On paper, roguelike game design sounds like a fantastic idea. Most small developers don’t have access to the finances or resources of big studios, so it takes considerably more time to produce a quality, lengthy video game. The shortcut, then, is that smaller developers can utilize procedural generation to make a little bit go a lot further, and this can be used to fantastic effect as seen in games like Enter the Gungeon and Dead Cells.
Unfortunately, it can also be used as a crutch, causing developers to rely too heavily on the algorithms to make the game fun, instead of investing more effort into designing that fun for themselves. Away: Journey to the Unexpected, a new first-person roguelike action game, falls closer to this latter end of the spectrum, providing a short and occasionally confusing gameplay experience that fails to prove itself as being more than the sum of its parts.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected puts you in the shoes of a nameless boy who lives with his grandparents, whose parents work in a top-secret government job and have been missing for a number of weeks. When a construction company drills a hole in the basement of the grandparents’ house – causing monsters to flood in – the boy is given a wooden stick from his dog and sets off on an adventure to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Though the narrative is kept to a bare minimum, the lighthearted and rather off-the-wall story at the core of this adventure is a welcome aspect of Away that provides just enough mystery to keep you guessing.
Gameplay takes the shape of a first-person action title with roguelike elements mixed in, but the implementation of the random elements is sketchy at best. Your character has only a hefty stick to fight with, but hit detection on strikes is a bit off, and this can make it difficult to judge when exactly to initiate an attack against an enemy. All enemies attack you in one of two ways – either by running into you or shooting something at you – but there seems to be an unusually large window where enemy melee attacks land from farther away than they should. Your stick doesn’t have very much range at all, so finding that sweet spot where you can strike enemies without them striking you is frustrating and hard to nail down. This issue with melee attacks can be combated somewhat by the consumable, rare fireworks you can use to strike from a distance, but they’re hard to come by and have a noticeably long fuse that delays the explosion.
You start out the game by exploring overworld areas dotted with treasure chests that contain helpful health or money pickups, a handful of NPCs that can be recruited to your ‘party’ (more on that later), and entrances to mini-dungeons that you have to clear to unlock the boss dungeon for that area. It’s a simple enough setup, but problems arise when you run into the randomized mini-dungeons, which can vary wildly in quality and depth. Sometimes, you get a decently-sized collection of rooms with a good mixture of puzzles, platforming, and combat, while other times, you literally get a small, one-room cave where the boss lever is guarded by three weak enemies. Then, about halfway through this five-hour (on the outside) campaign, Away: Journey to the Unexpected decides to do away with the mini-dungeons entirely and just puts the boss levers in the overworld with next to no challenges to trip them. What starts out as a potentially promising adventure gradually curdles into something decidedly sloppier; something which is unacceptable given how short Away: Journey to the Unexpected is to begin with.
A glimmer of hope can be found in the NPC recruitment system, but this, too, is inevitably squashed by baffling design choices. Once you’ve found the ‘friendship cube’ in a level’s overworld, you can talk to any of the NPCs for a chance to recruit them through a cool Persona-style dialogue system where you have to say the correct things to persuade them into joining you. If they agree, that character can then be swapped in at the press of a button, replacing your stick with something much more effective.
Whether it’s a shotgun that one-shots most enemies or a staff that shoots fireballs, each character has a unique ability that makes dealing with enemies much less of a headache. The issue, however, lies in recruiting the characters to begin with. If you happen to say the wrong thing when talking to them at first, that character can be locked off to you for the rest of that run, meaning that you’ll have to die and work your way back to that point again for another shot at attempting to recruit them to your party. This is made even more tedious by the fact that you need to have recruited all characters to beat the game, a move that astoundingly manages to introduce padding to a game with an anaemic amount of content. Granted, subsequent runs are made somewhat easier and more tolerable by the introduction of upgrades and shortcuts to speed things along slightly, but it unfortunately doesn’t take very long at all for the roguelike elements to become quite grating.
It’s a real shame, too, as the colourful anime presentation suggests a much more engaging and quality game than the one you’re actually met with. Blending 2D sprites with 3D worlds – a bit like Paper Mario – the art style is striking and lively, with the monster and NPC designs having a cutesy Shantae-esque design that looks great in motion. The 3D environments are a little less interesting to look at, and fall to tired, uninspired design tropes (of course there’s an obligatory ‘beach’ level), but are nonetheless rich with colour. Also, as a bit of a side note, there’s a remarkably well-produced intro scene upon boot up developed by an anime animation studio, complete with a Japanese theme song, and this goes a long way in cementing the undeniable charm that Away: Journey to the Unexpected exudes.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected is the sort of game that’s disappointing because of how good it could have been if more thought had been invested into certain systems. There’s a good game buried in here somewhere, but it’s so mired in confusing or irritating game design elements that it becomes incredibly difficult to recommend. If you’re really into roguelikes and want to try out an okay one in first-person, Away: Journey to the Unexpected is perhaps worth a punt, but even then, we’d highly suggest that you take a pass. There are far better roguelikes available on the eShop for a comparable price; you’re sure to get much more out of those.