Colourful and dull all at once.
Every so often a game comes along that is just the right mix of the familiar and the unusual that it piques the attention of all who see it. It can be anything, really: maybe a unique blending of genres, maybe a really intriguing premise like a joyful dystopia, maybe a truly innovative mechanic in an otherwise generic game. Whatever it is, they come along and demand attention like a cat in the morning believing they haven’t eaten in years, even though you definitely fed them a few hours ago. Away: Journey To The Unexpected is one of these games. On its face it’s not all that unusual – roguelikes are everywhere nowadays, after all – but it has a really interesting look that catches the eye.
Despite Away being something of a first-person dungeon crawler, it has 2D enemies. This makes them really stand out and makes for a unique aesthetic. Each enemy is beautifully animated and calls to mind Mega Man, among others. It’s probably for the best that they stand out, as the rest of the game is fairly generic-looking.
Another big hook is the negotiation mechanic that lets you recruit companions. This has you working through dialogue trees until they either stop talking to you or join you for your current run. The good news is that once you’ve won them over you can go and recruit them again without having to talk. The bad news is if you mess up a negotiation then you’ll have to try again in your next run, as they simply won’t talk to you again in this one. While I’m not averse to that in principle, it becomes an issue when it comes to the end of the game.
You see, each character gives you a star when they join for the first time. These are used to unlock doors. You need all of them in order to get to the final boss. This means that once you’ve reached the last fight, you’ll likely be missing a few. I was missing half of them. This meant that the hour and a half it took me to reach the final boss doubled because I hadn’t chatted everyone up. It may well be that my feelings on the game would be different if this wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, that’s for an alternate universe Jason, one with hope, one who didn’t spend a further hour and a half offing himself whenever one of these talks went south.
I love roguelikes and roguelites and more or less anything with ‘rogue’ in. Hell, given the chance I’ll play the rogue class in any game it’s in. It has to be fun, though – you have to feel rewarded for each run. Maybe you die because you aren’t good enough yet, or you just don’t know the patterns of a particular boss. That’s fine. Having to redo stuff because you’ve messed up a multiple-choice quiz with illogical answers isn’t a good reason to repeat things. It’s a chore. Nothing less, nothing more.
Still, this would be fine if the core gameplay was enjoyable. It’s not. Combat feels sloppy and unresponsive. It’s more a matter of simply hammering away at the attack button than skilfully weaving in and out of enemies. This is a little different with the companions. Each one has their own attack and view. The mutant has a red filter over everything and hits with a wrench. The robot has extra UI and fires a barrage of missiles. These make things a bit more interesting but still aren’t particularly deep. They’re also horribly unbalanced. You don’t feel the need to use most of them because the robot and the bounty hunter are both so overpowered that choosing anyone else is like putting your shoes on the wrong feet and then running a marathon.
Away: Journey To The Unexpected is a game with charming moments, but they aren’t enough to save a dull experience. The highlights are the interactions with your family, but those are at the beginning, then the end of the game. Even the end boss is incredibly easy. It’s an interesting idea, but it feels like a massive letdown in a game that is full of them. The end boss of letdowns, I guess. The only thing I can say in favour of Away is that you should take its advice: stay away.
[Reviewed on PS4]