needs to land on the surface with the use of maneuvering engines which are very hard to grasp. Use too much fuel when trying to land gently on the surface and you might end up with barely enough juice to launch. Fly by your destination and basically you are done for. The best thing that can happen in this scenario is loss of precious fuel. Then there are injuries to the pilot, which can be healed with precious med packs. Then there are damages to the craft, which can be repaired with the same resource you came to the surface for. The concept in itself is not the worst, but its controls are simply too demanding, especially at the beginning of the game.
This section, however, is as meticulously presented as in the case of the star system map, though with much more detail. The surfaces of the planets can amaze and horrify. Strange worlds with even stranger fauna await you if you’re not afraid of taking a rough landing. Every graphical element of The Long Journey Home is thought through and crafted with care and love. So what’s not to like?
All the Other Space Stuff
The Long Journey Home is not all about landing and travelling between stars. There is a main quest line, branching side quests, encounters with aliens. And resource and gear management which can be a bit of a chore. Especially when you are adding tiny amounts of resources to the fuel pool, for example. Or trying to figure out how to install a part. Or worrying sick that the illness your pilot got on the surface of a hostile planet can spread to other members of the crew, fast, if you don’t find a med pack (and you won’t).
The boring bits, however, are successfully swept away by moments of great writing and emergent gameplay. When you have to decide whether to help a starving colony. Whether to seek out the emergency signal or to fight an aggressive alien vessel – these moments of decision will shape your campaign and lead to unforeseen consequences. Like dying in space, most of the time.
As The Long Journey Home is heavy on rogue-like, random features each play-through should be different, though after ten hours or so many situations start to repeat themselves. This is an indie game, after all. There are so many things to uncover, so many threats, both organic and scientific in nature, that you won’t have the time to worry about one story-line that you’ve seen already. You’ll be busy fighting for your life.
This can be an immersive, beautiful game of constant threats and tales of redemption in space. The problem is that for the first hours of the game it is the problematic controls that thwart the experience, not the hostile cosmos. If you can break through those initial experiences, deciding that failure is inevitable at the beginning, then The Long Journey Home can offer you solid writing and survival thrills worth of your money and time. If you’re the type of gamer who’d rather finish a story campaign at the first try, then The Long Journey Home with its rogue-like vibe and ruthless laws of physics is probably not for you.