The Long Journey Home
Now that Rocket Shark has been successfully published, I find peace in my life once again. I can do what I love most once again: Playing games and writing about them. Which brings me to “The Long Journey Home“. It’s a closed beta game on Steam, not yet available to purchase, with a March 30th release date fast approaching.
The solar system in which I’ve found myself isn’t a good place, and it’s my own damn fault. I went for the tougher ‘Rogue Mode’, and have just survived a hellish planet only to get stuck in an asteroid belt, where I’m getting smashed around like a crumbling clay pinball. My first experience of Daedalic’s “The Long Journey Home” was a grueling one. Since it’s a procedurally-generated space odyssey game, your first time will hopefully be less disastrous.
It’s a fascinating game, a culmination of all the great aspects on popular modern space games, while also offering its own mechanical and narrative idiosyncrasies. As with FTL, you begin the game by selecting your spaceship, lander, and a four-person crew whom you recruit from a colorful roster of characters. Each one with their own unique abilities, personalities and motives. There were a few Negative Nancys in the roster who were apprehensive about meeting aliens or opposed to space exploration. To hell with such attitudes, I was looking for my own version of Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, explorers, eager to venture into the Heart of Cosmic Darkness, wrangle and barter with other life-forms, and do whatever extracting necessary to learn about the randomized cosmos that awaits.
So I settled on a couple of egghead scientists, a ruthless archaeologist and Benoit (Benny). Benny’s a bit of a brave window licker. He’s the expendable sort I’d call on for deadlier missions. Together with this intrepid foursome, I set off into space, with our ultimate goal being to find Alpha Centauri then return back to Earth in a permadeath run that the should last 4-6 hours. I find these short, yet infinitely replayable games extremely enticing in my ever shortening time to play games. Which is the primary reason I loved FTL so much.
Prepare for Liftoff
As I prepared for launch from Earth, I gazed starward and pondered what species and interstellar mysteries awaited me. The moment felt profound, as the announcer counted down: 3, 2, 1, lift off. Rocket fuel fire and smoke bloomed around my spaceship, I triggered the thrusters, and… I bounced off the landing platform. A grand Kerbal style failure. After about a minute, I finally got a grip, and awkwardly stumbled towards the stars.
The space travel view is beautifully minimal, neatly presented from a top-down perspective, showing planetary orbits, the course of your ship and, when you zoom out, all the solar systems procedurally generated for you to explore. To launch yourself between systems, you need fuel, antimatter. Before I had the heading out into the cosmos beyond, I embarked on a practice mission to Mars. “The Long Journey Home” tries to be faithful to the rules of astronomy while still being fun, so travelling around within solar systems takes into account orbits and gravitational pull that you need to carefully thrust yourself into. It takes a little while to get used to, but once you get it, there’s a pleasing elegance to bending the arc denoting your flight path and meticulously adjusting your thrusters to slip into a planet’s or sun’s orbit.
With its light atmosphere, low gravity and mild weather conditions, Mars was an easy landing. This gave me an opportunity to touch base with my team and familiarize myself with the interface to see their thoughts on various subjects (my scientists scoffed at the crystal skull and plant that the archaeologist and Benny brought along with them), ship upgrades and repairs. Familiarity and group introductions out of the way it was time to load up the Antimatter and blast off on our primary mission.
Time to Explore!
The procedural generation covers planets, climates, events, even which alien races you meet. These races have predetermined personalities and codes of conduct, so there’s one race that refuses to speak to you unless you disable your spaceship’s shield’s while another will send debt collectors after you if you fall into debt with them. Others still just want to eviscerate you into a thousand fragments and scatter your entrails across the cosmos. To handle these situations, you’ll need to be combat-ready. You’ll also need diplomatic prowess as some races control vast swaths of the galaxy. You can’t just blast your way through this time around.
Most of the exploration is interplanetary, with planets themselves being largely restricted to the 2D Lunar Lander (wow I sound old) view, where you thrust yourself across the screen then carefully lower yourself to mine for resources and precious alien artifacts that can lead you onto secrets deeper in the cosmos. Despite the small scope of exploration once you’re on a planet, the procedural generation throws up some stunning scenery.
Thanks to the excellent writing by Richard Cobbett, what happens when the crew disembarks the ship to go exploring is wonderfully embellished upon for your reading pleasure. From what I’ve encountered, these are descriptive snippets rather than detailed monologues, but vivid descriptions of such things as “…a dense forest with trees so rotten that your hands pass straight through the crumbling bark” are neatly evocative, as are the oft-whimsical alien encounters, helping you make potentially life-or-death decisions about your course of action.
Things Go Wrong
Because I had damaged my radar during a clumsy exit from Sol, I couldn’t gather any environmental information before descending planetside, thus I ended up on a hellish planet with a fury destined to destroy. So when my probe began its descent, I could barely engage my thrusters before hurtling down to the surface by the planet’s extremely dense atmosphere and strong gravitational forces. I hold Benny, the foolish pilot responsible for this disaster. Although we thankfully survived, and were able to continue the mission. Once the probe regained its balance, I attempted to find a good spot to drill for resources. As I began hovering, a violent storm erupted, pirouetting us across the screen. I may have felt a tad sorry for Benny in his baptism of fire.
Eventually, we overcame the elements and heaved the probe over to a drilling spot, where we duly extracted aluminium from the ground. All along, however, I failed to keep an eye on the fuel gauge, which was hemorrhaged by the hostile conditions and over-excited drilling. Running out of fuel doesn’t stop the craft moving. It shuts down life support, dooming us to a slow panicked death. Poor Benny began suffocating. ‘At least he’ll die looking at that pretty stone structure in the distance’, I thought, but what of the aluminium he gathered? Powering through the storm could be the end of Benny, the aluminium and, most importantly, the lander. When the chance came, I blasted off the god-forsaken rock back to the ship. Benny survived, despite the crew expressing concerns over his well-being. It’s after this that I made my fateful trip into the asteroid belt I mentioned earlier. We won’t go into that meat grinder of a story.
Even in Death
The Long Journey Home is a game that’s aware of the horror inherent to space. The detail of the music when you’re inching through an asteroid belt or navigating a solar system is ominous, filled with droning bass amid sounds of muffled storms raging above some hostile planet. At moments, its relationship with space feels similar to Subnautica’s deep, lonely relationship to the ocean. Those space exploratoration bits are a nice contrast to the vibrant landscapes of planets, alien meetings and cheery archetypes of your crew members. Space may be terrifying in “The Long Journey Home”, but it’s also filled with life and secrets. I can’t wait to further explore the full, final release at the end of March.