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RPG Codex Review: The Long Journey Home
Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Thu 8 June 2017, 23:33:45Tags: Daedalic Entertainment; The Long Journey Home
[Review by oasis789]
20XX: A Space Odyssey
My first crew asphyxiated to death. I ran out of fuel to keep the CO2 scrubbers online, because I had not yet understood the harsh necessity of fuel conservation and the principles of gravitational slingshot maneuvers. The last surviving crew member was Malcolm the pilot. In my imagination, Malcolm attempted to chart a course home with(out) his dying breath, and the derelict hulk of the Daedalus drifted across the galaxy, perhaps eventually reaching Earth someday.
The second crew was no less unfortunate. Due to poor luck and worse planning, I had run out of exotic matter to fuel the jump drive, and the nearby planets had no mineral deposits. So I had to scoop fuel from the local star, in a series of risky and delicate maneuvers that would neatly clip the edge of the star's collection zone, just long enough to get enough fuel for the next jump, but not so long that it would roast everyone aboard. Let's just say this Daedalus ended up more like an Icarus.
The third crew was killed in action. Despite adequate fuel supplies, I had the misfortune of starting in slaver territory this time, and a slaver Executioner-class vessel intercepted the ship just before I could reach the stargate and leave the cluster behind. The slavers demanded protection money, but if I paid up, there would not have been enough credit left to pay the gate toll. If I didn't pay, they would seize the supplies I needed to keep the ship afloat past the gate. Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, I unwisely decided to decline and make a run for it, and learned just how flimsy the shields on the Daedalus were. The game allowed me to rewind to an auto-save, and this time, without answering their hail I turned the ship around and sped away, and flipped and burned my carefully-saved fuel in a full speed boost to the gate, only to find another Executioner on the other side.
Let it not be said that The Long Journey Home does not live up to its name. Its developers estimate that a successful playthrough will take around four to six hours on average. This is, to my experience, a wildly optimistic estimate. It took 49 hours of play before I brought the Daedalus back to Sol, and by only the slimmest of margins. Three of the four crew were already dead and the last was infected with an alien virus, which he spread to Earth – great job, me. By the in-game statistics, I had barely scratched the surface of the game and was still nowhere near exploring and discovering all its secrets.
Exploration and discovery are what TLJH is all about. You and your crew are testing the experimental faster-than-light jump drive of the Daedalus on its maiden flight, when a mysterious accident has you spirited away to the other side of the galaxy. Your mission: Get back to Earth in one piece by any means necessary. You are given complete freedom to decide how to achieve that goal, while keeping the crew alive and the ship afloat. Along the way, you will visit strange new worlds and meet a colorful cast of aliens, all of whom have their own agendas, and you will have to navigate both the galaxy and its politics.
As the name of the ship might suggest, TLJH is developed by Daedalic Studio West, the Dusseldorf division of Hamburg-based Daedalic Entertainment. Apart from its brief foray into RPGs with the two Blackguards games, Daedalic is best known for its traditional point-and-click adventures, in particular the Deponia series, and their Dark Eye franchise titles Chains of Satinav and Memoria. DSW, however, was intended to expand their repertoire beyond adventure games into new genres. Its creative director Andreas Suika is credited on several Settlers series titles, and it is clear that some strategy/simulation DNA is expressed here. Unlike the conventional narrative- and character-driven stories of Daedalic's adventures, the stories in TLJH have an emergent quality that comes from the interaction of procedural generation, ironman rigor, and survival mechanics, so these stories of struggle, sacrifice, and perhaps even the occasional success feel like they are uniquely yours. It is on you to determine if the Daedalus meets the same tragic fate as its namesake.
This is where TLJH breaks from the Codex beloved classic Star Control II, to which the game bears more than a passing resemblance thematically and mechanically. In both games, players have complete freedom to explore a vast open galaxy at their own pace, brave hazardous planets for various resources and artifacts, upgrade the ship with new technology, and meet all manner of weird and wacky aliens. Star Control II was an ambitiously complex and challenging game, and most players would lose the game many times over before learning how best to win. But that iterative learning process of failure after failure was highly repetitive, and players would visit the same rainbow worlds, acquire the same upgrades, and complete the same quests many times over before hitting on the right sequence and order of action to defeat the Samatra. Furthermore, once that was done, the story was over, and there was nothing left to discover, except perhaps how to do the same again but more efficiently.
Just like in Star Control II, players in TLJH will stumble and fail many times before reaching Sol, each time learning more useful information and improving their skills. But here they will fail doing different things in different ways, in different situations and for different reasons. For any given seed, the game procedurally generates a new galaxy and randomly draws a subset from the pool of possible alien races to fill it with, meaning that in each playthrough players may meet aliens familiar and unfamiliar, in a different order and under different circumstances. To give an example here, fairly early on in one run I encountered a hotheaded young squire who challenged me to single combat. When I won the duel my honor and standing rose slightly, along with my bank balance. Easy peasy, right? In another run, I encountered the same squire in the midgame, after I had upgraded the Daedalus' weapons to plasma. Plasma which punched right through his shields and blew the ship up before he could yield. With this accidental breach of chivalry, I became persona non grata to the heavily armed galactic knights, necessitating a wide and costly detour to another cluster since they controlled the gate I had planned on passing through and resupplying at. Hence, even though players will encounter the exact same handcrafted quests over time, the scripts tend to play out differently in ways that make them feel fresh.
One might think that procedural generation tends to produce a buggy mess, but in all the time I played, I only experienced one bug, an unreachable quest objective that appeared underwater, which is rather impressive of DSW considering all the moving parts in the game. Other quirks of procedural generation get lampshaded by the characters themselves: The names of stars are a random mix-and-match of constellations and people's names because of issues with the ship's navigational database.
TLJH also has more recent inspiration for its procedurally generated space adventure, the roguelike FTL: Faster Than Light. In both games, the player makes their way to a distant destination, hopping from star to star, and acquiring fuel and supplies along the way. The path through the galaxy forks through different star clusters, and the player has the freedom to choose from various options on the map. But unlike FTL's mostly linear left-to-right trek to the war front, TLJH journeys have a more nonlinear quality, where the direct route isn't always the wisest course. Players are given the galactic map from the start of the game, which offers a broad overview of how star clusters are arranged and a general description of their risks. Players might, for example, avoid high radiation clusters full of dangerous pulsars and black holes, and chart a course that goes around them. However, the game's procedural aspects also tend to throw such plans into disarray. Players may arrive at seemingly hospitable clusters only to realize that their initial plan will take them through territory occupied by pirates, slavers, and other hostile aliens. Or they might somehow inadvertently offend and make new enemies of its occupants, cutting them off from resupply. Players may then have to backtrack to find a safer path, but detours are often costly, especially if the low hanging fruit of supplies have already been picked clean. Or they may have no choice but to push on and break through.
Procedural generation also gives TLJH a different spin on player progression. FTL has a conventional RPG-like arc, where the player becomes stronger over time, acquires new equipment and abilities, and faces increasingly tougher enemies, culminating in a grand finale against the rebel flagship. But in TLJH, the player could encounter hostile aliens at any point in the journey, even the very beginning. Furthermore, the game becomes more difficult over time not necessarily because enemies become tougher, but because the player becomes weaker as the journey takes its toll, inflicting injuries on the crew and damaging important systems on the ship. While the player may acquire advanced technology over the course of the game, there is no guarantee that said technology will still be functioning by the end of the journey. The resulting experience is sometimes uneven but rich with potential.
This novelty from procedural generation is compounded by the variety of approaches and strategies players can choose from. For a Codex audience primarily interested in choices and consequences, I am pleased to report that there are plenty of both.
The first and most important choice in the game is picking your crew of four from a roster of ten characters, each with a distinct personality and a unique take on their situation. By combinatorics, that's 10 choose 4 = 210 possible parties, and although not all parties are equally viable, each character comes with their own special skills and qualities that make each combination interesting. For example, the pilot has bonuses to flying the lander, the botanist can extract medicines to keep the crew alive, and the mission planner will dispense useful advice. Characters with diplomatic backgrounds can converse with aliens, and some quests are only possible to undertake with certain characters in the crew. Some characters are harder to keep alive than others, and even the sex distribution and political/ideological balance of your team can matter at times. After being recruited by the pirates to go marauding, I was presented with a choice between what might be loosely termed Paragon and Renegade options (abide by the agreement to give up a share of the booty, or keep it all for myself) but I could only choose among those options held by the present crew, even if I preferred otherwise. If my only surviving crew had been all Renegades, that might have meant no quarter from pirates for the rest of the journey. One that would have most likely ended prematurely.
Next, you choose your ship and lander. These vary considerably along several dimensions and will determine your playstyle. If you intend on collecting and trading resources, you will need a large cargo hold, and if you plan on fighting, you probably want a more maneuverable and upgradable craft. Landers also vary considerably. While there seems to be no reason to choose the Odyssey over the Serenity lander, the fragile Pathfinder is much more suitable for siphoning gases than either model, and gases are the most plentiful resource in the game. As with the crew, ship/lander choices have hard trade-offs and are fairly well balanced. The Discovery may have more upgrade slots to install alien devices in, but its weak hull (presumably) means that said devices will be more easily damaged and destroyed. Similarly, the Pathfinder may have more slots for upgrades to make planetfall safer in hazardous conditions, but its weak hull also makes it more likely to lose those expensive upgrades altogether. Landers may also be replaced for "free" at certain locations, which players could potentially abuse to avoid expensive repairs, making a no-lander-upgrade strategy possible though inadvisable.
The consequences of all these choices directly affect your survival prospects, though there is not much of the Inxile-esque narrative reactivity that is popular on the Codex. Apart from certain galaxy-shaking quests with far-reaching consequences, most quests in TLJH have shallow branches, and their specific outcomes do not affect the game outside of a general impact on your reputation with the relevant factions or the rewards that you may or may not receive. Most of the time this more-or-less makes sense, since it's a big galaxy and few would know or care if you resolved this minor issue or performed that trivial task or how you did it, but sometimes the lack of response to your actions really gets the noggin jogging. You might commit acts of piracy against one alien race and become their enemies, but their allies will still receive you as if nothing had happened. In my playthroughs, I must have opened fire on dozens of infested ships without picking up their calls, but the sentient viruses still kept on approaching me with open arms/tails/tentacles. They never got the message. Neither is there much reactivity in terms of simulation. For a galaxy filled with all sorts of aliens everywhere, their interactions with each other are disappointingly static. You could chart a course to a system guarded by the galactic knights, have a Marshal inspect your ship and escort you around the system, and still get accosted by pirates there, which makes no sense at all. Pirates should chase after traders, knights after pirates, and so on.
The narrative in TLJH is handled very differently from the typical space opera, with very little gratuitous exposition. The player starts out knowing nothing about the galaxy and its occupants, and only learns about them gradually. Like in the obscure Infogrames adventure Captain Blood, aliens that the player encounter communicate with the crew through a layer of translation that maps alien concepts to human analogs and vice versa, a process which has lots of potential for misunderstanding and confusion as different aliens interpret concepts in different contexts. For example, one group may understand 'home' as referring to their own homes, whereas others may interpret it as asking about Earth. Other aliens do not communicate verbally at all, and talking with them is something of a puzzle to solve. Even the aliens that the player can converse with in a straightforward way aren't easy to talk to, as not all of them are equally interested in talking with humans. Some aliens will only tolerate a few questions before going on about their business elsewhere, and others may get annoyed enough to open fire. As such, there are no long, branching dialog trees like in the conventional point-and-click adventures Daedalic is best known for, and certainly no 'codex entry' infodumping. Players will have to strike a balance between asking about new topics of interest against higher priority items like news, job opportunities or special trades. The result is a much more organic experience of the game's lore.
Nor does the narrative tend to focus on the grand space opera fare that is typical of the genre, leaving it mostly in the background. Lead writer Richard Cobbett did a decent job at filling the Daedalus and its journey with a weird and wacky cast of colorful characters, much like Star Control II, Farscape, Lexx etc. The game does not take itself too seriously, and its soft science fiction stretches plausibility, though all in the name of good fun. Thus, in TLJH you are not Kirk or Shepard, but more like Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest. While there are ancient evils to awaken, galactic conspiracies to uncover, and powerful villains to defeat, the game neither requires nor encourages you to do any of these things, and pursuing these epic-but-optional adventures is generally a distraction at best or a hindrance at worst to your primary objective of getting the crew home safely. In my successful run, I looted plenty of relics and artifacts from elder civilizations that just screamed mystery and magic, and then promptly sold or traded them for more mundane goods to keep the ship running and the crew alive. The game is hard enough as it is, and even without going out of one's way to look for trouble, trouble will find its way to the player regardless. The result is that unlike in other games where it is required to progress with the plot, the grand space opera adventures in TLJH are explicitly chosen by players themselves, and require far more conscious effort to see through to the end. Less motivated players will likely not see much advanced content at all.
At this point it seems appropriate to mention complaints that the game is too hard and too much of a repetitive grind, so that the moments of fun are too few and far between. I will suggest here that 1) it is very easy to confuse playing a game badly with playing a bad game, and 2) it is precisely the degree and variety of challenges that make the game fun.
Most of this criticism about difficulty and repetitiveness is directed at the space combat and lander minigames. In combat, you control the Daedalus from the top-down on a two-dimensional field, boosting away from enemy missiles, turning if your shields are down on one side, charging up the laser battery, and lining the ship up for a broadside shot. On planets, you control the lander on a side-scrolling landscape, firing top and bottom thrusters to land safely on points of interest, where you may drill for resources, scavenge shipwrecks, or capture wildlife. It is true that the combat in TLJH is not as elegant as more action-oriented titles like Starsector, and its focus on broadside maneuvering is awkward and takes a great deal of finesse to succeed in. But the Daedalus is not a warship, and TLJH is not about combat, which is almost always a bad idea and best to be avoided. Even if the shooting starts, a wise player beats a hasty retreat and does not stick around to shoot back unless absolutely necessary. It is also true that the lander is hard to control, especially when one has to struggle with gravity and strong winds, or under the pressure of limited fuel, scorching temperatures, bad weather or violent turbulence. But there are various ways of making the lander easier to handle and more resilient to hazardous conditions, and the wise player does not attempt to land on every planet either. So I can only interpret much of this criticism as being more revealing about the critic than that which is being critiqued.
To give a concrete example, consider that players may, against the express advice given in the tutorial that refining is generally not as efficient as trade, opt to be a subsistence miner, landing on every planet and drilling and siphoning as much as possible, and refining the resources for repairs and fuel. Upon discovering that such an approach will cost more in damage to the lander and injuries to the pilot, the sane response is not to keep doing the same thing and expect different results, but to think carefully about which planets are safe to land on, and what resources are worth risking damage for. Then plan a course to systems where you are most likely to find such planets and resources. Then experiment to discover which aliens prefer which resources, that some types of resources are more valuable than others, and that the best trades do not involve anything that requires drilling or siphoning. Then adapt to change those plans when one only finds planets poor in riches or dangerous to approach or land on, or poor trading partners who do not take well to price negotiation. The game does not explicitly tell you how to do any of these things, but it does not seem unreasonable for players with common sense to figure it out for themselves.
Consider combat. Players are very likely to be attacked by all sorts of enemies for all kinds of reasons, but fighting them all will only end up damaging the ship if not destroying it completely, and one generally does not gain much from victory either. Various approaches to this problem include staying far away and hoping they do not notice your presence in the system, and if they set a course to intercept you, you can boost away. If they do intercept you, you can do as they ask, maybe pay them off, and go about your business. Or you could run off without saying a word. Though the game is certainly much easier if you are good at combat, players who aren't or don't enjoy it have many options to avoid combat altogether.
Since receiving this barrage of criticism, DSW has hastily patched in a new 'Story Mode' difficulty setting. This brings to mind the old saying 'be careful what you wish for, it might come true.' Veterans of Star Control II will recall that the combat and lander minigames there were certainly annoying, but both got trivialized once one got all the upgrades, making a large chunk of its gameplay just going through the motions. Analogously, 'Story Mode' may allow players to experience more of the Cobbett-written content more quickly than they would have otherwise, but it will also likely diminish much of their own player-driven emergent stories. Consider some of the toughest lander scenarios: Scans might have found rare gases on a gas giant, and you have to search through its layers for the gas pockets while fighting strong winds, using gravity to get through harsh turbulence swiftly, but not letting the lander fall too far and get crushed by pressure. Or you might have identified ruins on a fiery inferno, and rush to reach the temple entrance before the pilot is cooked in his own space suit. Or you might risk landing on an infested world, carefully avoiding getting too close to the ground while hovering over a volcanic vent. All of the above examples are generally Bad Ideas and Last Resorts, which is what makes them the highlights of a comeback story. If `Story Mode' prevents players from ever encountering such challenges, or removes the need to ever take them on, their long journey home will likely be a very short and uneventful one. DSW will probably then discover that complaints about difficulty swiftly transform into complaints about boredom.
Instead, DSW's 'Story Mode' concession completely misses a major problem with the game: The interface. TLJH is designed to be played with a controller, presumably for easy porting to consoles, and this has resulted in an interface that is frustratingly obtuse. Consider inventory management in the lab screen, where you can see seven items at a time and must press right on the d-pad repeatedly to scroll through the rest. There is no sorting or stacking functionality either. In the early game, when you have only a few items to manage, that's fine. But by the endgame you will have accumulated an entire menagerie of alien fauna and flora, a collection of gadgets and relics, and hopefully stockpiled many consumable items. I lost count of the times I had to switch back and forth between the trading screen and the lab and search all the way through the inventory to see if I already had this or that consumable, or if I had spares of something they wanted and could sell those off safely. The trading screen itself suffers from the same problem, only there it is even worse, because you see even less of your inventory, item icons are much smaller, and there is also cargo in the list. (On that note, it makes no sense for the trading screen to display inventory items that the trading partner has no interest in.) When there is so much real estate on the lab and trading screens to work with, there is really no excuse for the interface to be so unfriendly, especially when the trading system is already an opaque process of trial and error in negotiation.
Another major annoyance related to inventory management is the cargo hold on the refinery screen. Cargo is an important mechanic, and different ship and lander models have different cargo capacities. Since each row can only hold one kind of resource, the player has to make interesting strategic decisions about which resources to use, which to keep for trading, and which to discard, based on the course the player will take through a cluster, the stars along the way, their distribution of planets and the resources detected among them. What isn't interesting is meta-gaming the order of resource collection because players cannot transfer cargo from the ship to an empty row in the lander to optimize the use of space. It is fun to plan and execute a strategy within the game. It is not fun to be taken outside of the game by having to work around an unreasonably limited interface.
The next worst thing about the game interface is spaceflight. Due to the importance of fuel conservation, manual control of the ship demands that one fly at a slower speed where it is feasible for the player to make fine course corrections. But flying slowly also zooms the camera in and shortens the trajectory indicator, making the player rely on guesstimation and the tiny minimap to see where the ship is going. Flying fast zooms the camera out and shows you exactly where you are headed, but it also makes altering the ship's trajectory more expensive. As it is, the game incentivizes a very dull orbital ballet, inching across star systems to save fuel for those emergency situations where one has to burn it to outrun pirates, slavers, debt collectors, and various other pissed off aliens. The game mechanics and interface being opposed in this way is an exercise in frustration, and it does not have to be this way. The addition of basic camera controls, and a more informative Kerbal-style trajectory indicator (perhaps extended to the minimap) would make planning the perfect slingshot maneuver easier and help even out the pace of the game.
Many screens suffer from similar obstruction. For example, the starmap has a handy popup in the top-right corner with a graph of the star system, the kinds of planets in it, and what resources have been detected. This is all well and good except that top-right also happens to be the direction of Sol, so the popup obstructs the player's view of what stars are in jump range in precisely the most critical direction. Other non-critical but still annoying obstructions are on the in-ship screens, which get filled with all the souvenirs you collect on your journey, and serve as reminders of all the adventures your crew has had so far. Except you can't really see them because of all the menus in the way. Just a simple menu toggle would solve all of these issues.
If only these space age ships had some sort of list that could display items more efficiently and sort them by category.
Now on to the issues with the game content. While I do not think the combat and lander minigames are as repetitive as is claimed, there is one part of the game that is, and that is asteroid field exploration. Apart from certain special locations that are hidden within asteroid fields, most of these are identical, featureless areas, that are sometimes made annoying because of a blinding glare from the star in the background image. The asteroid field minigame is always the same in every stage of the game. What would have been much more interesting is if the asteroid field and combat minigames were combined. Perhaps raiders could be hiding within them, or perhaps some could be lined with mines and turrets. It would be even cooler if the Daedalus could lure pursuers into asteroid fields to ambush or escape them more easily, just like in Empire.
Balance is a controversial topic on the Codex, but I think it is generally undisputed that if the smart choice between A and B is always A, then there is no reason for option B to exist. Here, A and B are the Serenity and Odyssey landers. Though it was not always this way, the Serenity is now superior or equal to the Odyssey on every dimension, when it used to be during the beta that the Odyssey was more durable and and efficient at drilling. Whereas previously, picking the Odyssey was an interesting decision that could synergize with certain approaches to the game, now it is a dominated strategy that makes one wonder if the Odyssey has certain invisible advantages, because otherwise all the effort put into designing and animating it would make no sense. As far as I can tell, it does not.
The thorniest issue with the game is the tension between its scripted content and the emergent storytelling around it. Exploration and experimentation is at the heart of the game, but the ironman mechanics discourage both. Suppose a player comes across ruins of a long-lost civilization, and finds something weird, the kind of stuff one has seen from the Aliens movies. Or a player might be offered a quest leading them into a high radiation cluster full of pulsars and black holes. Or a shady trader might offer expensive alien pornography of no obvious value. In all of these cases, you know it's a bad idea, but you really want to see what happens. Except you've been doing great so far and don't want to jeopardize a good run, and rewinding to an auto-save won't save you from a series of bad strategic decisions like this one. So you decide to play it safe and pass on the opportunity, and you never get to find out what happens next. I do not have a good solution for this problem. Savescumming is a cure that is worse than the disease, because the temptation to reload when something goes wrong is great, but its precisely when things go wrong that makes for interesting stories. 'Story Mode' can tilt the calculus towards risk somewhat, but it still takes the sort of player for whom losing is fun to roll the dice.
To conclude this review, TLJH is a game that is worthy of your time, and you could enjoy spending a lot of time on it. A legitimate spiritual successor to Star Control II, it improves on that classic in scope and scale of gameplay, and offers a great deal of replayability to boot. Despite frustrating interface and consolization problems, and a disappointingly static simulation between aliens, there is a lot to like about this game, and if DSW can fix these issues all the better. But it is not for everyone. TLJH is a demanding game that rewards thought, planning, experimentation, and adaptability, and although the recent addition of an easy mode may have streamlined it for a more casual audience, it remains unclear to me that diluting its challenge will enrich the experience.
Challenge aside, TLJH is demanding in a way that is similar to other titles with emergent gameplay, like FTL and Rimworld, in that it needs the player to play along and imbue the events of the game with more meaning and significance than the in-game text itself provides. At the climax of my journey, just before the Daedalus could reach the final stargate, the surviving crew had to chart a course through the gravity well of a black hole. It was in that last stretch that Alessandra the engineer died of radiation. Alessandra, who had been the MVP of the IASA team, keeping the ship afloat all this time with her resourcefulness. Though I could have simply seen this as being screwed by the RNG because of an unlucky hull damage and crew injury roll, in my imagination, this was Alessandra's moment of heroism. As she kept the duct-taped circuitry from falling apart under the extreme stress, the shielding to the engine room gave way, killing her instantly, but giving the remaining survivor the chance to reach Earth. This noble sacrifice guaranteed her a place on my next crew, and I expect there will be many more such stories of tragedy and triumph. Even though I have technically beaten the game, for me the long journey home is far from over.
The author received press access for review purposes. This review is based on 49 hours of play prior to launch.