Phoning Home is indie developer ION LANDS love letter to storytelling and boasts a tale that really is worth telling. Players take control of ION, a small robot stranded on an alien world filled with dangerous weather, dangerous monsters, and the remnants of an ancient civilization with secrets long buried. Friends will be met, heartstrings will be pulled, and gamers will be satisfied in this third-person exploration survival experience!Open world exploration can start.
The tale of ION starts with his ship, the simply named EU_18TR289x65, crash-landing on a world filled with wild organic life. Being from a world of machines, TR2 and his mobile unit ION are surprised to find not only a wide diversity of life forms but also a wide selection of craftable materials on the planet’s surface. It’s up to ION, who remains in communication with TR2 over video and audio channels, to find and build the components needed to get the duo off the ground and back into space where they belong.
ION and TR2 aren’t the only foreign visitors on the uncharted world, however, and players will be joined early on by a feminine mobile unit known as ANI, who has her own downed ship to repair. ANI will help ION find the tools needed for their escape, as well as partake in the discovery of a lost alien civilization.
The story is sweet in tone but contains an undercurrent of social and political issues that make it all the more effective. While ION and ANI’s ships and circumstances seem parallel, one set identifies as female while the other defaults to male. This self-identification conflict is highlighted and bolstered by the fact that ANI and her ship are considered “Oxies,” liberal outliers who want to bring organic life to the group’s mechanical home planet P1. Will cooperation reign and understanding be reached? You’ll need to play to find out.
Players control ION in the third-person, and the gameplay is primarily exploration and resource collection. There is a combat, though, there’ll be times when escape or avoidance is preferable over a battle. This isn’t because the combat is poorly handled but rather acts as an effective design choice. Like survival games with which Phoning Home shares traits, titles like Don’t Starve and 7 Days to Die, players will find that part of the game is knowing which risks to take and which to avoid. ION isn’t a combat bot, especially at the game’s start, so those planning to charge into every situation will get their metal tushies handed to them.
The initial hour or two of Phoning Home operates as a setup of sorts, introducing the characters, relationships, and mechanics of the game. ION, in addition to normal ground locomotion, has jets that allow him to propel into the air (after which, he falls to earth screaming and waving his little metal limbs–it’s pretty great.) This skill has a cooldown indicated by a bar on the lower left of the UI, which is itself clear and uncluttered. Jetting around also uses fuel, fuel is must be crafted from scavenge-able components. Sprinting uses power, which is also replenish-able with a combination of other components. Such crafting items are reappearing, but it’s important not to get too comfortable blasting around like you’ve got fuel and power leaking out your non-existent ears because you can run out all too quick. If this happens, you’ll still be able to move, but not fast enough to escape any of the nastier baddies.
In addition to fuel and power cells, players will be able to craft upgrades, new tools, and various plot-centered goods that advance the story. It’s a simple process–select a good to build, and click the craft icon–but it becomes somewhat more involved when future items require other craftable items to be built in order to complete. Luckily, there are no unnecessary wait times during an item’s construction. Scavenging components is also easily done, provided you’ve already analyzed (collected) the component at least once. This is because components will appear on a small compass bar that runs at the top of the screen after that first analysis. This directs players to where resources are hiding, and the bar also features yellow markers indicating any current objectives.
Combat, which in the beginning consists of swinging a pipe (yep, even robots start with pipes!), is dangerous and satisfying. Many times I expected death, only to snatch victory with a measly 4% hull integrity (life) remaining. I also died a helluva lot when not careful, so don’t let the peaceful surroundings of the forest or sand-swept crags fool you–ION is not going to ace an episode of Man Versus Wild, and not just because he’s not a man.
ANI is even more vulnerable, and it’s up to ION–the more dexterous of the pair–to help her get around safely. While she’s useful and endearing, she’s also more limited in movement, and there’s a puzzle component of Phoning Home that consists of getting her around. This actually adds a welcome element to the game and helps rather than hinders the development of the story. Protect the VIP this is not, so don’t get too worried–you won’t have to corral ANI all that much, the pathfinding is great.
As for base the building, there is none, and that’s perfectly fine. Unlike most survival games, the story takes front and center stage in Phoning Home, and the linear nature of the experience is a breath of fresh air, as the story’s a good one. Excitement will be elicited, and heart strings will be pulled, so get ready for it.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The world of Phoning Home is beautiful. The day/night cycle is lengthy, and dips into a truly dark night and back into blazing sunlight at a gradual pace that helps to create a sense of being stranded in a real nature-type environment. There are excellent graphical touches to the surroundings that also build up this atmosphere, such as light blooming from patches of grass, fluttering insects, and particle effects that elude to a wind system; this latter is a simple yet effective addition, one that even AAA titles too often neglect.
Sounds are present and well-recorded, but the music really takes the cake. While many games billing themselves as survival or exploration games opt for silence to create mood, ION LANDS chose an orchestral set of tracks that are both cinematic and haunting. If you isolate the music and close your eyes, you could swear that you’d left the Hobbit trilogy playing on your system, or perhaps this year’s most lauded European picture (undoubtedly something equal parts moving and depressing). All this to say that the soundtrack is beautiful and delicate, and also reactive–it changes with the mood of game events, meaning that battle is made tenser by driving rhythms, while peaceful landscape-scouring is met with subtle strums.
A minor point about the menu system in Phoning Home, which is attractive and in keeping with the game’s overall design: it is difficult, especially on a big screen or 4K monitor, to notice which item or operation is highlighted. This is unimportant if you’re playing with a mouse, as you click on whatever you’d like to select, but a tad troublesome when you are cycling options with a controller. This is also a situation easily patched, and I expect it will be resolved shortly after launch. Regardless, once I became aware of it, I was able to play comfortably from my couch without it bothering me too much.
Phoning Home is the first indie game in a long time that looks and plays like an AAA title. The production values and writing are worthy of the big names in gaming, and ION LANDS has pulled off a great story with a game engine that does exactly what it sets out to do–engage and satisfy.
If you’re up for a game that has great atmosphere, calming exploration, and tense combat, then hit up Phoning Home on Steam. And some advice? Watch out for flaming clouds, or they’ll get you in the end.