Space has always fascinated humanity. How many wonderful movies, games, and cartoons have been created in this setting? Space has inspired people for centuries, since the first cave people peered into the vast sky and searched for meaning and understanding. It is usually represented as something massive, a canvas for large-scale battles and exciting adventures to the center of the galaxy. However, there is another side to this infinity that surrounds us. It may be cold, lonely and empty. Quite rarely, we witness this side of space in games and it makes such titles much more valuable. Phoning Home is one of them, but only partially. Let us find out how the game tried to mix both cold and coziness in its world and how it all turned out.
Phoning Home is the project of a small indie studio called ION Lands. The game is a third-person survival with RPG elements. We are playing as an exploration unit named ION. His ship wrecked on some distant planet and now this little unit has to find a way to get out of this strange world. However, he will not be alone while pursuing this goal. ION ships’ artificial intelligence dubbed EU and a tiny robot named ANI will help ION escape the dangerous planet. The game invites us to explore the mysterious planet while collecting resources, crafting items and discovering odd secrets of this world.
Some mechanics are pretty annoying
Phoning Home’s gameplay is quite unsophisticated. We travel around the planet, collecting resources and creating items required for quests. ION must also maintain a proper level of fuel and energy as well as keep the integrity of his hull. To do so, he needs to craft a variety of side items such as repair modules or energy cells. Over time, ION will receive new abilities. He will get a blaster to defend himself from hostile fauna and an attractor to bring ANI to places she could not reach before. Some minor upgrades such as enhanced armor and a long-range scanner will also be available as the plot moves further. In fact, Phoning Home follows the path of classic survival games, but does not handle well many of the genre’s mechanics.
The enemies are quite rare and it is easy to avoid them. If ION stumbles upon some, it is probably better to reload the game than fight them. Local mobs are deadly, and it is hard to say if they are scripted to be unkillable or the player does something wrong. As for the gathering of resources, you can find some flaws there as well. While other games of the survival genre emphasize the diversity of resources and recipes, Phoning Home offers nothing to surprise you. There are a few items and consumables available to craft but that is all. In addition, the majority of them are quest items, needed for the plot and they are not useful in the exploration of the planet. Usually, it seems that the game forces the player to search for the necessary resources longer than they have to. Such an approach would have been acceptable if the crafting system was extensive, but alas, it happens only to prolong the gameplay.
Phoning Home stands out thanks to its world design. The planet on which ION and his ship crashed is beautiful and varied. Of course, you will not find the highest level of graphics there, but that is not necessary anyway. The scenery is wonderful, and the game world flourishes with attention to details. There are great forests, with trees that reach to the skies and cover the highest mountains, separated by rivers of lava. The gloomy gorges and strange artifacts of long-vanished civilizations attract and delight the eye. For all its intimacy and linearity, the game manages to create a sense of scale and space.
Music and sounds are also on top-level. Phoning Home’s soundtrack is minimalistic but memorable and melodic. Music provides the needed atmosphere, it sounds like cold space, at the same time opened for adventure. The sounds of nature do not cause any complaints either. The rustling of leaves and the hum of the wind sound very plausible. Characters sound authentic with all their beeps and signals. ION and ANI are immediately reminiscent of fellow robots from Pixar’s cartoons. The comparison is more than appropriate. Two small robots sent on a dangerous journey across the planet, while solving certain moral dilemmas associated with the pollution of the planet. It resembles something, does it not?
The story and its characters are deep and engaging
Phoning Home’s characters are written with love and skill. They are perhaps the best part of the game and each one deserves a separate mention. First of all, the funny but rude artificial intelligence of ION’s ship, EU. This sarcastic and smug computer has a caustic sense of humor and his own views on the future of this planet and all of civilization. Do we collect resources or run away from a dangerous monster? EU will always make his witty remarks or maybe occasionally provide some aid for ION. It is a useful, though sometimes annoying ally. ANI, the support robot, is the exact opposite of the arrogant EU. She and her board computer not only consider themselves female but are Oxies, members of the opposing faction, willing to bring organic life to the robot worlds. ANI is very naive, but brave and self-confident. It effectively complements the narcissistic and conservative EU.
Now it is time to turn to the game’s story, and things are tricky here. Yes, the game’s plot attracts and does not bore, but it brings no admiration either. Phoning Home tries to raise serious moral issues that are relevant in our time and on our planet. However, its storytelling is very one-sided. This is the main mistake of the game. You can forgive a lot. It features no advanced graphics; it has small bugs and the gameplay is not very dynamic. You can ignore inappropriately long searches for resources. These are common problems in the indie genre. However, the plot is a much more important component for this kind of game.
Unfortunately, the game has not moved away from the indie cliché in this matter either. No wonder Phoning Home can be compared to Pixar’s WALL-E. The game largely echoes the ideas of acclaimed cartoons, but does so too naively and simple. I would like to see all the arguments and depth of the characters disputes and to actually believe both positions. In this case, Phoning Home’s story would become much more entertaining. Alas.