Playdius Games attempts to make what they call a feel good FPS. With a simple premise about making friends, finding out your parents’ jobs and why they disappeared, Away: Journey to the Unexpected is off to a great start. But not everything clicks together unfortunately, and it seems like the developers may have missed the mark. By quite a bit.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected on Xbox One sets you off on a journey where you explore varied environments in search of your parents who mysteriously disappeared one day. Each level, while visually varied, offers just about the same experience as the next, with little to differentiate from each other. You find yourself repeatedly exploring the environments to kill enemies, recruit new allies and flip switches; the latter of which you will find yourself doing repeatedly, almost to the point of nauseum.
Dying throws you all the way back to the beginning, only saving the gold/xp collected and your star level, which increases when you successfully add an ally to your team for the first time. This sees the development team take some inspiration from the rather popular rogue-lite genre, but something they have seemingly failed to understand is that what keeps people interested in exploring rogue-lite games is the procedurally generated nature of the environments. Away only implements this in the small handful of dungeons at the end of each level, and even then, there are a very limited number of tile sets, making even these dungeons feel repetitive. The exploration of the main levels themselves don’t change at all, while levers and treasure chests never change locations, and there is no diversity in enemy placement. This makes your repeat treks incredibly boring as you find yourself going through these areas far too many times. Luckily as you level up your character you get the ability to skip to the end dungeon of each level, forgoing finding the switches, but this tends to be too little too late as you will have already gone through them far too much already.
On top of this, upon entering one level, you can’t backtrack so you are stuck there until you proceed or die. This becomes an issue when repeatedly stuck, for instance in the game’s desert level. In there, as with all previous maps, there is a door that has three lights to represent the three levers you are supposed to pull. However after multiple game reloads, I was never able to find where or how I was supposed to flip these levers; being forced to kill myself in order to get out of there, and struggling to visit more levels.
The combat, which makes up a large portion of this game, is unfortunately unwieldy. Away: Journey to the Unexpected equips you with a stick, fireworks, a shield and allies to help you with the various enemies littered around the levels. Unfortunately none of these tools ever work well or feel satisfying to use. Starting with the stick, it is incredibly hard to actually gauge the range you have when in combat. This leads to this awkward back and forth where you rush an enemy mashing the right trigger, hoping to hit them, then quickly retreating so that they don’t have the opportunity to hit you. Also oddly enough, you can hit enemies multiple times while a single animation is playing. There is almost no strategy to carefully timing your hits, instead I found myself running around the level rapidly mashing the button, praying the game registered enough hits to repeatedly interrupt the monster’s attacks, killing them quickly.
The fireworks are serviceable, mind. As a weapon they are useful in dispatching large amounts of enemies, but for some reason no matter how much you adjust the sound volumes in the game it always feels too loud.
A charged up attack along with a shield are two of the game’s unlockable abilities, but I never found myself needing to use either of them during combat. The charged swing leaves you open to attacks for far too long and the attack lets out a flurry of swings. The issue with that is that enemies get pushed back out of your attack range once hit so unless you can pin them against the wall, you often only get one hit in. With the shield, there just never feels like there is any worth to bring it up. I often had a better chance trying to knock back enemies by spamming the attack than I did protecting myself with the shield.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected puts an emphasis on collecting allies to help you on your quest. In order to get them, you need to collect friendship cubes, which can either be found on each level or purchased from the store keeper. Once you have that, almost all NPCs can be convinced to join you, assuming you choose the correct dialogue. If you happen to mess up and anger the NPC – which is fairly easy considering there is no real way to tell how they will react to any given dialogue choice – they will be completely shut off from you for the rest of that playthrough. This becomes an issue because in order to face the final boss of the game, you need to accrue at least eight allies over the course of all of your playthroughs.
There is one recruitable ally in particular in the second zone. I had not unlocked the ability to fast travel there yet, so I was forced to fight through the first zone’s end dungeon and battle my way through the second zone to get to him. Repeatedly, I failed his dialogue check as the conversation lasted much longer than any others before him, and it was difficult to tell what would be the correct choices to recruit him. This forced me to frustratingly go through these zones over and over again just to be able to finally get this ally necessary to face the final boss and end the game. There are multiple scenarios like this that almost completely ruin the experience, and often ensures that everything feels much more like trial and error. That’s not to mention the fact that allies essentially break the already shaky core of the game.
You are able to switch between the main character and up to 3 allies you have recruited in that run on the fly. They have varied abilities like throwing down mines, shooting high powered lasers at enemies or dropping hearts to heal you and much more. But when using allies, you don’t have to worry about taking damage since the only way you can “die” is by attacking. Otherwise you can take blow after blow. So I found myself switching to an ally to just tank hits while running through populated areas to try and rush through the game. They can also do massive amounts of damage, with one ally capable of killing bosses in less than a minute. Overall I found this mechanic to be overpowered and an unenjoyable process to go through. It is also completely pointless in the end. See, the final boss of the game has nothing to do with the allies you are forced to recruit through the previous stages of Away. Your star rating just ends up being a way to open the door to the final boss, making you feel like you’ve wasted your time increasing it in the first place.
One thing that this game does right however is found within the art style and music. Upon opening you are treated to a joyful over the top anime style theme song that I honestly found to be one of the best parts of the game. It tries to set the tone of a fun adventure that unfortunately the rest of the experience can not execute on. The tracks on each level serve their purpose, setting a decent atmosphere throughout, and while you will hear them repeatedly, they never get annoying.
All characters are drawn in a cute anime style with enemies and allies alike being over the top and colorful. The 2D sprites will always be facing you, making strafing around the world’s well designed monsters just that much more tense, despite the combat’s missteps, because it feels as if there is no escape from their view. The level diversity and art found within varies wildly though. Some dungeons are filled with this odd bloom effect, and looks as though the saturation has been bumped up to the max, while other levels, such as the beach themed level found later in the game, feature a world that looks oddly normal compared to what you’ve seen before. But while there seems to be little cohesion in the level design, the art of each level is well done, leading to a vibrant and colorful world.
Overall, Away: Journey to the Unexpected is a bit of a mess, and what’s even more disappointing is that the trailers of the game have made it really seem like the feel-good FPS game that the developers have aimed for. But the poorly thought out combat mixed, with a lacklustre gameplay loop make the hours spent, frustrating to say the least. While there are some aspects of the game that are well executed like the art and music, Away is a tough game to recommend.