What happens when a small Berlin-based games studio goes for the metaphorical jugular, launching a game into the extraordinarily popular “open world survival adventure” forum? Ion Lands’ Phoning Home is the answer. The tribute to Spielberg’s classic sci-fi hit boasts a combination of logic, puzzle, and exploration gameplay. But is it enough to stand out in the most popular genre of the past decade?
Phoning Home places a substantial emphasis on resource gathering and crafting. In fact, for much of the game, that is your objective: be it a teleportation device, a laser weapon, or an armor upgrade, any and all of the required materials are found scattered across the world. Once you’ve found the material for the first time, the Bethesda-esque compass at the top of your HUD will display all identical resources nearby, which is mighty handy considering the struggle to differentiate certain rocks or flora from the environment. My biggest concern is that of the 10 or so hours spent completing the main story, at least a third of my time will have been spent hunting for that first sighting of a material, and another third consumed by collecting enough to create whatever is required of me. That being said, the crafting menu and broader system was user-friendly and intelligently designed, and though there were a limited number of obtainable items those that were available were usually crucial to the game.
Combat in Phoning Home is simplistic, but that doesn’t really matter – there are few enough enemy entities that you could do a pacifist play-through and come out with a clear conscience. Your robotic character has a thruster for clearing high obstacles, which allows very little directional input on the way up but plenty on the fall back down (call it falling with style); a bugbear of mine was that there was no finesse to the thruster bursts, meaning no small course corrections or Flappy Bird midair bounces, but I suspect that may have been intentional. And besides – the neat portal feature is the lazy-man’s favorite addition to this game.
Now, I’m sure all of this sounds a bit strange to the untrained ear, so allow me a second to provide a little background to Phoning Home. You play as ION, a young exploration unit whose ship (and condescending father, judging by the dialogue) has crashed on an uncharted, unknown planet filled to the brim with fantastic new life. It’s your job to carry out the orders given by the ship’s on-board computer, and find some way to broadcast a distress signal and phone home. On your travels you will encounter ANI, a similarly-shipwrecked unit who in reductive terms is something of a motorized hippie (they call them ‘Oxies,’ and they’re pro-nature), with a temper inversely proportionate to her size. Together, you’ll attempt to complete your task and get the heck off planet.
I liked the premise, even if I find fault with the execution – starting from nothing and clawing your way to success tends to make for an interesting life story, let alone a videogame. But a mute protagonist only works if you’re still able to communicate via other means, and after a while being spoken at by the ship’s computer becomes a little tiring and though ANI’s incessant chatter livens the proceedings a little it’s still a crying shame that monologue is the only form of dialogue. There are also only so many ways to hide the ritual of ‘go there, fetch this, build that’ in a narrative, but I consider that an issue plaguing most open world titles.
I should pause a moment here to dish out some praise, however, because the soundtrack that accompanies Phoning Home is surprisingly impressive. It manages to provide the sort of ambient effects that contribute to losing oneself in a vast open world, and though other aspects of this title mean it falls short of that particular goal I have to appreciate the quality of the composition. If sci-fi synthetics met fantasy percussion, this soundtrack would be the result.
Phoning Home must be running on a fancy game engine, because in terms of textures, rendered world, and environment, it ticks an awful lot of boxes. The landscapes are generally very pretty, with a night-day cycle and dynamic weather that looks the part as well; I’m particularly fond of the glowing mushrooms and crystals that prove fundamental to your survival. My only complaint is that the world seems a tad devoid of life. Very few AI characters and only sporadic flora (interesting flora, I mean, not grass or trees) means that Phoning Home relies heavily on its topography to inspire exploration, but the upside of all this is that I often felt genuinely stranded on a foreign planet, with nothing but nature for miles in every direction.
The few NPCs that do litter the planet range from unique and imaginative to a little clichéd, which in fairness is as good a spectrum as you’d hope to find. A favorite of mine are the huge rock giants, just for sheer aesthetic appeal: though they seem unable to move about, they also unfold from innocuous-looking piles of boulders, and I think that’s damn cool. What does disappoint me a little each time I play is the animations: it’s perfectly wonderful to construct a terrifying pterodactyl, but if its wings and neck move as though it were a marionette the immersion unfortunately fades. ION is equally limited, particularly given elbow joints that never seem to move, but ANI saves the day by virtue of being a more complex machine (and also overwhelmingly cute).
Phoning Home might be suffering from eyes that are bigger than its stomach. Create a massive open world, but please also populate it with interesting flora and fauna; give us a robotic protagonist, but please also allow us to improve him beyond a gun and some armor. The construction elements of the game could do with being weighted in favour of the prize, rather than the chase, and the narrative of light banter and (admittedly undeveloped) ethical themes might work better when you’re at the helm of an intrepid but most of all vocal explorer whose own opinions shine through. I saw plenty of potential in Phoning Home, particularly in its well-molded crafting system, but I’m afraid that behind the facade of dashing good looks, there might actually be no-one home to phone.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Phoning Home (PC)
Gameplay - 6/10
Plot - 6/10
Design - 7/10
Phoned home; went to voicemail
ION Lands have produced a beautiful game that was clearly conceived with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, a slightly uninspiring hero, moving about a slightly uninspiring world, means that though Phoning Home shoots for the stars, it ultimately falls shy.