Mission log: it has been 506 days since the catastrophic failure that stranded the ISS Endurance and us, its crew, far from home. A routine flight turned disastrous, our jump drive experienced a hyper cascade in the gyrostabilizers and sent us to the far reaches of a strange galaxy. Now in our greatest moment of need an alien race dooms my crew to death. The same race that had once aided us against the Mizzurani infection, the writhing rot that creeps through the hull of the ship even now. The Logos have turned us away from their warp gate, our offered credits didn’t make up for the sin of spreading the infection across the stars in our desperate voyage home. I was a fool to trust the gifts of the Mizzurani, it is my fault that we have come to this…
It is 4 am, and another playthrough of The Long Journey Home ends due to botched politics and a failing ship. While dubbed as a rogue-like, the game runs a little long and lacks some of the persistent progression that usually marks those titles. Feeling like a mashup of Lunar Lander, SPAZ and FTL the most compelling parts of the game are more story driven than the average rogue. You’ll probably spend six-eight hours on a successful run, but don’t expect victory your first few attempts. After a short tutorial you will find yourself launched into a procedurally generated galaxy that stretches between you and Earth, which is the home that you determinedly seek.
Contrary to many games, you are not the most important race or ship in the sky. The varied aliens that you encounter will mostly see you as a nuisance, and you rarely pose enough of a threat to even bother attacking. There are eight alien races in total, and they each have vastly different attitudes and reactions to you, some of them will even change the systems and planets you visit if they are present. Like the previously mentioned Mizzurani that infect planets, making them extremely risky to visit even if they seem safe otherwise. Each playthrough will only have four of the races populating the galaxy. This can make for very different play experiences if say, the benevolent Logos aren’t active to counteract the infection. Or maybe the galaxy is full of Raxact pirates and slave-keeping Ilitza that will demand payment or combat on a whim.
The most valuable thing you can gain from failure is knowledge and experience. My first few games ended rather quickly due to needless risks and blunders when dealing with the aliens. You can quickly waste positive relations if you pry too much into the affairs of private species, as well, even a single dangerous mission can have lasting effects on your ship or lander. While The Long Journey Home diverges in this way from many rogue-likes, that reward repeated failure with power upgrades or unlocks, it means that your first run is just as likely to succeed as your tenth, without any mandatory power grind.
That doesn’t mean the game is easy, even with an “explorer” difficulty that takes some of the bite out of the galaxy, you’ll still be facing disaster at every turn. Losses tend to happen slowly, your fuel and Exotic Matter drive emptying out as your ship falls apart. Hard fought battles leaving you limping to the next star or repair station, hoping you’ll have enough credits to take care of at least the important systems. If you’ve ever played the Battlestar Galactica board game, this will feel all too familiar. Every single action you take will likely come with a small downside or risk, and those begin to pile up as you get further and further into your journey. Devices will experience wear and tear, and most of them will never be repaired due to the sheer number of problems you face. By the sixth hour of my most successful playthrough, my ship was a wreck and three of my crew members were nearly dead, and earth was two full star clusters out of reach.
Gameplay is broken up into three distinct views. The overhead system map is grid of planets and stars that you’ll navigate by carefully adjusting boosters and thrusters, your ship is represented by a triangle and each star system is accessed by engaging your warp drive and travelling on a larger galaxy map. Other ships will intercept you, and systems will rarely contain missions or mysterious signals that you can investigate, as well as planets and stars. Interacting with a ship or asteroid field will take you to a zoomed in view of that part of space. These segments control a bit like Asteroids or SPAZ, though your ship is rather bulky and calculated movement is more important than precise aiming or quick reflexes. Ship upgrades can help you in battle against enemy factions, but don’t expect to see much depth in terms of weapons and shields.
I spent most of my time in the third view, once you orbit a planet you can launch your lander to the surface in an attempt to scavenge resources and explore any ships or ruins that are present. The lander gameplay is the most nuanced, and the most punishing for poor planning. Planets all have a variety of factors that determine how dangerous they are for expeditions. You might be fine with taking the risk on a hot planet, only to severely damage the lander and injure the pilot due to a high gravity impact. Gas giants can seem appealing due to the amount of fuel you can obtain, but their clouds will wear at your lander rapidly. While simple on a plain, rocky planet with minimal wind; mining even a small amount of material on a windy ice ball with earthquakes is iffy. You control the lander from a side view as it descends, rotating thrusters and using counter thrusters to deal with wind, gravity and storms. Resources are located at a glance, the same with other notable landmarks. Every resource node has a depletion gauge that is a kind of indicator for danger and resource scarcity. Once it falls into the red you’re more likely to damage yourself than dig anything up.
The common thread that ties these rather different mini-game views together is your ships status and resources. Fuel, hull strength for your vessel and lander and the EM tank for making warp drive jumps will need constant resupply. Any kind of battle or exploration could injure your crew members, and enough injuries mean death. Avoiding risks, minimizing damage and fuel use, and obtaining as many resources a possible is necessary for a chance at success. Your crew members, ship and lander can all be selected prior to starting the game. While there isn’t a great variety in ship types now, the different ships and landers have strengths and weaknesses pronounced enough that I quickly found favourites. The crew members come with items and skills that can make a pretty big difference as well. Proficient engineers or explorers can change the outcomes of certain interactions planet-side, while scientists can develop items and use alien technology that would otherwise be useless.
The music is distinctly sci-fi, lofty tracks that instantly call to mind other space exploration games and movies. All of the alien races have a unique soundtrack which plays up their varying backgrounds and styles. Planetary landings and ship to ship combat are both lent the appropriate weight by spot on sound effects, and interesting visuals. The only point of contention I have is a somewhat blurry graphical style that seems messy at first, but isn’t noticeable during play. Small touches like having neighbouring planets in the skyline, and glitchy electronics around radiation leaking pulsars highlight the living universe rather than leaving these things as stats on a screen. The creators did a lot of things right in creating a universe worth exploring. Aliens with interesting motivations and interactions, histories and enemies and lore which is found in crashed ships and choose your own adventure style narratives.
The Long Journey Home is a unique entry into a thriving genre of punishing games. Its mix of gameplay and diplomacy, storytelling and exploration make it difficult to define or even describe without pointing at several disparate examples. The developers estimate five full playthroughs to see everything the game has to offer, but it remains to be seen how much replayability the relatively simple gameplay will retain after 40 hours. Don’t be surprised if you kill a few crews in your first few hours, the galaxy is uncaring and the journey home is long indeed.
The publisher provided us with a copy of The Long Journey Home for review purposes.