When you’ve been around the block like I have, you build up this thick layer of cynicism like a crust upon your skin. It is so bad, I think dermatologists have “games journalists” as a “high-risk” group. One symptom of this is our tendency to play “spot-the-influence” as we review. Developers absolutely loathe this “game”, as it risks casting a negative shadow on the title, but it can work as a handy way to suss out the audience in mind. Usually the influence’s source and the intended audience of the game’s venn diagram is nearly circular.
However, sometimes this “locate-the-inspiration” approach couldn’t be less helpful if it tried, so let’s get two words out the way before we review Phoning Home: ET. WALL-E. Right, we wouldn’t be mentioning them before the conclusion.
Phoning Home is a survival exploration title by new developer Ion LANDS. A new exploration unit called ION (get it?) crash lands onto a planet and must get off it by phoning home. Along the way it meets ANI, a robot who you must help navigate the cruel climates and harsh terra firma.
“Wait a moment…” you mutter. A pause. You connect the dots. Then you begin to flee for the door. You’re nearly there as I dive for your legs and trip you to the floor. As you struggle and scream with bound legs, I climb upwards so I may look you in the eye. “Ssshh” I begin, “it’s not like that at all, now, if I let go will you just hear me out?”. Reluctantly, I let go.
You’re right this sounds like the summoning of a dark force from the pits of hell or from the deep absurdities of space: Escort quests. However, fortunately Phoning Home is built around the premise. ANI can defend itself (perhaps even better than you), doesn’t need commanding and does have surprisingly good path-finding. A lot of the typical problems, such as enemies swarming your defenceless fighty escort and them getting stuck on the most basic of obstacles, does get avoided.
There is just one problem: Environment. Phoning Home is noticeably built on a budget, which is fine. However, it does mean it doesn’t have the heavy polish required to clearly differentiate what terrain your rollerbot buddy can and can’t traverse. You’re also not immediately alerted if you’re leaving it behind. This means you can be stumbling down a path, only to find ANI is about 5 minutes behind you. If it sounds like an inconvenience, this is something more horrifying as this backtracking burns valuable resources.
Which you’ll be constantly hoarding all the resources you can find off the land, as each one can build different things. There’s power units to keep you running, fuel to allow any form of vertical movement, hull repairs so you and ANI don’t die, coating so ANI doesn’t go from bucket to rust-bucket and that isn’t even stepping into upgrades and components for upgrades. Now, don’t let me scare you with this. Don’t worry, this is a safe place away from the soul-crushingly complex survival titles. The UI here makes it easy to keep track on the various metres and the upgrades are single-purchase only. So it is easy to keep things rolling if you have the required equipment.
Ah ha! You’ll need a bomb defusal kit for a sentence that loaded! That isn’t to say it is particularly tricky to find the materials, as your radar will alert you to nearby salvageable items (as well as the story-required mineral that only ANI can track). The problem is the finite nature of resources. You’ll be gobbling up power as moving, sprinting and all the equipment you’ve built for yourself (e.g. gun, teleportation, fall-damage-negation-machine) leeches off your battery. That is putting aside all materials you’ll need for the fuel, upgrades, coating, etc you’ll be building.
At first it wouldn’t be a problem as you’ll be laughing away, stuffing your pockets from the land-of-plenty. However, as plants wouldn’t regrow, ore re-emerge or oily substances re-harvest, as the game goes on you’ll be struggling more and more to keep rolling. That is even putting aside how the different environments get more and more gruelling on your supply. In addition, you have the overall game objective hanging over your head like a guillotine, as if you don’t collect enough of the story-required mineral as you leap from area-to-area then you’re in trouble. Both of these means that early mistakes can and will come back to haunt you, even possibly making the game impossible to finish.
This is exacerbated by ANI’s erosion. In every environment, the wheely-bot runs the risk of rusting due to environmental effects. While this can be stalled via temporary coating you can make, in the end there is no way to decrease it. So a bad early game that has allowed it to climb can leave the final sprint as a desperate struggle to keep the coating up. When combined with the material desperation, it can make Phoning Home incredibly unforgiving.
Fortunately, this challenge is layered on a varied environmental background that look pretty stunning and colourful. The areas I got to experience featured a forest, a desert and some snowy plains. Although they’re not just for show as they present their own difficulties, mainly with regards to finding resources and ways ANI’s corrosion coating gets brought to its knees (e.g. rain). That said, when intended, the resources still are still easy to spot and even vary in appearance (e.g. seeds wouldn’t be found on flowers in the desert, but instead on cacti). The change of scenery and pace both combine together to really mix up the flow and keep things interesting.
The only downside to this is the environmental vagueness found in ANI’s pathfinding returns with a gritted-teeth vengeance. Sadly, way too many times my character or ANI has slipped off a ledge I’ve thought to be firm and flat, breaking our hull severely in the process. Then there’s been the moments I’ve fallen through a gap in the terrain to an inescapable area, something that has bizarrely happened multiple times. It just makes it fortunate the game auto-saves on a pretty regular basis, as I would have likely lost my patience long ago if I lost hours of gameplay due to a slippery hillside.
Sadly, I could not complete the full game due to a pretty hideous graphical bug. After being plopped on a rock in the middle of the sea, said sea turned into a flashing oily rainbow effect that lit up the dark surroundings. Sadly, reloading the save did nothing for it so I’m somewhat stuck with it. I’m hoping it will be fixed on release, but I thought I’d warn in case it isn’t.
The final score of Phoning Home is a 6/10. At the start, I asked if we could not mention ET/WALL-E. To address the elephant in the room, “Phoning Home” as a title reminds me of the classic ET line “ET phone home” and the character designs and relations feel akin to WALL-E. However, to do so is to soften and disguise the cruel underbelly, like a chibi Theresa May. Its survival is unforgiving, harsh and even rough-and-the-edges in ways that makes the task more difficult. Which is something that is also like a chibi Theresa May… Guess they have a startling amount in common then, eh?
However, In contrast to chibi Theresa May, there is still some enjoyment to be had here. If you can dig past the roughness and the difficulty, there’s still something charming and relaxing about wandering around colourful environments while trying to get your ship off the planet. Although it is perhaps a little too rough-n-tough to phone home about.
A PC Review Code for Phoning Home was provided by ION LANDS for the purpose of this review