The Long Journey Home is a wonderful space odyssey

The Long Journey Home [official site] is a game about being lost in space and being somewhat insignificant against a backdrop of elder species who aren’t quite sure what to make of these squishy bipedal nomads called humans. It’s tempting to describe the game by breaking down the list of ingredients that appear to have gone into its preparation. There’s a dollop of FTL, a pinch of Captain Blood, a healthy dose of Star Control and a little bit of Space Rangers 2. Season with the essence of Thrust and Lander, and there you have it.

Except, no. That’s not really it at all.

All of those inspirations certainly seem to have made their way into the game, but the resulting dish doesn’t quite resemble any of them, and feels like its own unique spread rather than a fusion mash-up. It’s a witty, weird and experimental trip that I’d been wary of, but fell for almost as soon as I sat down to play it.

The set up is simple. You pick a crew of four from a collection of ten pre-built characters, each with their own unique starting item, personality, job and skillset, and then get lost in space. Plot-wise, you’re making an FTL trip and end up stranded very far from home, but the real story takes place after the jump. There is an optional introductory segment set in our own solar system, where a tutorial guides you through the controls in the various phases of the game, but for the bulk of your time you’re out among the procedural stars and the planets that orbit them.

Before you meet the aliens that live out in the unknown, or explore the wonders of far-flung planets, you’ll need to figure out how to navigate each system. I managed to break my crew’s bones before we’d even managed to land on Mars, where a refuelling tutorial takes place. That’s because The Long Journey Home simulates the gravity of celestial bodies, so rather than flying into a planet, you need to use the mass of planets and suns to slingshot as you drift, guiding your ship into a gentle orbit before ‘docking’ with the surface. Then you send out a lander with a single crew member and, depending on the weather and other factors, thrust your way to the surface and whatever useful resources or fascinating mysteries exist there.

Both of these segments, navigating systems and atmospheres, feel like minigames, and they’re good minigames. It took me far longer than I’d like to admit to figure out how to ride the gravitational tracks between planets, but once I had, I found lining up with an orbit so satisfying that I was gliding alongside hellish lava planets that I had no intention of committing my crew to just so I could practice my new-found skill. The lander isn’t quite as demanding, or as entertaining to pilot, but every planet that I saw had a new sight to enjoy, whether a scorching atmosphere or a surface strewn with enormous skeletons, so that jetting about to scoop up fuel and metals for repair at least takes place against a gorgeous backdrop.

The ship isn’t the focus of the game though – the journey itself is. Each time you play, a galaxy is generated and you’re dumped at the far left sector of that map. Your goal is to make your way from one sector to the next, trying to make your way back to Earth. Right after the jump your crew discover an artefact that allows them to translate alien languages and shortly after you’re likely to meet your first alien species. They might intercept you, forcing an encounter, or you can flag them down and hail them.

What I love about these encounters is the insignificance of your ship. You’re not the saviours these aliens have been waiting for, you’re just a ramshackle crew of weird creatures from who knows where. Some don’t particularly care about you and trying to tell them about your journey leads to the conversational equivalent of a yawn and quick check of the watch. “Are you done yet?” they might as well say.

Some will try to use you though, asking for help with certain goings-on around the galaxy. I met a chap who seemed somewhat transcendental and he asked me to go down to a planet with a curative device to save the people there from an infection. He couldn’t go himself for… reasons. I trusted him and his ship followed me from system to system as I tried to get to the afflicted planet, a timer ticking down, but I was too late. I landed and everyone had become goo.

Worried that I’d be in trouble for failing so dramatically, and letting the population of an entire planet perish, I panicked and tried to flee, but my ship wasn’t fast enough. Far from being angry, however, my new pal said the blame was all on him, because he’d trusted a ‘young’ species with a task beyond them. Then he gave me some kind of bomb and asked me to drop THAT on another planet to wipe out another infection. That was worrying because he was still tailing my every move and I no longer trusted him. I think he wanted me to do a terrible murder. I also had to stop playing before seeing the end of the story.

The trick is to figure out what each species really wants, how you can help them and how they can help you. Some want to trade, some want to give you quests, and some want to fight. The way you approach them – shields and weapons at the ready or not – can influence their reaction, and I was pleased that a creature that referred to itself as a Knight and kept asking to duel me was impressed when I next encountered it with my guns at the ready. Even though I refused to fight, I’d earned some respect simply by being armed and showing my (meagre) strength.

Some words or concepts aren’t all that easy to comprehend, even with the translator, and that’s where the Captain Blood part of the game comes into play. Anyone who remembers that game, with its spectacular theme tune, will probably think of the difficulties involved in figuring out alien languages through trial and error rather than the plot or the wireframe landing sequences. Journey Home is much simpler, giving you the basics of grammar and vocabulary, but it involves some educated guesswork when dealing with complex linguistic, technological or social concepts.

And it’s all quite fantastic. I haven’t even tried combat yet, though I have blown a few asteroids apart to scavenge minerals. There’s a No Man’s Sky type inventory system, though much more streamlined and less fiddly, for production of fuel for in-system movement and for jumps between systems, and I suspect a big part of the game will involve searching for materials to continue the journey. But there’s a whole other layer, involving the interactions with aliens and that’s where the real pleasures lie. It’s important that the fundamentals – navigation and scavenging – are made so enjoyable though because otherwise they’d just be the busywork in between the fun stuff.

We’ll have a review before release, which is at the end of this month, so I’ll dig into the finer details then, including how well the crew members traits and tales work, as well as combat and any repetition that arises in the encounters. That’s my only real concern, that there won’t be enough mysteries to sustain me across several playthroughs (around six hours is the length of a typical Long Journey, though detours can be very lengthy and entertaining as well). It’s an impressive game already though, helped by strong writing from Richard Cobbett, whose words have been a presence on RPS for many years.

The Long Journey Home isn’t a clone of any of the games that it resembles, but it is both familiar and strange. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of FTL or the dynamic complexities of Space Rangers 2, but every single one of its components is working at full strength, and the combination is absolutely delightful.

55 Comments

  1. Richard Cobbett says:

    Thanks, Adam! Can’t wait to see what you think when you’ve sunk more time in :-)

    “That’s my only real concern, that there won’t be enough mysteries to sustain me across several playthroughs.”

    Fingers crossed! Just to add a bit of context, every run only has four out of the eight Empires available (along with some smaller civilisations who are always present – fifteen alien races total). Also, quite a few of the quests have a little more to them than might meet the eye, including aliens who maybe aren’t always good sports about their defeat, variations depending on which crewmembers are involved in certain encounters, a few secret quests specific to certain crew, and some other cool stuff to discover, like piecing together the story of the galaxy, which you can only do by gathering scraps and figuring out connections between the different aliens and their stories. And of course, challenges like getting a whole crew home.

    So, hopefully it’ll last for a good few plays at least :-) A big part of the game is learning the ropes – everything from which aliens prefer certain minerals to which crew are generally best for certain ruin types. You don’t get more powerful game-on-game, but the knowledge you gather lets you survive longer and dig deeper, and often turn things that initially seemed completely negative/against you into surprisingly helpful bonuses.

    • CMaster says:

      Should there not be some kind of decelration if semi-regular contributor to the site is working on the game?

      Anyway, if I like Sunless Sea, FTL, RE:IS, Strange Adventure in Infinite Space among other things, am I likely to get a kick out of this?

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Semi?!

        There’s a declaration above and I’m sure there’ll be one on the review, though needless to say I have nothing to do with that and trust Adam to be scrupulously unbiased and honest for good and/or bad. I merely reserve the right to call him a meanie on Twitter in the event of the latter.

        “Anyway, if I like Sunless Sea, FTL, RE:IS, Strange Adventure in Infinite Space among other things, am I likely to get a kick out of this?”

        Hopefully! It’s got elements of all of them.

    • lordcooper says:

      Roughly how long will a single playthrough take?

      Are we talking a long campaign that most people would play once or twice (think sunless sea) or something a bit more bite size (FTL, BoI)?

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        A winning playthrough is about six hours at the moment. (You can quit and continue! :-)) However as I said above, that only includes half of the major alien races, just for starters. There’s also plenty of stuff to do after you’ve ‘won’, including challenges like getting everyone home alive, and some bigger picture things, like piecing together the history of the galaxy.

        You should get plenty of playtime out of it. One of our beta testers has (I believe) clocked over 50 hours and still not seen one of the main races/done any of their content.

        • HothMonster says:

          It is just random which races are in your playthrough? Can you end up with the Stellaris problem where people have played tens of campaigns and only ever seen 1 of the endgame crises? Or is there some way to guarentee that every play through will have some as yet unseen content?

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            The universe is based on a seed that you enter at the start. So, if you want to see one that you haven’t, but know someone else has, you can input their seed and they’ll be there. Also, you’re intended to play quite a few times before you make it to Earth, picking up new knowledge and tips every time, so you’ll be running through quite a few different seeds unless you actively choose to keep repeating the same one.

          • HothMonster says:

            Thanks for the response. That certainly seems like an intelligent way to handle it.

        • lordcooper says:

          Sweet, I’m in :)

    • Sin Vega says:

      Who’s this clown

      • Ghostwise says:

        Don’t diss the man, he’s bestie with Shamino and Dupre.

  2. davethejuggler says:

    Well that sounds pretty fantastic.

    • Anti-Skub says:

      Having also played it I’m struggling to see what he’s going on about to be perfectly honest. It’s wonderfully presented but feels extremely repetitive and shallow to me.

      Choices really don’t seem to matter much. There doesn’t really appear to be a whole lot to do except land something, pick up everything there, and take off again. It feels very bare bones in a way that I can’t see them remedying by launch.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        “Choices really don’t seem to matter much. There doesn’t really appear to be a whole lot to do except land something, pick up everything there, and take off again.”

        As said below, that’s not really accurate. If all you do is keep to yourself then you might find content thin on the ground, but the more you work with the aliens and the more opportunities you pick up, the more you’ll be involved with the cool stuff, like taking part in an intergalactic combat tournament, working with pirates, getting the gear and contacts you need for bounty hunting, becoming intergalactic celebrities, exploring space wrecks and ruins down on planet surfaces, learning the arts of space gambling, joining a space heist etc.

        The content’s there. The choices are there. The more you get involved with the galaxy, the more you’ll find. Very few of them however are just casually dropped into your lap. That happens occasionally, but the bulk of the content is there to be discovered. That doesn’t just mean lucking into it though. For instance, if you take aboard survivors from wrecks, or find artefacts through other means, they’ll often point you specifically to lost temples or other points of interest.

        (The aliens will also only typically ask you for favours outright if they like you. Get into the habit of asking them about work however and they’ll often drop hints of where you can find some, if they don’t have anything to directly offer themselves. Then in future games you can just head straight there, or at least remember who hooked you up and get straight into, say, doing courier runs from the start. Knowledge is power.)

        • Anti-Skub says:

          I found the content, I found the choices, I just didn’t find any of it very compelling. I found everything just a tiny bit too simplistic. The way the lander controls, the way you approach planets and orbit, the conversations, the trading, the equipment and stuff you can get.

          It’s all just not quite deep enough. As an example, when I watched the trailer I was excited to see gravity wells and slingshotting around planets, but on actually playing the game I found the whole thing disappointingly simplified. I was looking forward to something like a more accessible Kerbal Space Program style of retro thrusting and fine tuning to come into a stable orbit, which you sort of can do, but the game stomps all over the fun by making it pointless. You quickly learn that your manual, precision flying doesn’t have any impact on your success…instead you just fly kinda close to a planet an hold the “Go into orbit” button.

          It changes what could be a neat little minigame into something very mundane, barely more interactive than something like the map screen from Mass Effect.

          And this over simplification pervades the whole experience. Planetary landing could be cool if it required more finesse and was more punishing, but instead it’s something more akin to “Is you lander equipped for this planet? Yes? There’s pretty much nothing you can do wrong then. Hold thrust until you land”

          Conversation, mining, asteroid field navigation, combat, everything about the game comes close to being fun, but just stops short of the complexity required to make the game really engrossing. So all I’m left with is this constant nagging feeling that I’m playing something not particularly fun for nothing more than the promise of more of the same. As I said before, it very much reminded me of that hollow feeling No Mans Sky and Elite Dangerous had. There’s just something missing.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            Okiedoke, so it’s not the game for you. Sorry about that, but hey, at least you found out for free. Not going to fight you on your opinion, just clarifying to folks that there is a *lot* of content in the game beyond just planet-hopping and mining.

            Related, you are literally the first person to ask for the Lander to be MORE punishing :-)

          • Anti-Skub says:

            A negative opinion is a valid one mate, please don’t dismiss mine as it just “not being a game for me”. I don’t believe my criticisms are unjustified just because they didn’t bother you. This game is of a genre I normally really enjoy, and I particularly like sci-fi games, I just don’t think this one is a particularly good example of the genre in it’s current state.

            As I’ve said several times now, I’m well aware that there is more to the game than mining and resource collection, but like mining and resource collection all of the different sections felt very shallow and disparate from each other in such a way that made the game feel disjointed, like a collection of barely interconnected minigames.

            As for the punishing lander thing, I want it to be punishing in the sense that you can make mistakes in controlling the thing and have it matter during the actual gameplay. The only way the lander segment is punishing at the moment is if you try and land on a planet with hazards your lander can’t deal with. The game basically only punishes your choices, but rarely punishes you for making real time mistakes. You can for example come into the atmosphere of most planets with the lander, not press anything, don’t slow your descent at all, smash into the surface at full speed…and be fine. One of the most disappointing moments for me was landing on a high g planet for the first time without realising that was a thing, thinking “Oh shit” as I held down the thruster trying to slow down but barely making any difference. I was completely ready to explode on impact…instead I just bounced off the surface and flew back into space. It was immensely unsatisfying for what I thought to be a catastrophic error to turn out to be barely acknowledged by the game. Meanwhile my pilot died to an infection because I pressed option 2 instead of 1 in some dialogue tree.

            What I want is for upgrades to make the game easier, but for skilled piloting to be able to overcome obstacles…no amount of skill will get your lander off of a planet that’s too high gravity, which, when it boils down to it, means that the lander sections of the game might as well just be another cutscene. The gameplay predetermined to be success or failure based on your upgrades not your skill. It’s just a bit boring.

            Just to be clear, this is me giving details of why I didn’t enjoy this specific part of the game, I’m not under the impression that this is the only part of the game, I just don’t have the space or the inclination to describe the same problem with the 20 odd different little bits the game has.

            To put it succinctly, the game offers very little challenge beyond the choices you make, which makes all of those sections, orbiting, combat, landing, asteroid fields, mining, intercepting, navigating systems, etc, feel kind redundant. The game would almost be better if it was just entirely about alien diplomacy.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            I’m not dismissing anything. I’m just saying that, well, the game is what it is, and it’s not going to become a different game in the two weeks before release. It’s not one you enjoy. Hopefully other people will like it more. We’ve had beta testers who have clocked 50 hours and are still exploring things. I’m sure we’ve had some who’ve quit after five minutes. Everyone wants different things from their games. That’s not dismissing your opinion, just… can’t win ’em all!

  3. upupup says:

    By Captain Blood do you mean Commander Blood, by Cryo? That game was wonderfully alien.

    The Long Journey Home looks like less alien, which is a shame as human-centric games are already abundant, but it does look promising.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Benratha says:

    It’s from Richard Corbett, a person whose reviews and writing I respect. Has to be an instant buy!
    Plus the fact he’s taken the time to comment on Adam’s words ….

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      (bites fingernails, muttering ‘Oh, god, I hope it’s funny…’)

    • G-Lord says:

      I feel exactly the same. Ever since I heard Richard is on board, I’ve been following this game.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Adam’s preview pretty much sold it on me, but this throws the game higher on my to-buy list!

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      (runs out of fingernails)

      • HothMonster says:

        If you are limber enough you can find 10 more in your socks.

      • WombatDeath says:

        I wholeheartedly believe, with every fibre of my being, that Richard’s involvement will make this game a transcendental experience that changes our understanding of what it means to be human. We will laugh and weep, despair and celebrate. We will embark upon a profound journey of discovery that sets our species on a bold new path towards a better, nobler future.

        In short, this game will represent the pinnacle of human achievement. Indeed, I think it not unreasonable to suggest that the true, underlying purpose of the internet – nay, the microchip! – has now been revealed to be the means by which Richard can impart his infinite, beneficent wisdom unto us all.

        Thanks to Richard, we will very soon discover what it truly means to be alive.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Also there are funny aliens.

  5. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Well, this sounds promising indeed. You had me at the 2nd sentence listing all those other games as inspiration. Maybe a bit of an Out There vibe as well?

  6. spron says:

    I, umm, am quite intrigued by this preview. My optimism, though cautious, is real.

  7. Dimo_ArKacho says:

    I’m in the closed beta for this, and while I’m not allowed to say much more than was said, I can say that this game exceeded my every expectation by leaps and bounds. It’s definitely more that the sum of it’s parts.

    I also have to had it to the devs. Every day, they’re in discord with the lot of us, answering questions, asking our opinions, and in just the month since it started, I’ve seen notable changes and improvements as a result of input given.

    I kinda feel like a shill saying all this stuff, but this game really blew me away, and I want it to succeed in every way possible.

  8. Someoldguy says:

    I love the sound of this. I’ve replayed Alien Legacy several times despite the story remaining largely unchanged from play to play because the concept really hit my sweet spot. If is somewhat similar but this comes with more storytelling and less repetition then I’ll be in heaven.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Well as long as we all judge Mr Cobbett purely on how good this game is, I’m sure everything’s fine.

    But really, I’ve been looking forward to this one since I saw him mention it elsewhere on the site. Here’s hoping it’s a good time while the stories last!

  10. causticnl says:

    wow where does this come from? and already this month release, looks like instabuy from me.

  11. Shinard says:

    I’m in the closed beta, and I have to admit, I bounced off pretty hard. I’m a big fan of FTL, Sunless Sea, RE:IS and Cobbett’s writing where ever he shows himself (I still miss Saturday Crapshoot…) but I couldn’t get to grips with the controls in the tutorial, got stuck on a rock somewhere and quit. It was just a shock to the system, after the relative simplicity of controls in the other games (FTL, RE:IS etc.). I’m sure it’s just me, and if I commit to getting the hang of things I’ll get to the good stuff and enjoy it immensely, but I thought it was worth sharing my experience so far regardless. I’ll try and give it another go this weekend.

    • Rainshine says:

      I had a similar first impression; the recent patch made life a bit easier — one particular portion I had a good chunk of issues with that seems to have been made more more friendly. So yes, I advise a retry :)

      • Shinard says:

        Ah, that’s good to hear. Definitely going back then.

      • Premium User Badge

        EasyStar says:

        Glad to hear that too. This is totally up my alley, but I really did not enjoy the lander controls or especially the controls for in-space encounters. But I’m definitely willing to give it another try if they’ve done some patching. I’d love to see more of the story!

    • durrbluh says:

      I’m in a similar boat: gave the beta a shot, gave it another shot, gave up. Space travel is pretty straightforward after a few minutes of fiddling, no issues there. However, the lander controls were somewhere between “mildly frustrating” and “infuriatingly unresponsive”, which I assume is related to the atmosphere/gravity of a given planet. Perhaps I hit a string of crappy planets right off the bat both times, but I can’t see myself enjoying the game much if I have to collect resources via that system.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Planets have specific difficulty warnings now telling you the risk. You can’t survive on all of them with your base Lander.

        • Anti-Skub says:

          That wasn’t the issue I had. I found myself landing on more dangerous planets just to see if anything would happen, after landing on every planet in a system, finding nothing but mineable materials, then jumping to the next system, where there would continue to be nothing happening.

          I just didn’t get what the hook was supposed to be. It almost had that No Man’s Sky, “All there is to do is collect materials, and there is no reason to collect materials” problem.

          I feel like you’re at the stage I was in about the first hour or so of the game…”Wow this is so cool and unique”. That feeling faded quickly over the next hour, to the point where I’m not even sure I’m going to pick the game back up at launch.

          And like the guy you’re replying to, I’m normally a big fan of these more sedate, management focused titles, but I just could not get into this one.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            You don’t have to do that though. Your scanner tells you in orbit if there’s ruins or cities and things on the planet, and it’s by finding stuff and engaging with the aliens that you’re going to find opportunities (of which there’s a lot!)

            If you just play for subsistence by going planet to planet, filling your tank and moving on, then yeah, you’re going to be pretty bored, but just for starters the stuff you’re mining is worth far more on the market than if you use it to fill your fuel tanks and patch your hold. The more stuff you find, the more cool stuff you’ll be pointed towards, and can make use of in future playthroughs. The content is there, but you have to look for it rather than waiting for it to all fall into your lap.

    • Zantium says:

      I had a similar experience at the start of the closed beta, reading below it might be worth giving it another try. I had many instances in the space bit of ‘I’m dying, losing health and I have no idea why because the game isn’t indicating why’. The story element I liked but the mechanics were at that time, quite frustrating.
      Ship control felt terrible, but perhaps that’s improved too.

  12. April March says:

    You know what I expect from a game by Cobbett that harkens back to Captain Blood?

    Laughter laughter laughter.

    I haven’t actually played Captain Blood. :(

  13. Cloud07 says:

    I had the opportunity to play this over at PAX, and the game is quite fun, even in the limited demo they had. Reminds me of the good ole days of playing Star Control and Star Flight. Slingshotting around the solar system and landing your shuttle are fun asides. Can’t wait to play the full game.