“Spaceman, spaceman, why do you keep dying?”
After a run of retro styled games that I have been fortunate to play, I was delighted when Journey to the Savage Planet landed in my inbox. You see, while I love retro styled experiences, there’s nothing better than something which looks amazing, runs smoothly and pushes the Xbox One to the limits. And without wishing to spoil things, Journey to the Savage Planet is that game. So come with me to a colourful alien world – one filled with drama, intrigue and big monsters to hunt down and kill!
The quote at the top of this review comes from EXO, the AI aboard your spaceship that has crash landed on the planet AR-Y 26. As an employee of Kindred Aerospace, proudly the fourth best Aerospace company on Earth, your mission, whether you choose to accept it or not, is to explore the Savage Planet. Now, before you start the game, the menu will ask you to choose how chatty you want EXO to be, and my advice is to turn her up to the max, as she is hilarious. Quite often, I’ll have cleared an objective and find myself at a teleporter, waiting to go to the next area, unable to carry on until EXO has finished talking. Her quotes are great, including such gems as “Are you hurt or injured? If you’re only hurt, you can carry on exploring!” and if you keep dying, a terse “Walk it off!” is more than commonplace. You see, if you die on AR-Y 26, it’s not the end of the world, as a new version of yourself is 3D printed in the Javelin, your spaceship, complete with all your memories; sadly none of the supplies that you had collected before your untimely demise make it back with you. It doesn’t mean they are lost forever though, and upon heading back in you need to find where you previously died so as to retrieve them, taking the opportunity to bury your dead corpse in the process. In a nice touch, when you bury the body, a number appears on the projected headstone to show you how many times your clogs have been popped. North of 40, in case you’re asking!
So, your craft, the Javelin, has crashed and is damaged so badly that it cannot fly. The other issue is that you don’t have any fuel, and in order to take off you’re going to need to repair the ship, find the fuel and return to Earth. Of course, Kindred Aerospace sent you to this planet for a reason, and they would much rather you carry on the mission you are there to fulfil – cataloguing all the flora and fauna on the planet; something which is achieved by scanning them. A swift press of up on the D-pad puts your visor into scanning mode, and items that can be scanned will be highlighted in orange. As you scan things, new clues come to light about the planet, both in terms of things that you can interact with and the history of civilisation on the world. This causes some consternation back on Earth, as there wasn’t supposed to be any life on the planet, but as you emerge blinking from the wreckage, an enormous tower dominates the landscape, and it’s clearly not a natural structure. Guess what? Your mission is to get into that tower.
What follows could well be described as a Metroidvania style experience, as you need to find items that will allow you to upgrade your gear, allowing you to carry bombs, jump higher and so on and so forth. As your mission starts, little robots – Cartographers – are sent out to look for things that you may need, and also co-incidentally they will save you if you manage to fall off the world. This is a real danger, as the landscape is a collection of floating islands, with death waiting between them if you fall too many times. So, as you scan and explore your way around the planet, more missions become available as the Cartographers find things that you will need to carry on. Growing wild are three varieties of useful plants, that can provide you with exploding bombs, acid globules and also electric fruit. As you find them you can only hold them for 5 seconds, as after that time they explode in hand, causing all kinds of sadness. Crafting upgraded gloves, three times, will ensure you can hold the seeds from these plants as they are stabilised, allowing you take them with you wherever you go. With broken walls, piles of amber and doors that slam in your face to overcome, this a good thing. Even some of the animals you have to fight require the use of these items, with monsters’ weak points encased in stone that needs to be blown up, for instance. With other trees that give you health, and more still that allow you to grapple to them and slide along vines, there’s a lot to see and scan… and fight and run away from.
The design work that has gone into this planet and its savage inhabitants is absolutely outstanding. The world is bright and colourful and a joy to gaze upon, with plants in various primal colours and animals bimbling about the place. The first you meet are Pufferbirds, and they are cute, peaceful and begging to be kicked over the nearest cliff. Actually, as most of the materials you need to gather come from the wildlife kicking about the place, maybe a swift slap is more in order. Of course, once you’ve crafted a pistol, you’ll never look back. Pufferbirds are everywhere in the game, with many different varieties, including some in stone armour, some with a fetching amber quiff on their head and even undead ones that crawl out of graves. There are many more, including Jellywafts – giant squid like creatures that throw projectiles – and these will come to be the bane of your life in the final boss fight, believe me. Each enemy has an attack pattern to learn, and weak points to exploit too. Helpfully the weak points usually glow orange, so knowing where to shoot is usually fairly simple. But doing it is a lot easier said than done, as on the whole the creatures would rather you didn’t shoot them.
Of course, every game of this type needs to have a boss or five in and fortunately Journey to the Savage Planet is no exception. Whether it’s a giant crab or a room-filling monstrosity, the bosses again display the same level of design and thought as the rest of the game. I’m obviously not going to go into detail about them here, but as a pro tip, don’t forget to scan them, either when they are alive or after their death, as scanning anything and everything opens up the secrets of this wonderful world. Oh, and make sure you go in there with full health wherever possible, as they are all very challenging.
The levelling up mechanic in Savage Planet is also worthy of mention, as there’s no EXP or points to allocate. Instead, you have to find, and eat, orange Goo. As you find more and more, your health and stamina increases. And of course, as you collect the stuff the amount you need to level up also raises. These Goo pots are hidden everywhere in the world, with 100 to find and collect. On initially finishing the game I’d worked my way through just 38 of these, and so finding them all is going to be a lengthy process.
There are many other things to collect too, from explorer logs to alien video codecs, so even after the game is finished and the last boss is vanquished you will want to go straight back in to try and find the rest of the collectables. With some crafting, it’s possible to make an orange Goo detector, even an alien alloy detector, and this makes exploring a little easier. But of course you still have to get to the location, even when you know where it is. Journey to the Savage Planet is pretty open-ended, with things to achieve even after the credits roll.
So, the game looks stunning, has a fantastic traversal mechanic when the grapple is crafted, and has many creatures to find, scan and kill. But how is the core gameplay? In short, brilliant. The story drags you in, and then all the missions that you unlock keep you playing, trying to achieve all the objectives. Even the side missions are very well designed. Whether you are trying to rescue a trapped Cartographer or attempting to achieve the truly ridiculous feats in the “For Science” missions, they will keep you coming back for more. Stringing together a series of tricky jumps, swinging from grapple plants and sliding down the vines that you just reach on the last bit of forward momentum is an amazing feeling. Similarly, landing in a new area by the skin of your teeth never gets old. With teleporters to find and unlock, fast travelling about the place soon becomes second nature, and helpfully when you are trying to choose where to teleport to the areas with missions to achieve are highlighted.
It’s little touches like this, and EXO’s constant chattering, that make this game a real pleasure to play, either alone or with a friend. Playing cooperatively online makes life a lot easier as you can imagine, and generally works very well. However this is where pretty much the only niggle in the entire game comes about, and whilst playing with friends it does sometimes morph into a stuttery, laggy mess. This is a real shame, and while it doesn’t happen all the time it’s pretty intrusive. There is the promise of a Day One patch going out which has cooperative optimisation at the fore of it and so fixing of this is obviously a priority for the development team. Other than that though, I’ve had no issues at all playing single player, and the experience, on the whole, has been an absolute delight.
So, on to the conclusion. Journey to the Savage Planet on Xbox One is an amazing game – there are no two ways about it. It plays fast and fluidly, the enemies are challenging to kill (especially the bosses) and with a beautifully scripted, humorous thread of story running through it’s been a joy to play. In fact, if the netcode had worked properly at all times it would be a slam dunk for this Savage Planet, but even then you still owe it to yourself to play this game. It really is that good.