Phoning Home Review

If you enjoy survival games but like a little more direction and story or think that human protagonists are overdone, you’re likely to enjoy Phoning Home. Indie developer ION Lands lays out an intriguing journey from stranded to (potential) rescue, but does Phoning Home come with the repetivity issues common to survival games?

The game begins as you – playing as the silent robot ION – crash on a planet, mercifully unscathed inside the cabin of your damaged spacecraft. But you’re not alone – it turns out that your spacecraft doubles as your AI companion. From then on, it’s the prim and professional voice of EU_18TR289x65 that guides you through the game. Its first task for you is to try to repair the ship so you can phone home.

Of course, the game wouldn’t be too interesting if your attempts were successful and the story finished there, so the rest of the game is centred around trying to find a way to communicate off-world. Exploration and gathering become key.

Movement works the way you’d expect and drains your battery as you travel. Sprinting drains the battery faster, but you can craft power cells to recharge from simple resources littering the planet’s surface. Finding these resources is made simple thanks to a radar system in your HUD, although if items are clustered together their icons can be hard to resolve and you quite often have to squint at the compass to know what you’re looking at. Making the icons different colours might have lessened this problem, but as it is it’s a minor concern. Objective markers appear here as well and do stand out.

You can reach high places and jump gaps using your thruster, but it can be a tricky tool to master. True to how it would probably work in real life, the thruster builds speed slowly, making it difficult to control. Fall damage is a common occurrence, although hull repairs are easy to craft, and missing your target can lead to an untimely death. It’s unfortunate that you can’t seem to use a series of short thruster bursts to maintain height – either your momentum doesn’t carry over as it should or there’s too long a delay between thruster activations – as this would make jumping puzzles a lot less frustrating.

The interface is quite simple, although the HUD compass can be tricky to read.

Pretty early on you come across another stranded ship and its exploration robot ANI. Her and her ship’s views are rather different to EU_18TR289x65’s, but ANI has unique skills that are vital to your escape from the planet. She is, however, somewhat vulnerable. As ION, you become her caretaker, building her upgrades and finding paths that she can take without use of a thruster. Weather effects are a problem for her and if you don’t find her shelter soon enough, she’ll start to corrode. Fortunately she’s easy to command, with following and fighting being toggled modes.

As you progress through the game, you unlock several tools to help you travel, fight and defend. These are for the most part powered by batteries, so it’s best to be conservative in their use (especially the shield module). Perhaps the most useful are: the teleporter, which lets you open a portal between any two bits of metal and gives you thirty seconds to travel through; photon pulse, which lets you shoot enemies; the attractor, which lets you carry ANI over steep terrain; and the kinetic damper, which halts falls and thus negates fall damage.

There seems to be a slight delay between clicking (to activate) one of these tools and the tool actually working, which can be a little off-putting. You get used to it after a while but it can still take you by surprise in important moments. Perhaps the only tool that feels out of place is the antigrav tool. It’s not entirely clear how you’re meant to use it since it only seems to produce a bunny-hop effect, but it appears to be crucial for a major objective in the game.

The attractor tool in use.

It’s fun exploring new locations, especially when each bears a clue to the history of the planet. With a smatter of fun conversation thrown in by ANI and the two ships, you don’t get the same sense of loneliness as you do in other survival games and there’s always a higher sense of purpose than just surviving. Many areas are surrounded by hazards such as chasms or mountains, though, with only one or two useable ways out. When these areas can take a while to travel across, it can be a bit annoying to have to backtrack everywhere – heading for one side of a valley when your objective’s on the other. Travel gets especially frustrating in the mountains, where paths which seem passable turn out to be too steep and you slide all the way back down, unable to regain momentum.

The promise of story makes up for it though and while the mysterious nature of the planet seems a casual interest at first, the game eventually brings it to the forefront with a mental gut-punch. If you were interested before that point, you’ll be itching for answers afterwards. By that point, though, the dangers and puzzles have become very difficult and the clunky edge to the controls has become more of an issue.

The visuals in Phoning Home aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re not bad to look at and since it appears to be a one-person effort, that’s good going. ION and ANI have very appealing designs and the dialogue between all four characters (not that ION can talk) is well-crafted, with ANI twittering in your ear as you travel along. The soundtrack is enough to immerse you and does a good job at getting your heart racing when an enemy appears from nowhere.

Considering the story is, for the first few hours at least, quite linear, it’s probably not the kind of game you can replay many times with the same level of enjoyment, but the time you spend in the first playthrough feels worthy of its £15 price tag. The mechanics can be a little unwieldly at times but Phoning Home feels unique in its genre and manages to strike a clever story balance between the endearing and ominous. Well worth attention.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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