Journey to the Savage Planet Is an Experiment in Weird Game Science
I made a promise to myself: that I would try never to hurt a Pufferbird, the orb-ish, squeaking fowl that cover the Savage Planet. Their huge eyes and meek personalities were just too lovely for me to countenance the idea of harming them. On top of that, creative director, Alex Hutchinson (Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed) had told me that almost every puzzle in his game could be solved without violence. So, I decided, I will skirt round their flocks, trying to explore this planet – their planet – as delicately and respectfully as I could.
20 minutes later, I punted a Pufferbird into a bit of newly discovered fauna that acts like a meat grinder, just to see what would happen.
It’s the last bit of that last sentence that matters – after an hour of play, Journey to the Savage Planet has revealed itself to be a game not about violence, or story completion, or even puzzling, really. It’s a game about curiosity: “What’s over there?”, “What does that green blob I’m holding do?” and, yes, “what happens if I stick a bird in that plant’s mouth?”
Mixing the free-form storytelling of Outer Wilds, the ‘70s soft-sci-fi trappings of No Man’s Sky, the cynical corporate satire of The Outer Worlds, and even the bizarre “what the hell does this do?” projectiles of Stranger’s Wrath, this is a game with a very sure idea of itself (even if you won’t necessarily know what that is as you take your first steps outside your crashed ship).
At its core, Journey to the Savage Planet wants you to explore. It’s a first person game that takes you through a miniature world filled with bizarrely named locations across a few different biomes (things like: “Tranquil Crevasse of Tranquility” or “Towering Crystals of Madness”) asking you to upgrade your equipment and salvage natural resources to get around. But it commits to that idea of exploration like few other games.
For a start, there’s no map, meaning you’ll naturally learn how everything fits together as you play (a GPS tracker will stop you from ever becoming truly lost). Quests unlock as you reach obstacles, and do so in whatever order you find them in, meaning they feel more like your character working out their way through the world than being told exactly what to do next. Plus, there’s the completionist’s dream – almost all flora and fauna are scannable, meaning you can create a catalogue of alien life before, eventually, you’re given a Probe item that you can jab into passers-by for even more scientific data. There are a dozen things to be distracted by before you get close to starting the game properly.
What I particularly love, so far, is how the game offers up certain tools with little explanation as to what they do. After smashing open an egg sac, I was rewarded with some green blobs that immediately equipped to my left hand. Of course, my first reaction was to throw them at something, which created a mass of more blobs attached to the floor. I stepped on those blobs, and got catapulted into the air – I’d essentially created my own jump pad. Not only was the act of finding out what this thing did more fun than just being told, by using it I suddenly realised how many places I’d already been where this could come in handy. Essentially, Savage Planet aims to let you explore its mechanics as well as its world.
It helps that that world is all so odd, too. Mixing art direction from some forgotten pulp novel and a chaotic cartoon approach to comedy, this is a game that clearly wants to try and make you laugh at every opportunity, and that goes down to the smallest details: your melee attacks aren’t the FPS-standard punch – they’re a backhand slap or that aforementioned punt; every time you return to your ship, FMV adverts for made-up products play on screens all around you; even the tutorial AI asks if you want to switch her off because her “simulated personality can be a bit abrasive”. The developers, it seems, have been messing around as much as they want you to.
There’s a driving mystery to all of this, of course – this was meant to be a planet with no intelligent life, but something has been here, leaving arcane architecture dotted across the landscape – but it’s more of a raison d’etre than a finishing line you’re rushing to cross. That may turn some off; I’m sure there will be players who find Journey to the Savage Planet has too much journeying and too little savagery. But my hour with it felt like a perfect introduction to a game I’d very much like to play, one built around self-directed fooling about, using the sheer weirdness of an alien world as a way to entice you to look into every one of its goo-soaked corners.
Yes, I did break my promise, but I kicked that Pufferbird into the flesh-eating plant because it, in turn, opened a new area for me to poke my space helmeted head into. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how many more heartbreakingly evil decisions I’ll be forced into making along my Journey. For science, of course.
Joe Skrebels is IGN's UK Deputy Editor, and he is frightened of what he is capable of now. Follow him on Twitter.