Never tell me the odds.
According to one of my playthroughs of the roguelike The Long Journey Home, humanity’s first meeting with an alien species took place between the crew of our first interstellar vessel and a squat little glukkt trader named Mendarch. Here it was: the chance of enlightenment and the promise of advances in science beyond our wildest dreams. There was a whole unspoken history in his calling our place the galaxy the “prohibited sector.” And what were the fruits of that first mission? He offered to loan me 600 galactic credits and only told me that he expected 200 credits in interest after we finished the transaction. Aliens will be human, I guess.
That’s the fun part of The Long Journey Home, and the glukkt are but one of a long list of races who approach your ship with intentions both malevolent and magnanimous. Unfortunately, I had to fight to enjoy these moments. There’s a great premise at the heart of this adventure, but it gets smothered under the weight of frustrating and tedious minigames which require ridiculous feats of precision and patience and wear out their welcome long before you ever reach Earth – if indeed you do. I never quite made it all the way back home (though I came close a few times), because this is, after all, a game designed to be a tough and often unfair adventure through the stars, giving you stories to tell of your brave crew’s sacrifices. It does that, but the story was always more about just scraping by until the end, with few climactic triumphs to keep the mood from getting too dire.
The odds are stacked against you as highly as a Corellian freighter navigating an asteroid field.
The Long Journey Home never lets you forget the odds of making it back to Earth after a malfunction sends you to the other side of the galaxy are stacked against you as highly as a Corellian freighter navigating an asteroid field. Even if you were to perform the aforementioned minigames to perfection (and I’d love to have your autograph if you do), you still have to contend with ship components that randomly break with resources that never seem to be more than stingy. You can alter your chances somewhat by carefully choosing which of 10 available crew members (with distinct personalities and professions ranging from astronaut to archaeologist) you want to fill the ship’s four seats, but it’ll always be rough going considering that the far reaches of the galaxy aren’t exactly stocked with components for human technology.
On the bright side, it’s crammed with folks like our glukkt usurer. It’s a good thing, too, as our adventurers would be up the Milky Way without a paddle without them, to say nothing of the Mass Effect-style relays that shuttle between star systems help as well (usually for a price). Other races include the reeves, who once offered to buy one of my crew members as a slave in exchange for some galactic credits, or the seemingly super-chummy plant-like mizzurani, whose gift of “free” fuel for my jump drive ended up “infesting” my astronaut after I had her install it from my cargo inventory.
These close encounters deliver The Long Journey Home’s best moments, and the excellent writing involved helps lend it a storytelling strength seldom found in roguelikes. Often even the bad encounters left me smirking, such as when Dark Mistress Zacherraza of the Reeves responded to my refusal to sell a crewmate with a petulant “Fine, be that way.” End transmission. These stories and the character art that accompanies them are more personal than the majority of what you’d find in the thematically similar FTL: Faster Than Light.
Unfortunately, those interactions turn out to be a fairly small part of The Long Journey Home. The vast majority of a playthrough involves either easing the ship into a planet’s orbit or sending the lander down to a planet’s surface to scrounge for gases and metals needed to refuel or repair the craft, or to pick up the “exotic” matter needed to power the jump drive when I wanted to port to a neighboring star. Both minigames are 2D and factor in a given planet’s gravity, which appeals to the science nerd inside me in a simplified Kerbal Space Program sort of way. Both require a careful dance of the left and right mouse buttons; in space you use the left button to fire off lightweight “thrusts” for precision maneuvering and the right for “boosts” that guzzle fuel and propel you from a big planet’s orbit. When you visit a planet with the lander, you use the left mouse button to thrust upward and the right to thrust downward.
It feels like an interplanetary hole in one.
The orbiting is the easiest to adapt to, as it requires carefully adjusting your speed and direction on a top-down map of a solar system in order to slip into a planet’s orbit, with the help of a guide that projects your current trajectory. I still find myself crashing into planets after hours of practice, but these are understandable failures with a basis in my impatience. When I find that patience, I also find that The Long Journey Home presents few greater pleasures than coasting straight into a planet’s orbit from the other side of a solar system without overshooting it or colliding with it. It feels like an interplanetary hole in one.
I had much more trouble mastering the annoying 2D lander minigame, in which it feels almost impossible to avoid damage to the craft on anything besides a planet with low gravity. For that matter, you almost always have to factor in elements in addition to gravity, whether it’s winds, heat, or earthquakes. And then you’re expected to land on a ridiculously precise section of a planet for drilling to extract resources, and drilling itself guzzles as much fuel as a boost on the ship.
The bumps and bruises you get from botched attempts aren’t mere “aw, shucks” moments. They’re life-threatening, damaging not only your craft but often breaking the bones of your crewmembers in the process. Upgrades you can pick up from quests of vendor help, yes, but it’s always challenging. (And using a controller is far worse as far as I’m concerned, though I’ve also heard people say the opposite.)
We’ve already seen how The Long Journey Home attempts to make life painful at almost every turn, but the unkindest cut of all is the way these frequent planetary expeditions yield so few resources. Even when I managed to fill my lander’s entire cargo space with fuel, for instance, I cringed when I returned to the ship and discovered that all my efforts barely filled a fourth of my almost-empty tank. I’d been desperate for fuel, and now my lander was damaged and my pilot was injured.
Hull damage is far more harrowing, as it seems as though you’ll never get enough supplies from the multiple different resources available to patch it up like new. Maybe the virtually unavoidable damage wouldn’t be so annoying if you could avoid high-risk or high-gravity planets save in dire emergencies, but The Long Journey Home’s stinginess means you’ll want – or need – to mine almost every chance you get.
And then, if you’ve somehow managed to survive multiple landings, you’ll still have to battle with scrappy alien ships in top-down battles that bear a passing resemblance to Star Control 2. You’re only allowed to fire off broadside attacks, which would be manageable if there were a targeting reticule to show your line of fire. But having to eyeball the aim while you steer using the same glacial thrusts and boosts used for planetary orbits, and while the enemy craft spits out nimble fighter ships that pelt you relentlessly while you’re still trying to turn around seems like a bit much. Like so much of The Long Journey Home, these fights are good in concept but maddening in practice.