The Long Journey Home, from Daedalic Studio West, feels like a unique game. It has a chiseled artstyle reminiscent of Team Fortress 2, Virginia, or Firewatch. The story structure is ripe for personal storytelling and rewarding perseverance, and the gameplay mechanics are a delightful mix of typically disparate genres. It’s a shame, then, that the game is simply too shallow and punishing.
The backstory of The Long Journey Home is futuristic manifest destiny meets Homeward Bound. Mankind has spread throughout the solar system but yearns for more, spending years to build and prep their first interstellar spaceship. But when a test jump goes wrong, your state-of-the-art spaceship ends up 38 thousand parsecs from home – cue the title card.
It’s an interesting setup, one that does a great job of meshing the story and the tutorials, and it also ties the player to the mission. At the very beginning of the game is a shopping spree of crew members with individual specializations and starting items, but each also has a textbox description of their career qualifications and personal quarks, adding a small bit of color to how you compose your team. It’s hard to stay detached when the biologist is a goofy asshole and the pilot an uncompromising roughneck.
With your hand-picked crew and ship ready to go, the proper start of The Long Journey Home is a bit of a shock; this game is a rogue-lite. It might not look like it with the high-fidelity graphics and extensive menus, but it is a procedurally-generated adventure that the player isn’t supposed to finish on the first run-through. The best comparison is to The Oregon Trail — limited resources, dying companions, uninhabitable stretches, etc. There is no shortage of difficulty in this game.
Gameplay is split into four systems, each tying into one another through shared resources such as fuel, hull strength, and crew health. The most important is the ship’s series of XCOM-like screens that allow you to explore the galactic map, heal your crew members, manage your inventory, and repair/refuel. Unfortunately, a majority of this UI is too confusing to be entirely useful. Many of the screens are nested interactions with odd key or mouse bindings that lead to the player getting lost and confused. With the mission’s success hinging on many of these menus, frustration with the interface is the last thing you want to feel.
The three other systems deal with the meat-n-potatoes of the game. Traveling between planets and solar systems is done through a top-down, Kerbal-lite mechanic that is a nice mix between arcade and simulator; there’s gravity wells and orbital transfers, but no need to worry about apogees or “delta-vee.” Fighting another spaceship or navigating an asteroid field changes to a more tightly focused RC mode reminiscent of 18th century naval battles and, when you make landfall on a planet, the game switches to a Lunar Lander clone that is somehow both more forgiving and more punishing than the original.
The inclusion of multiple methods of gameplay feels exciting in a game like this. In many rogue-lites, or similar multi-run games, the challenge for the player isn’t just reaching the end, but also in not getting bored along the way. Having different ways for the player to interact with game alleviates the repetitiveness between runs, and the fact that the gameplay systems in The Long Journey Home are distinct from one another, but also seamlessly intertwined, makes the whole experience feel multi-faceted.
But there isn’t nearly enough depth or variety in the game to make it worth even a single play-through. Resource gathering is a difficult hunt for sparse items, often costing too much fuel or health for what you get. Solar systems feel largely the same with a handful of repeated planet types. And the available interactions with maintaining and upgrading your ship feel too limited to make a genuine difference in gameplay.
Playing The Long Journey Home is a lesson in perpetual punishment. Every choice you make has an unavoidable cost and a possible benefit. Jumping between solar systems damages your ship and burns fuel. To repair your hull and refuel your EM drive, you have to land on whatever planet you can reach. But deploying your lander means using more fuel, taking more damage, and even possibly hurting your crew. It’s a vicious cycle that makes the player feel cheated not by the harrowing elements of the journey but by the game mechanics themselves.
The jump-land-gather gameplay loop pauses only when you encounter a passing ship or alien outpost. Unfortunately, this too is a source of endless frustration. The dialogue system, while open to almost as many choices as the player would want, contains too many dead-ends to be useful. Conversing with any of the multiple alien species feels more like the UI equivalent of the shell game than actual dialogue. And, for puzzling reasons, every conversation has a countdown timer. Go down the wrong branch just once and you’ll be locked out from trying again.
The Long Journey Home is a game about surviving the punishing emptiness of space, but in trying to deliver that experience, it does too much to punish its player. A simplistic loop, too little variety, a lack of reward, and all of it wrapped in a frustrating UI — it makes for an extremely frustrating ordeal. This game is best left stranded and alone.
UPDATE: Since launch, Daedalic Entertainment has updated the game to address the difficulty and other quality-of-life concerns. “Key Story Mode changes include a far friendlier galaxy, where resources are more valuable and effective, and some of the tougher challenges early pioneers have experienced are toned down.” This review was based on the launch edition of the game that did not contain these changes.
PUBLISHER – Daedalic Entertainment | DEVELOPER – Daedalic Studio West | ESRB – N/A | PLATFORMS – PC / PS4 / XBox One
Avoid – The Long Journey Home is a slog through punishing gameplay, repetitive encounters, and a frustrating UI. There’s little worth adventuring for.