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No Man's Sky (PlayStation 4) artwork

No Man's Sky (PlayStation 4) review

"A giant universe with nothing to do."

The game starts as my nameless spaceman awakens to find our wrecked spaceship in desperate need of repairs. Iím told the materials I need to get back in the sky are randomly assorted across the planet, so I start shooting large, colored stalagmites filled with minerals and begin exploring my first planet. Itís dusk by the time I catch my bearings, and the planet, which Iíve named after my mother, takes on a purple hue as the night sets in. Itís not long before I see my first creature: it looks like a combination of a stegosaurus and an anteater. I run up to it to see if I can interact with it, but it runs away before I get the chance. I find a large cave structure filled with more plants and rock formations for me to scan with my visor. Iíve quickly filled my inventory with the stuff I need to fix my ship, but I still have the urge to see what else this planet has to offer. The pause menu, where you rename everything you can find during your interstellar journey, alerts me to the fact that there are several different species of animals that I have yet to find. There are large green circles with a question mark in the middle of them that specify that there is.... something on the horizon that I havenít discovered yet. Sometimes theyíre outposts, sometimes theyíre large unexplained monoliths that teach me the language of another alien race. I end up spending two or three hours on this planet, scanning creatures and taking a bunch of pictures like a damn tourist. Unable to find the one species I require to complete this planetís set, I admit defeat and get on my ship. There are eighteen quintillion planets after all. I canít afford to be a completionist in a game that is essentially impossible to complete. I fly up into the cosmos, amazed by the complete lack of loading screens so far, and begin my journey toward the center of the galaxy.

When I was a kid, I would stare out at the night sky from my quiet suburban bedroom window and wonder about what the amazing things that could be out there, floating through space just outside of humanityís grasp. That feeling of wonder and curiosity has always stuck with me, and that desire to experience other realities is probably what initially led me to games, and in particular open world games.

Ever since No Manís Sky was first shown in 2013, the game seemed to crackle with possibility. The idea of a space game with a barely fathomable amount of planets to visit and procedurally generated life seemed like a pipedream. But through trailers and snippets of gameplay shown at trade shows, developer Hello Games had apparently found a way to make it real. I realize putting high expectations on a game made by fifteen people (!) who last made the Joe Danger games surely couldnít be everything I would want it to be. Expecting perfection from any piece of media is silly. Life is full of disappointment! But the idea of a procedurally-generated universe with eighteen quintillion planets is just so damn enticing. Itís very easy to be seduced by the concept of No Manís Sky, which is why the large gap between what the game could have been and what the game actually is becomes so disappointing.

Mechanically, No Manís Sky has all of the trappings of a survival game. All of your main systems - your exosuit, hazard protection on certain planets, your shipís ability to fly, and your multi-tool - all require refueling after a handful of uses or a certain amount of time. But itís that first one that grates on me most of all. Your suit has a life support system that is constantly decreasing as you explore the planet. While this could add a level of urgency to the game, it is so easy to replenish this shield since every planet has easily attainable plutonium hidden in plain sight. It becomes more of a nuisance than anything.

The need to constantly maintain all of these systems leads to a lot of time spent managing your inventory, and No Manís Sky clearly struggles under the strain of it all. There are the myriad of elements that are vital to keeping your gear running smoothly. There are the craftable items that range from power canisters to refill your support systems to bypass cells that can point out undiscovered locations for you to find on your map. There are trade items that exist only to be sold for more credits. There are also suit, ship, and multi-tool upgrades, found mostly in the crackling wreckage of broken space pods splayed across planets, that also takes up valuable space once crafted.

Itís a lot to keep track of, and the number of slots in your inventory is so small at the beginning of the game that it took me several hours of play until I felt like I could even begin to think about upgrading my jetpack or my pulse engine. The space was just too valuable.

But this is the only place where No Manís Sky puts any sort of immediate stress on your playing style. This is a decidedly lowkey game. Sure, the sentinels get angry when if you cause too much of a ruckus, and some animals are more aggressive than others, but I never felt like I was in any real danger while planetside. The focus of this game is mainly on exploration, and this is where No Manís Sky is the biggest letdown.

The buildings and outposts I saw on my first planet looked exactly the same everywhere I went, regardless of the weather on the planet. There are number puzzles to be solved at some stations that have been mysteriously abandoned, but they are so easy, and there are so few of them, that they offer no real resistance whatsoever.

But most disappointingly of all, the animal and planet designs are not as unique as their procedurally generated nature would suggest. Sure, every planet is different than the last one. And yes, each of those planets has their own set of species that live there. But they arenít different enough. There isnít enough variance in the creature design to keep fresh and interesting for very long. It is at this point that the very complicated math problem that molds the galaxy of No Manís Sky possible becomes a double-edged sword. A lot of the creatures feel like the product of Hello Gamesí creature-making algorithm making new lifeforms by changing one or two small variables at a time. I wish there was more weird stuff, you know? I want to see giant beasts that can crush me under their footsteps. I want to see surreal flying creatures that don't just look like birds or bats with an extra set of wings. Anything that could break up the sterile monotony that afflicts most of this game. You could tell me most of the creatures I encountered were in same species and I wouldnít be surprised. That is a real bummer.

There is also a general lack of liveliness to the worlds in No Manís Sky. The animals very rarely interact with each other. I never saw carnivores hunting for food, or a herd of plant-eating animals grazing for food. They only walk around absent-mindedly, vaguely aware of your presence. The sentient aliens that you meet during your travels seem to be incapable of ever moving from their positions in the enclaves you find them in. No Manís Sky feels more like walking through some space zoo or museum instead of experiencing nature in its untouched form. It is still a novel idea for a game, but it could have been so much more. It all feels so underdeveloped.

The way you discover language is genuinely innovative, though. You decipher the language of each of the main factions (The Korvax, Gek, and Vyíkeen) one word at a time mostly through finding monoliths scattered across the world, alongside a quick blurb detailing the backstory of one of the aforementioned factions. Gradually gaining the ability to decipher what puzzles were asking of me and what aliens were saying to me is a really clever way of showing your development and growing understanding of the universe you inhabit.

But the fact that the language system stands out as an oasis of gameplay innovation is fairly damning. No Man's Sky has a technologically brilliant framework for the game to build off of, but it never sufficiently builds off of that framework. All of the gameplay features the game has are represented in their most rudimentary form. The open world, or universe in this case, is impressive in scope but lacks the depth it needs to encourage exploration. Hello Games deserves credit for having the ambition to aim for the stars in the first place. Itís a shame they missed by this much.


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Featured community review by sam1193 (September 05, 2016)

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