In a gaming landscape where ‘games as a service’ is a constant AAA developer mantra and the video games that don’t fall under that umbrella are (more often than not) exhausting open-world time-sinks, Journey to the Savage Planet is a welcome breath of fresh air, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, you had dismissed it after a cursory first glance.
Journey drops you into the space-boots of an employee of the ‘4th best’ interstellar exploration company on Earth, Kindred Aerospace. Your mission is simple: land on an uncharted world in your bargain-basement ship and explore it with your equally bottom-tier gear, transmitting all of your discoveries back to disingenuous company CEO, Martin Kindred. Complete your mission and you can return home a hero to your loved ones on Earth.
Naturally, things don’t go quite to plan (a tragically common occurrence in video games).
ENJOY YOUR (PSYCHADELIC) TRIP
Things start inauspiciously with you being woken from hypersleep by your derisive AI sidekick, ECO, informing you that your ship has made a landing of the crash variety, dramatically increasing your list of things to do. Events, as any gamer worth their salt would expect, get more complicated from thereon in. From the obscure and hard to attain replacement components required to repair your ship, to the ominous tower casting a brooding shadow over the colourful landscape of AR Y-26, it seems that Kindred’s initial scans of this world missed some rather alarming points of interest.
Tasked (via FMV video messages) by Kindred to investigate the mysterious tower that almost always dominates your horizon like a brooding 70’s prog-rock album cover, Journey took my initial impressions and quickly threw them aside by the simple act of having a loosely structured campaign. You see, Journey suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis, throwing its net far and wide for inspiration, but under all of that overly familiar packaging is a game that is pleasingly finite from the outset and the devs clearly want you to have fun getting to the end.
The game takes place in first-person perspective as you control your faceless, mostly-silent protagonist on his hapless adventure. It starts routinely enough, with you venturing out of your ship into a lush world that fuses the psychedelic sci-fi art style of No Man’s Sky with the anti-gravity defying landscapes of Avatar. But even in that initial few hours, Journey reveals an excitable charm as it takes cult B-movie artistic license with the surroundings of AR Y-26, filling it with a feast for the eyes of fantastical flora, ridiculous creatures and striking biomes.
As mentioned earlier, the campaign structure is loose, the goals few and simple. Your goal is always to get to the tower, even if you have to take a few detours and backtrack a little along the way. While a hand-crafted campaign with a slight story is normally cause for concern, this is where Journey really starts to click because this leaves you free to adapt to its hands-off approach to gameplay.
Like a brash, day-glow My First Dark Souls, Journey gives you the basics of movement, gear, weapons and simple guidelines for the world, before turning you loose. So it’s early on in a campaign that’s maybe 20 hours long – if you collect everything there is to collect – that you realise Journey isn’t just a first-person-shooter (even though you have a gun and there is shooting), it’s more of a platformer with metroidvania aspects to boot. What results is several hours of being asked to do seemingly simple things that force you to examine your surroundings and the contents of your inventory to discover how this world, its inhabitants and your tech can work to your benefit.
For instance, you encounter carnivorous plants whose thick tendrils routinely block routes almost from the outset of the game but their terrifying garbage disposal maws are normally situated too high to feed wildlife to – trust me, you get over feeling bad about that more quickly than you might imagine. BUT after you work out that the ubiquitous pufferbirds of AR-Y 26 are attracted to the throwable disgusting food paste in your pack AND that said pufferbirds can be punted skyward with an enthusiastic kick, a comedy trial-and-error plan unfolds…
Side-quests help to gate your progress through the world using alien shrine macguffins that upgrade your space-suit, gear and weapons. When those aren’t employed, an RPG-lite tier system forces you to explore the bright, bold world to complete fetch, kill and skill quests to advance your equipment to the required level. Upgrading does also involve some light crafting as there are materials both rare and common scattered throughout AR-Y 26 that you will have to acquire as part of the upgrade recipes. These materials are mostly collected through traditional means but developers Tempest have a little fun with this as well. I don’t want to ruin any surprises but your first supply of carbon is mined from an entirely unorthodox crack…
Even though the shooting is competent enough to feel satisfying, the platforming is precise enough that you don’t mind spending the lion’s share of your time doing it. Though the game leans on it almost to breaking point towards the end of the campaign, the addition of double and triple-thrusting jetpacks, ground-pounds and grapples only add to the traversal fun. While some of the platforming or boss encounters can be challenging, they’re never overbearing and the fast-transit teleporter system, coupled with a robotic buddy that catches you if you fall too far, help to take the sting out of any repetition.
COSMIC DÉJA VU
Like many (if not all) aspects of Journey, the humour feels familiar and can most directly be related to the Portal games. While many others have tried to emulate the critically-acclaimed writing of Valve’s puzzlers, few can hold a candle to them but I’m happy to report that Tempest have managed to mostly pull it off. They may rely on fart jokes a little too much and some of the humour IS probably too obvious but commercials for preposterous-yet-familiar consumer items, bizarre emails, sarcastic codex entries and messages from your scheming boss are spiced up with entertaining satirical digs that are diverting at the very least. The crowning achievement of the writing team is ECO though, a creation that could so easily have been just a GLADOS clone, the script gives her a mocking, cheerfully pragmatic and hilariously superior personality, delivered with relish by the voice actor. And it’s a good thing that she entertains, given that she shoulders exposition for the game almost exclusively.
The game isn’t plagued by technical issues but Journey certainly has a few niggles like frame-rate dips in extremely distant enemies or the camera mode revealing your character to be assuming a pose most yogi would be jealous of. None of these are game-breaking or even overly intrusive. Honestly, I was bothered more that the cheerful Firefly-inspired country music accompanying the menu screen is barely used during the playtime.
Journey’s biggest issue isn’t technical, or even mechanical. It’s that it borrows too much from too many other games. First impressions last, and as your brain subconsciously adds up all of the homages in those early hours, it becomes difficult to ignore the number of times you find yourself comparing it to something else. Hell, the interior of your spaceship looks like Ikea’s take on the Nostromo and your gun sounds a little too close to Han Solo’s DL-44 to be coincidental.
That last paragraph may sound like I don’t like Journey to the Savage Planet, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed my time with it. To me, it’s exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for: a less grindy, more focused, more fun No Man’s Sky. It’s unfortunate that the elevator pitch for this game isn’t more unique though, because it just doesn’t convey the charm and enthusiasm that it has clearly been made with.
An FPS/platformer/metroidvania that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does enjoy putting rubber to the road.
Reviewer’s note: Journey to the Savage Planet also features a co-op mode but we were only supplied with one copy so we couldn’t test it. I suppose that’s in keeping with the Kindred ethos 😉