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Phoning Home (PC) artwork

Phoning Home (PC) review

"Engaged Tone"

Phoning Home is a game with long stretches that seem absolutely determined to make me want to put it down and never return to it again. And thatís a real shame, because there are moments when its rigidly linear attack on the crafting/survival genre promises to make headway. After crash landing on a strange alien planet, youíre forced to scavenge for resources that might allow you to send a distress call back to your home world and arrange a rescue. Only, the planet keeps throwing up little surprises: resources that shouldnít really exist in a natural habitat; lifeforms that make very little sense; signs of a previous civilisation that seems to have evaporated.

One of the gameís clever twists is that rather than having you try to survive your new conditions as a fleshy human, it places you in control of a sentient explorer droid named ION. Through little snippets of conversation you have with the inboard intelligence system of the craft in which you crashed, you slowly learn more about the pair and why they were exploring in the first place. They need the resources, it seems. Both come from a world that has long abandoned biological bodies. Standard life forms have transferred their minds into all manner of practical robots like ION, which are employed to search for new resource-rich planets to strip mine. ION doesnít need to worry about going hungry or finding shelter, and early discoveries are thus tinted with an emotional distance. Mainly because ION is one of those silent protagonists (for good reason for a change; vocal hardware was damaged during the crash), all communication is either wordless or handled by a third party. To begin with, the ship is the only source of dialogue. Its helpful tidbits include encouraging updates to how the duo's chance of survival has risen to 5.6%, or warnings to be careful while harvesting seeds, which are viewed as dirty biological bombs that might contain something as unwholesome as an entire tree.

Eventually, you come across another ship, which contains a second inboard intelligence system with views that contradict those of your own craft, causing the pair to clash on subjects like the value of preserving life, or whether or not gender should be assigned to sentient robots. The second ship has its own droid, which went missing some time ago. Your new mission is to go hunt her down. You eventually find her, after a few memorable encounters with some of the stranger creatures on the planet, and after making some discoveries that include a massive tree with leaves made out of light. It seems the gameís about to open up and really hit its stride. Then you rescue ANI, and the remainder of Phoning Home becomes one long escort mission. Because people bloody adore escort missions...

Phoning Home (PC) image

Your role as escort isnít always such a bad thing, though. As partners go, ANI isnít awful and she does expend some effort to preserve herself without your constant input. Itís just that, for the most part, she fails. Whereas ION is built for exploration, ANI is not. ION has limited boosters that allow him to climb over high terrain, while ANI has a couple of wheels that see her struggle with things as simple as sharp slopes. You have to compensate for those flaws by providing teleportation portals that she laudably is often intelligent enough to go through without prompt, or you have to slowly carry her up things like rock faces. Though the portal option is not without flaws--you open portals by shooting metallic surfaces and creating a conduit between the two way points, but you can sometimes be blasting away at a metal object point blank and it will refuse to register the first few times--itís by far the optimal choice.

It would be charitable of me to label IONís booster mechanics as spotty, and directing him mid-flight is often an exercise in collecting varying fall damage. Trying to do this while weighed down with ANI becomes a nightmare scenario, but picking her up and placing her in a spot where you can grab her once you fly up a step unburdened is always a risk; though thereís a clear "donít follow me" command you can issue, thereís no guarantee sheíll listen. Several times, Iíve led ION on a jerky ascent to a higher platform, then turned around to target ANI so she could join me, only to find that she had moved further into the rock face in an attempt to follow me on her own (and was thus positioned beneath the lip of the platform upon which I stood). This made her impossible to target.

Iím now going to take a series of deep breaths and, then, Iím going to try and talk about the desert section without having my head explode in a fit of rage.

Unlike explorer ION, ANI isnít built for harsh alien environments. That means she is susceptible to corrosion. Youíll spend a lot of time and resources crafting her coating plates that reduce the elemental effect, and the desert has infrequent sandstorms that exacerbate the issue. To begin with, thatís okay. ANI is a bright little thing, and the desert is home to numerous ruins where she can take shelter before catching up with you later if you want to press on with your exploration. That would be great if: a) she wasnít still prone to erosion, and leaving her alone didn't mean you could no longer slap on any coating fixes that you may have crafted; b) the massive size and confusing layout of the desert didn't make it so easy to wander off too far for your friend to catch up, so that unless you're willing to endure an agonizing spell of grueling backtracking, you can no longer continue on with the game.

Phoning Home (PC) image

Perhaps youíll be lucky to learn that you've ventured too far before all your manual and auto saves put you past a point of no return. Congratulations! Youíve just learned that the best option is to have her constantly by your side.

Your main foray into the desert is part of an attempt to repair three huge communication antennae situated, logically, at the highest points of the landscape. The distance between these three objectives is as huge as the frustration involved in reaching them. Never mind trying to steer ANI clear of both the weather and numerous other obstacles; trying to reach the summits even without her and her limited capabilities is rage fuel. Thereís only one true path that will take you to the top, but you'll find numerous alternatives throughout the desert that look exactly the same. Thereís nothing to indicate which path is the proper way forward, so expect to spend a lot of time getting frustratingly close to your objective (only to slide impotently down a slope thatís suddenly decided itís too steep for you to climb), or to suddenly find that a platform you should be able to thrust onto is mysteriously inaccessible.

Itís infuriating to see all of Phoning Homeís good work pissed away as your frustration slowly chips away at your desire to uncover the planetís secrets and to send ION and friends home safely. If you can grit your teeth and ride out the rough sections, then there are highlights to be found again on the other side. Like creeping through an underground cave filled with house-sized crystals because the rusting alien signs dotted around the cavern caution you to tread slowly and softly and youíre not overly keen to discover what inspired this warning. Or organically discovering little snippets about the previous population off the beaten track. There are countless little secrets waiting to be found. Itís a shame youíre unlikely to stay motivated long enough to dig them out.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (February 21, 2017)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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