By Michael Fontanini / May 16th, 2017
|Release Date||February 7th, 2017|
|Genre||Action, Adventure, Indie|
What happens when a ship and its mobile unit find themselves stranded on an alien world? The mobile unit would need to leave the ship in search of resources for repairs and to eventually get off the planet. That’s easier said than done on a world full of natural hazards and hostile life forms. Phoning Home explores this with a little stranded robot named ION. Can you escape this unknown alien world?
As you can see by the game’s title and the appearance of the main character, it is heavily inspired by the movies ET and WALL-E. The game auto-saves at certain times, but you can also manually save at any moment you please (so you should never lose too much progress).
In Phoning Home, you are ION, a mobile unit whose ship has crash-landed on an unknown alien world. Your ship’s computer, P1, will guide you as you venture out of the heavily damaged ship to begin exploring. The game opens up with a number of simple tutorial tasks to teach you how to control your robot body to move around in the world, use your thrusters, and more.
Much of the gameplay in Phoning Home revolves around exploring the terrain and collecting resources. You’ll only have access to a few types of resources in the starting area, but there are a number of others waiting to be discovered out there. However, there is a catch. ION can only hold so many of each type of resource. This can be upgraded later, but to start you can only have seven pieces of any one resource at a time. Resources are used for crafting various items, some of which are technology upgrades for your robot self. These items include things like fuel to keep yourself powered, and the basic blaster, which will quickly replace your first crappy melee weapon. There aren’t many weapons in the game, as Phoning Home emphasizes exploration more than anything.
As you progress in the adventure, you can unlock new technologies once you acquire the resources needed to do so. These include your blaster, which gives you the ability to attack from a distance, as well as other upgrades and items. Your HUD features a structural integrity bar, which is of course your health. You also need to keep your energy from dropping to 0%, or you shut down and it’s game over. The orange meter is your fuel, which you need if you intend to use your thrusters (you can’t jump, so you WILL need them).
You may have noticed a second yellowish robot hanging out with ION in the game’s art at the top of this review. Her name is ANI and she is a sidekick character. You won’t meet her until just a bit further into the game. You can also craft upgrades and things for her, too. This includes plating to protect her from oxidization.
You need to keep an eye on her plating and give her more when it gets low. If her plating runs out, she will start oxidizing more quickly, though it’s still a slow process. ION is luckily unaffected by the problem of oxidation, but he has to look after ANI. If you neglect her, she will eventually die from it. You will also need to help her through some areas by carrying her using an upgrade that you get around the same time you find her. If ANI dies for any reason, then it is game over for you.
So ANI sounds annoying, right? Well, she is at times, but she is also helpful as ANI sometimes drops hints in her speech. She can sometimes be quite talkative, which on occasion can also get mildly annoying. This is especially true since characters will talk automatically, and if you miss what they said, there is no way to hear it again. Any important information they mention is usually recorded on your library screen within the entry for the relevant task. You will often have a number of tasks to do at any given time, but it doesn’t matter what order you do them in.
ION is the only character that doesn’t speak (yes there is voice acting). It turns out that his speech module was damaged in the crash landing. That won’t stop him from doing what needs to be done, though. The voice acting is good but sometimes it feels like the characters drone on much longer than necessary.
The outdoor environments in Phoning Home are quite large, and you can explore them as you see fit. You do have to do certain things to unlock new regions, though. So you can’t quite go anywhere you want whenever you want. The natural environments are very well put together, and quite pleasing to the eye. The forest is the most lush, beautiful environment, but the winter environment is also cool (although the frequent snowstorms get old after awhile).
The game doesn’t have a lot of music most of the time, but it does its job well in the instances where it’s used. For the most part, Phoning Home strives to be a very ambient experience, and it succeeds quite well. This of course means that sound effects become more important, but there are no worries here either. The sound effects do their job well and really fit with everything else.
Phoning Home does have its flaws, though. Movement can feel clunky at times, but that may have been by design. There are also a few glitches, including a common camera glitch that happens. It occurs most often when you get too close to an obstacle like a wall. The camera will quickly move forward and the avatar becomes invisible. The effect of this is a bit jarring when the camera suddenly changes to what feels almost like a first-person perspective, since you can’t see yourself anymore. I’ve had it happen at other odd times on occasion, too.
You also need to be careful not to get too close to an obstacle when trying to thrust upwards to get on top of it. If you are too close, you will encounter a glitch where you get stuck in place (you won’t gain any altitude and are thus wasting fuel). You’ll fall normally when you stop thrusting, though.
Another minor annoyance is that every so often some text will appear on-screen saying how many days you’ve been on the planet. The problem is that when this text appears, you can’t do anything for several seconds until it goes away. This is even true if it comes up during a boss fight. There are very few of those, though, and they aren’t true boss battles in the traditional sense. Instead you need to complete an objective and escape, like rescuing ANI for example.
In spite of its flaws, Phoning Home is still an enjoyable game, just not quite as much as it could’ve been. The environments are fun to explore and full of eye candy. It also includes a lot of achievements for players to work towards. The game is fairly short, taking 15-20 hours depending on how thorough you are and how much you die. The game is available on Steam (Windows only) for $19.99, and you can get the soundtrack for an extra $5.99. Phoning Home is a game that asks if you have what it takes to overcome the trials of this alien world and escape its gravitational pull so you can get back to your home world.
Review copy provided by publisher.
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