The randomised yet finely-crafted adventures found within The Long Journey Home are filled with wonder. Manoeuvring your ship through vast and numerous solar systems, navigating unexplored planets and meeting strange and wonderful alien species – it's all good stuff. But the coin is always flipping in the vacuum of space; the cosmos is unforgivable as it is beguiling. Hostile environments might cause your crew to suffer everything from whiplash to ruptured organs, while winds buffet your lander into sheer rock faces, crippling its thrusters or breaching its hull. Aliens that once seemed friendly might suddenly turn hostile, or inadvertently infect your people with a potentially incurable contagion. You're constantly in awe and in danger.
As an interactive experience, unsurprisingly, this procedurally-generated indie title offers engaging moments of systemic excitement as you stumble on random encounters and strange constructs, tempered with mercilessly brutal periods of punishment, malfunction and death. The Long Journey Home wants you to take in the abject joy of exploring hitherto unexplored corners of space, but it makes it clear you’re unlikely to make it home, despite the promise of its title. It’s both the carrot on the stick and the foreboding warning that you’ll have a run of luck with your resource collecting, then see it all fall apart as an unexpected malfunction jettisons all your fuel or suffocates your entire crew.
In practice, The Long Journey Home plays like a cross between FTL: Faster Than Light and Out There: Ω The Alliance with a sprinkling of The Outer Wilds. As the crew of a ship whose test of humanity’s first faster-than-light engine sends them hurtling across space to regions unknown, it’s up to you to guide your sailors back to the warm space docks of home. Every time you jump to a new system, you never know where you might end up next. It’s one of the game’s biggest allures; a Battlestar Galactica-esque proposition that ties into its procedurally-generated destinations.
Boil down all the references and familiar ideas and what your left with is a rogue-like that’s happy to take things at a narrative pace more akin to a hard science fiction novel, a la The Expanse or Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space saga than, say, the fast-paced space opera of a game such as Mass Effect. Play is split between moving between planets (where your ship is represented by an arrow on a star map), a top-down view showing more detailed space exploration and a side-scrolling perspective when you land on a planet. Flung across the stars, resource management becomes a vital part of your existence. In order to keep your crew of four (available from a set of 10 you choose a the start of the game, each with their own unique traits) you’ll need to mine raw materials to keep your boat afloat.
Learning how to accurately use thrust and boost to move between planets takes a while to master, but once you get the hang of using gravity wells to affect your trajectory (so you can eventually enter a geosynchronous orbit) it adds an invigorating agency that's often ignored by space exploration simulators. In fact, most of The Long Journey Home's systems are all about getting your head around the importance of doing everything manually. There are no training wheels here. You'll need to learn to accurately control the lander you send to mine resources on each new planet, because one false move can send it crashing into the ground. Environmental changes such as storms can really affect an already unwieldy control model that reacts to the slightest misjudgement in thrust or rotation. Once you land, you'll get to scan certain points of interest (such as the giant bones of long-dead leviathans), but the damage you'll take to get there doesn't often warrant the trip itself.
Everything from the integrity of your hull to the reliability of your life support systems need to be carefully managed and topped up. Causing damage to your ship is incredibly easy, as you’ll soon discover, so you’re constantly locked in a cycle of mining and refining. And it’s so easy to damage your ship, and the lander you use to visit planets. A little too easy, if we’re honest. Fly too close to a star and you’ll risk irradiating your vessel. End up a field of debris and you’ll be torn to ribbons. Misjudge a landing and you’ll pulverise the occupants of your lander. The thing is, you have to keep gathering resources – especially the energy needed to power your FTL drive – so you're constantly courting disaster.
Lander controls and the variables that affect its handling are a little too unpredictable, though. We often reminisce fondly on the sedate mechanics of Mass Effect 2’s mining mini-game, but where filling up your tanks with minerals and metals was a fun side job in that entry, resource gathering too often becomes the main crux of your existence. It turns The Long Journey Home into more of a survival simulator, and it’s at these times that the game becomes laborious and less engaging. It’s at odds with the creativity poured into the other aspects of the game, namely the randomness of exploration and diplomacy. Because it’s here that this science fiction odyssey is at its most memorable.
You might stray across a roving transponder, pointing you in the direction of a stranded alien species. You might stumble upon an ancient space station constructed by a long lost civilisation. You’ll collect artefacts, gather samples of brand new fauna and fill your data banks with information on far-flung cultures. Not every species you meet is friendly, and if you’re not infected, infested or eaten alive, you’ll need to fire up your weapon systems and defend your crew from destruction. The random nature of The Long Journey Home works really well as a canvas for its cosmic story with twists and turns aplenty, but it’s a concept that's undermined by seemingly random malfunctions and issues that can completely destroy your good fortune and force you to restart a new run.
Playing The Long Journey Home can often be rewarding as it is frustrating. The creativity of the writing, the whimsy of the soundtrack and vast number of cosmic variations you’ll encounter makes each new jump a leap into the unknown. But it too often airs on the unfair, with a careful and calculated set of jumps undone by a sudden and unpredictable calamity or a trip to a planet that cripples your lander, effectively ending your game. The resource management aspect really is a drag, but push past the constant need to spin those plates and there are some really wonderful moments to experience. The procedurally-generated nature of each jump warrants countless replays – you’ll just have to deal with a game that’s often doing its best to scupper its own best characteristics.