Posted on 19 Jun 2017 by L Coulsen

The Long Journey Home

The Defence

Developer: Daedalic Studio West
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Genre: Adventure, Indie, Roguelike, Role Playing, Strategy
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 30 May 2017

The Prosecution

Minimum
Recommended
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 3.0 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 650Ti
AMD Radeon HD 7790
RAM: 4 GB
HDD: 16 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i5 3.0 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 970
AMD Radeon R9 380
RAM: 8 GB
HDD: 16 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Hard sci-fi and speculative fiction are both things that are oddly underrepresented in the gaming world. There is certainly no shortage of sci-fi adventures out there, that at least make an effort to be a spot of light, speculative fiction, along the way. But the vast majority often sacrifice full scientific accuracy in favour of being more “gamey”. Which is understandable to an extent, video-games are a product, and you generally want a product to sell for it to be, y’know, worth investing money to make it. But it’s always struck me as odd that there aren’t more esoteric, philosophical ideas explored in a medium that is, still, largely populated by the more technologically minded (geeks and nerds) of us. Which brings us to today’s game, Daedalic’s The Long Journey Home.

The Trial

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning shall we? Comparisons to FTL: Faster Than Light are inevitable, understandable, and even justified, though inaccurate. There are superficial similarities in the way you move from sector to sector via a jump drive. I will even go so far as to describe The Long Journey Home as something akin to the lovechild of FTL and Don’t Starve, but only as a jumping off point. It’s a crude, very broad introduction to set people thinking along the right lines, before diving in to give a more nuanced explanation.

The premise behind The Long Journey Home, is that a new type of space craft has been developed in the near future. The first of its kind fitted with a new, experimental, type of engine which can propel the ship, the Daedalus 7, faster than light. You are given a choice of crew, ship and lander. The former offering gives you ten options, from which you choose four. Potential crew range from astronauts and test pilots, to an online blogger and botanist. Each with their own skills and a single personal item they bring along with them. Though some will seem far more useful than others at a first glance, everyone definitely has their role to play, and will provide their own, unique input to the mission. For example, Zoe, the reporter, can make long range scans to look for useful resources and potential alien habitats, whilst the mission controller, Miriam, can attempt to communicate with any aliens that come aboard.

You choice of ships has a more significant impact though, with some being tougher than others, having a larger jump range, more cargo space and so on. Same too with the landing craft, which offers a choice between larger storage and fuel capacity, or better handling for quick scouting. There are three of each to choose between, allowing you to mix and match to suit your playstyle. You then have a choice of three difficulty settings, with the post release update adding the Story mode (easy) difficulty, being intended more for just getting to know the game and having a relaxed time of things, Explorer (medium) being the way the game was intended, and Rogue (hard) being the real challenge.

So who wants to go on a fun space-mission? I'm sure nothing disastrous will happen!!!

The first two difficulty settings allow you to “Rewind” if you die, returning to the beginning of system you last jumped to and trying again. Whilst Rogue mode, ostensibly, makes everything permanent. However, the way the game handles save files allows some degree of save scumming, as it saves only at the beginning of an encounter. Say, like, when you go to land on a planet, if things don’t go so well, you can exit to the main menu, reload, and be back at planet entry. Which means, if you are very quick on the draw, you can even save a deceased crew member sometimes. It’s a bit of a cheap and cheeky way to game the system, but considering the level of difficulty inherent to the game’s design, I doubt it’s going to be changed and is likely that way by design.

The test flight is intended to take the ship to the nearest star beyond our solar system, Alpha Centauri, have a quick shuftie around, send your crew members down to the surface of planets you find based on their skills. Choosing one person to fly the lander, you can assign the Archaeologist when you find alien ruins, or the botanist if you discover a biotrope, that kind of thing. Then they’re supposed to jump back home and tell the world about all the weird and wonderful things they (probably didn’t) find whilst they were there out in the cosmos. Something that still ultimately goes on, but everything goes tits up, as it inevitably always does when space is involved, and they end up more than 38,000 Parsecs away, without a single Kessel run in sight!

With the ship damaged and the crew injured (the extent of each being set by which difficulty setting you are playing on) the crew find a curious alien mega-structure. One of the crew goes aboard, finds a device of some kind, which seems to have been responsible for bringing the ship out that far, and brings it back to the ship. Then you set about the long, arduous journey back home to Earth by jumping from one system to the next. Landing on planets, harvesting essential resources, maybe interacting with the local alien flora and fauna along the way, before jumping to the next system, only to rinse and repeat.

This planet looks friendly, let's take a closer look shall we? Bring the rifles just in case...

Thankfully, ’cause the game is hard as balls, the resources are all geared around keeping your ship running. With metals being used to effect repairs to the hull of both your intergalactic vessel, as well as the planetary lander. Exotic materials (like silicates, phosphates, borates and so on) serve as fuel for the jump drive. You can also harvest exotic materials by orbiting a star or black hole, though that should only ever be a last resort, as you will take constant radiation damage to your ship and crew. Finally, gas, any type of gas, which is used as fuel for the life support systems. The latter is fudging the hard science part just a tad, but not irreparably so. I mean, if you had to go hunting, specifically, for oxygen to keep breathing, and use other gases to fly the ship, it would be well nigh impossible. Though that would be a hell of a fun challenge in its own right.

However, it’s still a tad more complex than that. As both the Daedalus and lander also have components that will wear down over time. To repair these, thus keeping the ship in tip top condition, you need to make nice with the local omlins, dock at their star-ports, and use local currency to affect repairs. Currency being on offer by helping one of the myriad species with their problems. Not races, despite what the game tries to tell you, those are subdivisions within a species in the same way there are different breeds of dog and cats. Or, you can take some of your harvested resources and other goodies you discovered and sell for profit.

Resources are the easiest way to make money, but they come in three flavours: Common, Uncommon and Rare. The last of the three, for obvious reasons, being the most sought after, and thus the most expensive. Personally, I found it best to keep the Common and Uncommon for myself, to repair the hull and what not, and sell only the Rare ones. It’s nice having everything on the ship working the way it’s supposed to and all, but so is being able to keep flying and make your way home. Plus, each component can break in multiple ways, whilst repairs are charged at a flat rate per station (with small increases later in the game) and repair all faults in one fell swoop. So it’s definitely more cost effective to make do a lot of the time. Also, don’t worry, resource rarities are all clearly marked, so you’ll know what’s what even if you’re not a meteorologist.

Ahhh, Jim, I think we're lost... again.

Along the way, you will also find several planets that have points of interest you can land at, such as ruins and crashed ships. Landing in these areas gives you the chance to find rare items which can be also traded for cash, or turned into useful items such as medical supplies, depending on your choice of crew. Others will be part of large meta plots, requiring you to find several items and fit them together. Several items are also viewed as contraband by different alien species’, which can lead to some sticky situations when you run into their border patrol craft. You can even, sometimes, stumble across stranded aliens who might ask you to return them home, or point you in the direction of other points of interest depending on which crew member you tell to attempt communication. I generally prefer Miri, who always asks where they live, because asteroid fields and ruins are always there even if they don’t tell you, and it’s not that hard to jump through every system on your way home.

Don’t get me wrong, The Long Journey Home is not an easy game, but it’s not nearly as difficult as some people have been implying. Actually, taking your time and trying to explore every system you come across is a much better idea. The ship and lander will take more damage that way, with the Daedalus actually taking damage to the hull with every single jump. But your long range scanners allow you to see what is contained within each system before you jump, so you can avoid things like black holes whilst favouring a system that contains good resources for repairs and such. Just take your time, check what’s coming next and adjust your route based on how you’re doing at the time. Like jumping to a system with lots of metals on offer if your ship is damaged, say from a firefight with another ship. Or jump to a system with lots of exotic materials if your jump drive is running low on fuel. You can always fall back on the above mentioned save scumming technique if it gets really bad.

Inevitably, there will be situations you find yourself in that make life difficult for you no matter how hard you try to avoid them, that’s just the nature of the beast. But even if you’re playing on Rogue mode, the point I’m making is that the game is never (not quite) flat out unfair. Though there can be moments that really skirt the line. Such as when you encounter the telepathic Meorcl, who also have a species wide “King” complex. If they get you in their sights, you will find yourself unable to raise your shields, and should they open communications with you, they can often demand tribute, which you have to accept. It’s mildly amusing seeing both options replaced with “YES” the very first time, but gets old real fast. Though there is a device you can get to make you immune to their telepathic manipulations, it’s pot luck whether you actually find it. That makes them a real pain in the arse to be honest.

Why must Uranus be the butt of ever space joke? Get it? BUM! HA HA, I KNOW RIGHT!?

There are a few other, generally minor, problems along the way. Landing on planets can be difficult, not just because it may have high gravity, or a searing surface temperature. By design, for some reason, the landing unit rotates in entirety to bring its engines to bear, meaning you’ll be flying vertical if you want to get your engines to counteract a strong wind. Which is frustrating to say the least, making you sacrifice lift for navigation. Environmental hazards, at least, can be mitigated or even outright overcome with certain lander modifications. The Anti-gravity device being well nigh essential, as it reduces a planet’s gravity by a factor of two, to a minimum of average, which makes taking off far less grueling. One problem… you have to find it first.

Speaking of flaws though, I’d honestly rather deal with extreme gravity conditions than extremely low gravity. On low and very low gravity worlds, I swear to the unholy hordes your lander is suddenly made of tissue paper. Just staying on the ground often requires burning through fuel by firing your retro thrusters (those on top of the unit) to avoid slowly drifting off into the air on a magical journey. Doubly dangerous, as using your drill to mine resources also uses up fuel, severely hampering the time you have available to harvest them. Though, again, this only uses up the fuel you need for life support, allowing  you to still take off even if the tanks are empty. But if you’re not careful, your lander pilot can still suffocate to death. Still, even that is offset by having a “five injury before death” system. With suffocation slowly fading over time as they are able to breathe, I often left a lander down on the surface for the pop-up to trigger two or three times before leaving again. Then swap to another pilot if I want to go straight back down to the same planet.

Other issues of note. Some alien ships will make a bee line straight for you, and continue to follow you around, re-initiating the encounter, until they finish whatever it is they had in mind, such as a customs scan. In most cases, you can just leave each time they try this, but it does get rather annoying having to do it several times over, especially when near a planet or star. You see, for whatever reason, going into an encounter with another ship doesn’t bring you to a complete stop, even though the game shifts from intra-system flight to its equivalent of impulse drive. Once you leave, any velocity and direction you had before starting will remain intact. So you could be heading towards a planet, perhaps to go into orbit around it, but not quite have the angle right, so that you’re shit out directly into the middle of it, at which point you’ll be flung across the upper atmosphere, your ship taking damage along the way.

Nothing to worry about team, 'tis only a scratch, nothing a lick of paint can't fix... I swear!

That’s really, really annoying, and extremely counter intuitive. Other objects, like asteroids fields and space stations, bring your ship to a complete stop, so that you leave in whichever direction you orient your ship, typically returning to system space at a speed of around 2 AU/h (astronomical units per hour) which is roughly 20% of the speed of light in a vacuum. For those who don’t know, we categorize 1 AU as being the distance from the centre of our sun, to the centre of the Earth. And it takes approximately eight minutes for the sun’s light and heat to reach us.

Having said all of that, The Long Journey Home has already taken its place in the favourites section of my Steam library, with close to a hundred hours of playtime already under my belt. What few flaws it does have, sadly mostly by design, are far from deal breakers. They do add a somewhat artificial element to the challenge, but only a small amount of practice and attention to game mechanics make them far from insurmountable. Whilst everything else more than offsets the frustration making this one of the very best games I have played all year.

Landing on planets just feels amazing. Though each world is presented on a 2D plane, seeing the vistas extend out into the distance, with topographical features, wind effects and the like, it really drives home that feeling of being on an alien world. And though The Long Journey Home isn’t going to be winning any awards for pushing graphical rendering techniques, the art style is a work of wonders. Everything apart from character models, which are a bit blocky and cartoony, is absolutely gorgeous. The sheer variety of alien worlds, ranging from molten, to rock, to liquid and everything in between…there are some staggeringly beautiful views to be had. And on some worlds, the mining spots are beneath lakes and rivers, meaning you have to fire your retro’s to reach them and engage in some underwater (well, under liquid) mining.

Who put that giant robotic Cthulhu in my parking spot!?

It just feels awesome. Same again with intra-system items. You quickly get a feel for what a planet’s surface will be like, even if your scanners are on the fritz, by it’s colour and cloud patterns. Whilst stars…pulsars are absolutely gorgeous. Deadly, but gorgeous. And the music! This is one of those games that I have repeatedly loaded up and left on the menu screen, just running in the background, so that I can listen to it play when I’m doing something else. There are haunting violin scores, soft electronic melodies, quasi hard rock battle music. Every single track is perfectly composed and extenuates the sense of unease, but also wonder at what the universe has to offer. Something often commented on by members of the crew in the idle chatter.

Speaking of the crew, and writing in general. At first glance, it may not seem like there’s all that much here. But the game boasts “two novels” worth of writing. Though it will take you a while to really get a grasp of just how much that is. The game is built in such a way that you will only experience about 20% of it at any one time. You only have four out of ten crew, for example, and different combinations will lead to different interactions between them. So too are there several different alien species’, with only some of them showing up in each run. Even if you go back to the same seed over and over, the specific species you encounter, and the events around them, are still shifted around each time.

The Verdict

Honestly, I’ve only really scratched the surface of everything on offer here, but this has gone on long enough. So, suffice it to say, I love this game. Those few flaws it has, sadly, keep it from being a perfect game, but only barely. The style of challenge will most certainly not be for everyone, as there is a steep learning curve that, even after mastering, leaves you with some small room for major frustrations. But I cannot recommend it enough. Just make sure to approach the game on its own terms and be patient enough to get to grips with the mechanics. Also, keep an eye (and ear) out for the plethora of plethora’s to nods of other sci-fi pop culture. Some obvious, some far less so.

Case Review

  • References: There are at least as many nods to other sci-fi I’ve recognised as those that have completely flown over my head.

  • Scale: The Long Journey Home is huge, truly galactic. Nee, universal, with multiple galaxies between you and Earth.

  • Visuals: Stars are vibrantly mesmerising, planetary vistas are just breathtaking.

  • Learning Curve: It’s a bit steep, and takes some dedication, but far from insurmountable.

  • Movement: Landing on planets is a tad more obtuse than it needs to be, and keeping your speed and heading after an encounter can be really frustrating if you hit one when near a planet or star.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
A perfect game only ever so slightly marred by some minor design quirks.

Evidence

  • Settings: Cheap and cheerful, offering all the essentials to tweak the game's performance, but very little else besides.
  • Audio: Sound balance is solid, with no dialogue for the music to override. Though disappointing that none of the crew are voiced, the music is just so darn good that you won't want anything getting in the way anyway.
  • Controls: No customisation options, though the control scheme is quite simple and doesn't really need it. Controlling your ship is arguably easier with a controller, though using a mouse takes only a little practice and does definitely offer far more precision once you get to grips with it.
4 Score: 4/5

The Long Journey Home (TLJH) is the latest space adventure roguelike, and simply put, it’s fun in space. It offers a good balance of space fetishism for the die-hard star sailors, but with enough options for the rookies to slide by after a few trial runs. It’s in a comfortable place between Star Citizen’s overwhelming amount of customization and FTL: Faster Than Light’s fun but comparatively one-dimensional gameplay, but can sometimes leave you with the feeling of “this again?”

Everyone is going to have different favorite parts in TLJH. For me, it was clean UI and the well-written characters that bring some life to all the dead space you’ll see. Other people will love the diplomacy/trade with aliens that changes depending on who you’ve done favors for in the past, or the rare but high-stakes combat with pirates. With that being said, I don’t think anyone likes the constant clunky controls of the landing probe missions. Instead of feeling like a fun mini-game, they feel like a distraction. If TLJH is a road-trip home, the characters are your chatty best friends while the probe missions are the congested traffic along the way.

TLJH is a mixed bag. At its best, it’s an epic road-trip in space with fun characters and hard decisions. At its worst, it’s a linear, grindy mess with poor pacing and plentiful distractions. Maintaining your ship and discovering the universe is a great time, but if the journey alone isn’t enough and you want to reach your destination half-way across the universe, you’d better be ready to probe, explode, and restart your game… a lot.

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