2020


It really takes guts to make something like this, especially these days.

In the age of the ever-shrinking attention span, this game grabs you with all the immediacy of a biology textbook–one of those scary old-school ones with huge walls of text and hardly any pictures.

At least you don’t have to dissect a frog

Yeah, what Heaven’s Vault was to archaeology this one is to marine biology. That means that it, too, is definitely not for everybody, probably even more so.

Once again you play a scholar in a depressing future who’s spent a career scouring distant worlds–this time for alien life instead of ancient words–and coming up empty. You finally hit the jackpot when you track down your former colleague who ran off to an unexplored ocean planet. Of course, since both of you work for what’s basically the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, there’s more to it. Nothing can ever be simple, huh?

In practice that translates to spending most of your time crawling around the ocean floor at the pace of a sea slug, conducting a painstaking survey of the local marine life. You drift from node to node, musing upon interesting features of the undersea terrain and gathering up samples of various critters that you haul back to the lab for analysis.

First contact went much more smoothly than Independence Day

When I say “you,” by the way, technically you’re not a person but rather an AI in someone else’s dive suit; but since you’re the one doing everything it’s kind of beside the point.

Anyway, the reward for of all your hard work is a text-filled compendium of the anatomy and behavior of the creatures you discover. Some of the bits and pieces you find can also be put to use in more practical ways; and meanwhile you’re unraveling the mystery surrounding your sketchy employer and the fate of your colleague.

Whew.

A game this weird could only be made as a labor of love, and the author’s delight in this unusual material really does shine through. It must have taken quite a lot of effort to create such a deep and detailed picture of an imaginary alien ecosystem. An impressive amount of thought clearly went into dreaming up all the various life forms and considering how they would work together in each of the regions, which range from shallow subsurface plains of shimmering flowers to poisonous algae blooms to inky abyssal depths teeming with phosphorescent wonders. At least, it all looked pretty convincing to me; and that was the key to establishing this game’s distinctive style of immersion.

Who knew underwater fungus could be so compelling?

So at this point it probably sounds like it’s going to be a wide open player-driven exploration game, huh? Maybe even an X-Com sort of thing where you have multiple layers of mechanics–exploration, retrieval, research, engineering, etc.–all running in parallel and influencing one another to move you forward?

Not even close.

While you do have some latitude to poke around each area and look for stuff at your leisure, the overall structure is highly linear. It starts off subtle but as you go along the main story gets more and more insistent about taking the wheel from you, until by the end you’re pretty much forced to pull over and let them drive. At one point I tried to take a little detour to go open up a door I’d run across earlier and the game actually yelled at me about it. Geez, fine, be that way.

Would have been helpful to see an overlay of the travel nodes

In general you’re better off ignoring your video game instincts and just going where you’re told. Backtracking is incredibly tedious on account of how slowly you move and the lack of detailed visual indication on the map to show where you’ve already visited, and following directions at least helps keep it to a minimum.

Your home base winds up being another red herring. It’s divided into more than half a dozen separate modules which at first look like they’ll play an important role in your mission, but you never even use half of them. The sample analysis is a one-button, no-brainer procedure, and so the whole place is reduced to a library and a transport hub for jumping between waypoints. Pretty underwhelming.

One of the two rooms you’ll actually use

When it comes down to it, without any real freedom or decision-making involved you’re not “exploring” the regions here any more than you explore the dungeons of a JRPG. You basically run them in order to reach a fixed goal. Like levels, each one has its own theme: the magic forest, the poison marsh, the electric cave, etc. Taken individually they’re pretty neat to see, at least on the first pass, but this structure felt awfully strange in a game that initially seemed to be aiming to simulate a scientific investigation. Even the story turned out to be much more personal than discovery-focused.

The acid dungeon

So where does that leave us?

I think the main thing is to go into this one with your eyes open; otherwise the premise could leave you wanting a totally different sort of game. As long as the basic idea appeals to you, you’ll be happier without the distraction of expecting it to be something it’s not. Then you can just sit back, listen to the chill music and let your imagination run wild as you sink beneath the waves in search of space jellyfish.

Really, it’s fine. Keep your killstreaks and lootboxes. I’ll just be over here reading about globules of alien mucus.


Developer: Jump Over the Age

Publisher: Fellow Traveler

Purchased on: Steam

The Bottom Line:

2 Comments

  1. Jeffery Huang Reply

    It’s been a loooong time since I’ve read a review this thoughtful and well-written. You just sold me on this game!

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