While you can forget about this game having anything to do with a certain 80s classic movie character, the comparison isn’t 100% off the mark. Yes, the premise of Phoning Home does indeed involve an alien visiting a planet, getting stranded and trying to ‘phone home’. Though replace an alien finding friendship with a human boy, with a couple of robots working together to escape a planet they were attempting to harvest for resources, and you have a much more accurate picture.

 

The game begins with our playable robot ION and its A.I. partner crash landing on an unknown planet. ION is an exploration unit for a civilisation that discarded their biological forms a long time ago in favour of their ‘intelligence’ being placed in artificial bodies (so robots in this case). This dislike of biological life of course helps with their current task, which as exploration units, is to search for new planets that can be ravaged for resources.

 

The pair quickly discover another crashed ship, however, which is the transport for another A.I. and her robot. The two appear significantly more open minded than our A.I. – much to its distaste (there’s a running argument between the two A.I.s about whether it is acceptable for them, as A.I., to be assigned genders, for example) – but we need their help in order to escape this planet. ANI is a small service unit who appears a bit kooky in her philosophical ponderings, but becomes a vital companion.

 

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The game is a semi-open world of sorts, filled with a variety of resources. In order to escape the planet and to survive its dangers, you need to collect these resources and craft equipment and consumables. For example, items that can be used to fix your ship, upgrades for yourself and ANI that provide defense as well as a means of getting to new areas, and general maintenance items such as repair kits, fuel and energy.

 

First off, you need to identify the resources on the planet, and after doing so they will appear on your compass when nearby (seeds, roots, and alien vegetation). All items in the game require a mixture of resources to create – the simplest requiring two ingredients – and some more complex designs will demand parts to be combined together. For example, you may need a circuit and some energy to craft an item, so you will need the resources first to craft those initial parts. It’s not actually that complicated, though later on resource management becomes a big deal – if you use up too much of your resources on consumables, you might not have what you need to make fixes and upgrades, or vice versa.

 

Some of the more interesting items you can create include jet thrusters to help you reach higher ground, a teleporter, and an energy gun. The system by which these are introduced is fairly linear, with them unlocking at certain points in the game, and there are no creative elements to the title apart from that – no building, no cosmetics, etc.

 

And this is probably going to be the biggest surprise for most people going in to Phoning Home based on a brief description of the game. It initially sounds like some kind of resource/survival game, but in actual fact it is much more linear and story based. The resource collecting and crafting are less of a creative thing, and more of a mechanic to provide objectives and pace the story. For example, I mentioned that some equipment helps you reach new areas – craft a teleporter to get across a chasm, then you can progress to your next objective (fixing a generator, finding a location to attempt comms with your allies, and so on).

 

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Perhaps this may disappoint some, but personally I found this is what made Phoning Home really stand out. Because, to be blunt, the resource collecting and crafting, and even the exploration to an extent, is actually a bit naff, but the story and the mystery behind it was a very pleasant surprise. There are plenty of rubbish survival/resource based games out there, but how many of them provide an actual story of any worth?

 

This also extends to the level design. While it is a large and fairly open world, your exploits are very much guided, and in some cases you will find yourself exploring a cave, navigating a dangerous stretch of land, and even trekking through a desert. On the one hand this means a lot of the world exploration is actually pointless – particularly if you have a full inventory of resources (so there’s nothing left for you to collect), but on the other, the developers have been able to create some interesting locations and gameplay.

 

Small abandoned villages, broken down equipment that must have belonged to whoever lived there before, caves (and one disturbing discovery in a pit that I won’t spoil), a tall tower and an even taller tree that can both be scaled – you come across some curious locations. And there are some tricky challenges to overcome along the way – making your way out of a deep chasm using your thrusters and teleporter, getting past giant rock monsters, and navigating a desert of underground worm-type creatures that pop out of the ground when you go near them. There are certainly some inspired ideas implemented throughout.

 

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These ideas work well with the focus on story, and the interactions you have with your robot buddies. It helps the story pop more than it already does, which happens to be quite a bit. In fact, it’s the best thing about the game in my opinion. The moral quandaries our character and AI are facing with relation to what they do to survive (they essentially remove life from planets), and discovering the mysteries of this world – a world that is turning out to be more dangerous than initially thought. It’s intriguing stuff.

 

Unfortunately, however – as I already briefly mentioned – the core gameplay isn’t quite there. While there are positive elements to the game being more about story and linear crafting than resource/survival, the resource gathering and exploration ends up being rather tedious. ANI is slow as fuck, meaning any long traversal is a slog and discourages exploration and hunting for rarer resources. I mentioned previously that if you use up too many of your resources on consumables, you may find yourself unable to craft objective items when they come across – well, you can trot off and attempt to find some more, but god is it an arse-ache. When I found myself in that situation I simply reloaded and repeated the ten minutes I’d just played.

 

Those kind of inconveniences plague the game and hamper the overall experience. A really interesting section involving those desert worms just became frustrating when my robot buddy ION decided to stop following me. Both low on health, I use a teleporter to get past some of the worms, ION stops following, the command to make her do so doesn’t work, the portal closes, the game autosaves….I’m too far away to shoot a portal towards her, and I don’t have the health to go past the worms again. I understand the developers have patched the game since then, including multiple slots for autosaves so you don’t reach game ending scenarios like that, but still, it’s a clunky design and anything going wrong inevitably ends with the player going out of their way to rectify it.

 

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Less egregious complaints include some stilted animations, poor framerate and lacking combat. The combat aspect is disappointing. Though it isn’t a big part of the game – and you generally want to avoid combat – the melee system is rusty, and guns provide no punch. The enemies are interesting however, so it’s cool when you run into new types.

 

They’re unfortunate issues that make the game feel a bit unfinished, though clearly there are efforts to patch some of these. Ultimately they make the experience less enjoyable than it could be, but I believe there’s a lot to Phoning Home that makes it a worthwhile experience. The gameplay is, generally speaking, solid and contains some interesting ideas, but the story and characters are where it shines. I suppose if you were looking for a more typical survival/resource experience then this clearly isn’t what you are looking for, and if you have a low tolerance for clunky design and slow pacing then you’ll find this very frustrating. But look past all that and you will find an intriguing narrative, and what turns out to be quite a unique experience.



Author

John Little
John Little

I started gaming with the release of the PS1 - Crash Bandicoot and Ridge Racer Revolution being the first 'real' games I ever set eyes on - and have been enthralled with the medium ever since. I particularly love strategy and horror games, the sort offered by titles such as Total War and Silent Hill, though I also have a soft spot for a good RPG. I studied Journalism at university in the hopes of progressing into writing about games. You'll most likely find me covering indie games as I'm always on the look out for interesting little titles, and generally I stick to the PC and PS4 platforms. I'm not interested in MMOs or really any kind of online game, and I have an unusual and frankly worryingly expensive obsession with collecting gaming guide books, but aside from that I like to think I'm a well rounded average gamer. Find me on twitter @JohnLittle29