For those who take titles at face value, Journey to the Savage Planet may disappoint. The first things you see are a spaceship computer screen, reporting an “error” on the flight log—otherwise known as a crash—and an astronaut rousing from a doze. So much for the journey. As for the planet, a wild and writhing rock designated AR-Y26, well, the beasts that roam its prairies are no match, in their savagery, for those back on Earth. Your mission, as defined by a briefing memo from Kindred Aerospace, the corporation you work for, is to “turn over every rock, scan every blade of grass and dig the precious crafting ingredients from the innards of every beast you encounter.”
Such is the style of humour—blithe and breezy, with its bite filed down—that peps up the atmosphere of Journey to the Savage Planet. Now and then, you are treated to FMV clips of Kindred’s CEO, Martin Tweed, a grinning goon with a frazzled horseshoe of hair, whose idea of encouragement is to try and sell you on the company’s queasy vision (“We can be bigger. We can be more”) and have you periodically submit survey-based progress reports. This is the début game from Typhoon Studios, an independent developer comprising 27 employees, founded by former members of such cozy companies as Ubisoft, EA, and WB Games Montréal; any resemblance to actual persons or practices is, I trust, purely coincidental. What we have is a first-person sci-fi adventure-platformer, with—but not focussed on—shooting, all about exploration and gathering materials in an open, but manageable, world that lasts under fifteen hours. If we didn’t have the luxury of time, we might call it Every Man’s Sky.
Starting at the site of your downed ship, you venture out to explore AR-Y26, which, as your in-helmet AI informs you, “doesn’t seem to be, well, a planet at all, really… more a detonation of rocks.” True enough, the terrain is composed of disparate plateaus: compacted biomes that seem to have been blasted skywards, and remain loosely tethered by gravity. You begin in a comb of icebound caves, emerge into a meadow of fleshy blue plants and pink willows, and climb your way up the mountain at the centre—shades of Grow Home, which kept its main objective, a giant beanstalk, planted in view at all times—in search of a power source (that most stately of science fiction MacGuffins).
Fans of Metroid Prime may find themselves swinging between fits of nostalgia, for all the environmental scanning you’ll be doing, and panicked flashbacks of slippery first-person platforming. On the latter, fear not: jumps feel lofty but tight, heightened with a hearty gust from your jetpack and lengthened with a lash of your energy grapple—a crackling wrist-mounted chord that winks back to the Grapple Beam from Super Metroid. Traversal is blighted by the occasional bug—a grapple point icon not popping up in time, say, or your astronaut’s refusal to grasp a ledge—but it’s rare enough not to ruin your day. The best navigation in Journey to the Savage Planet, however, is done without moving an inch. Your suit comes equipped with a scanner, which transforms the world into wireframes and plunges it into a sea of dark greens, like a glowing Game Boy screen, offering up scraps of information on your surrounds.
You don’t actually need the information, mind; unlike in Metroid Prime, scanning is rarely essential, but what it does, like much of what you’re doing, is in service of summoning a mood. It’s a game of MacGuffins, so to speak—what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is inessential to the joys and the juice on offer. Take the orange goo that you occasionally find: that it increases your maximum health and stamina capacity is a minor detail; far more important is the way you gouge a thick glob of the stuff and smush it into your mouth (or rather your visor). Likewise, the various gadgets you acquire—which gate your upwards progress—are no match in their function for the forms they take: starfish-shaped seeds that provide a nook to grapple, bright-blue orbs that fizz and fire jolts of electricity (the better to open jammed doors and freeze enemies in a jitter), or spiky purple bulbs with enflamed innards that explode like grenades.
You could argue style over substance, and it’s a criticism that sticks; it just doesn’t stick as strongly as the style. Granted, the boss fights that sprout up here and there, which charge you with hitting a glowing Achilles heel—or tail, or pustule—are something of a drag. And the core loop of play starts to limp before the finish line of the end credits. I noticed, around half-way through, that I looked forward to getting back to my ship not for the next upgrade to my gear—a power-up for my laser pistol, an extra fuel tank for my jetpack—but for the next commercial beamed to the TV screen. (My favourite of these is for the Mini Mall Monkeys Micro Mills Plaza: a toy that lets you grow your own tiny humans and set them loose in a shopping mall, breaking them out of their zombified fugue by triggering Black Friday sales.)
Perhaps more intriguing is how the tone contorts the way you play. One of my favourite things to do in Journey to the Savage Planet is to encounter a Puffbird—a cross between bird and balloon—boot it to the heavens, and then shoot it in mid-air, causing an explosion of slime. Cruelty succumbs to comedy, and the mood is breathable in the game’s atmosphere. The press material describes it as “harkening back to the Golden Age of science fiction,” but I would place it slightly before; it feels like the freshly squeezed product of the pulp era of the 1920s and ’30s, of writers like Edmond Hamilton and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was Burroughs who wrote, in The Land That Time Forgot, “You are here for but an instant, and you mustn’t take yourself too seriously.” That mingling of the cosmic and the comic, the sting of mortality wrapped in good cheer, abounds in Journey to the Savage Planet. Its satirical barbs are light, and, most important, they remember to be funny.
The game’s prevailing irony is that, counter to the corporate appetites of those back at Kindred, it’s modest in scope; its ambitions don’t overreach, and any repetition or drabness in its mechanics is spiced by its humour and its modest run time. It can be bigger. It can be more. I’m glad it’s not. And it marks an impressive first outing for the newly liberated developers at Typhoon Studios, too, for whom reality has an even greater irony in store: they have just been bought by Google.
Developer: Typhoon Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, and PC
Release Date: January 28, 2020
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