More like Fred Savage, than Macho Man Randy Savage
Typhoon Studios have created a game that I really wanted to like. I’m all for quiet exploration in games – something that is all-too-often thrown aside for guns-blazing action or bombastic cut-scenes. I enjoy more contemplative and mentally-taxing titles, so felt that this other-worldly experience could be right up my alley. Journey to the Savage Planet is built on the premise of discovering a whole new planet for the very first time and cataloging its flora and fauna in the hopes of finding a new world that will support human life. You arrive with a bump, losing a fuel line and a landing gear in the process, leaving you with the ultimate goal of both re-fueling and repairing your ship with scavenged resources before you can return home with your scientific findings.
Straightaway you feel charmed by the incredibly colourful and vibrant world that lies before you. Inhabited by a selection of strange plants which supply crafting materials, animals who must be scanned and tested, and a series of odd alien structures. The visual style is exaggerated and creative, all the better for not trying to look too realistic, but rather capture the imagination. The level design starts off feeling fresh and open – letting you explore freely with very little in the way of what feels like sign-posts to follow, which lets you carve out your own path. Early on Savage Planet feels natural and fun – everything is new and exciting, with new discoveries around every corner. The art direction is truly something to be applauded.
Sadly, this feeling doesn’t last all that long. None of the map areas are so large that they become cumbersome, but the variety in what is on offer in each area quickly plummets. The biodiversity isn’t as great as you initially think, with the same animals (or slight variants thereupon) cropping up time and again. I went into the game expecting a plethora of different species to encounter, and was sadly disappointed by the selection. The different varieties of similar animals do at least have unique traits – such as one who needs their amour dissolved by an acidic plant before you can cause it damage, and another version of the very same animal who is highly combustible when kicked. These are then integrated into different environmental puzzles, where perhaps you need to blow a hole in a wall, or feed an unsuspecting victim to a carnivorous plant to proceed – but these are hardly taxing brainteasers, and are almost all given away by the “hints” dropped by your sarcastic computer who acts as your only source of conversation in the entire game.
This brings me neatly to the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour the game possesses. This sometimes subtly, and sometimes not-so-subtly pokes fun at the idea of interplanetary colonisation and big corporations – coming to a new planet, taking what they want by force, then leaving it worse off than it started. And then you go out to play the game and do exactly that. Ok, this may intentionally be making fun of that irony, but it just makes you feel like the jerk – raping this new planet inhabited by unsuspecting indigenous life. Most of the humour missed the mark for me sadly, with much of it detracting, rather than adding to the experience. You are often bombarded with Rick & Morty style, over-the-top, satirical product advertisements, but even these don’t feel witty, they simply feel out of place. The fact that they seem to loop over and over in your space capsule certainly doesn’t help to keep the already-iffy humour fresh.
Although you have to find specific elements and items to upgrade your equipment – and therefore fulfilling reward loops as you progress – you quite quickly unlock the most useful items and skills that will be used most frequently in the game. Once you have learned these few basic techniques though, there isn’t a whole lot of variety in the gameplay. Double-jumping and using an electric grapple-hook can help you quickly traverse the environment, but the grapple in particular is a little fiddly and doesn’t always want to work as you might expect it to. Thankfully there is no real punishment for dying – you do temporarily lose any materials that you were carrying, but these can be retrieved from your dead body a’la Dark Souls.
Even this is a bit glitchy though, as you more often than not find your dead body in one spot (which you can choose to bury and leave a numbered gravestone as a reminder of how many times you have died), but the container holding all of your supplies is inexplicably usually in a different location. This makes no sense at all, but thankfully you can find it using a way-point in your mission tracker – but this shouldn’t even be necessary. That said, the mission tracking system is usually fairly easy to follow, without holding your hand too closely. I only wish that your in-game scanner could be put to greater use to find points of interest and locate key items, rather than just identifying new species and plants. It feels under-utilised.
I need to speak about the gun-play however, which is a huge issue all of its own. For a game that wears its exploration badge proudly on its sleeve, there ends up being a disproportionately large amount of shooting to be done. Many species you encounter are immediately hostile, and many of those which aren’t to begin with can easily be angered by your own accidental actions or mis-steps. These creatures will mainly have to be dispatched using your simple handgun – it is the only weapon on the game aside from explosive plants, and it will be called into action pretty frequently. You may try to play the game peacefully, but your hand will be forced regularly into unavoidable confrontations. The worst of these being boss battles that feel completely out of place and thrown-together just because a game needs to have boss battles, right?
This is irritating in a game that plays up the Star Trek ideal of peaceful discovery, but to make things worse the gun-play is feeble. The weapon feels light with no satisfaction or feedback from firing. The aiming system is wobbly and inaccurate, and even when fully upgraded your bullets feel under-powered. This is exacerbated further by the fact that some of the enemies you must fight have tiny hit boxes – glowing pustules that must be exploded to defeat them – and having a weapon with a dodgy aim certainly doesn’t help with this. I didn’t want to roam the planet fighting alien creatures to begin with, but after my first few haphazard encounters, I REALLY didn’t want to.
There are clearly some good ideas at work in Journey to the Savage Planet, but too many other factors contribute to diminish those ideas. The art design is at times breath-taking, and always interesting, but the puzzle and enemy design can’t keep up with it. Musically there also is too little variety, with the same few themes playing far too often, with no areas really having their own auricular atmosphere. Fighting is a real chore and navigating the world with grapples can also get tricky, amounting to too many little frustrations. What little storyline that is injected into proceedings feels inadequate, and at times I’d rather I was just set loose on the planet with no objective at all, rather than a lacklustre one.