An attempt to gather enough resources to repair our failing ship ended horribly. A bolt of lightning struck the shuttle on its return to orbit, and killed astronaut Kristen Barrasso. The game didn't end. I could continue on with my remaining crew. Instead, I charted a course into the nearest star and ended things that way. Tough luck for that crew but, next time, I wouldn't throw someone's life away so pointlessly.
It was then I realised how much The Long Journey Home had managed to get under my skin.
The Long Journey home puts you in charge of testing an experimental faster-than-light engine destined for our Solar System's nearest neighbour, Alpha Centauri. Right at the start you get to choose four crew members from a roster of eight. Each has a different role, personality, and skills but if you're anything like me, you'll forego what sounds useful and just go with who sounds most interesting. Whomever you pick, you're going to end up with a diverse team, each of whom has their opinion on new encounters and events.
One man I chose turned out to be an complete grump. No matter which wondrous thing we found, no matter what unique artefact we recovered, this guy was just never pleased. I hated him so much, for scoffing with disinterest at our spectacular circumstances. Yet I loved that someone so loathsome had ended up a part of my team.
So often games go for an earnest tone and you end up with a cast of dullards. Here there are sympathetic characters and eccentric ones, a lot can be gleaned from their bio at the start, but so much more is uncovered as you play. This guy motivated me more than anyone, fuelling my lust for exploration in the hope that I would eventually find something that would impress him. Or, you know, leave him near a black hole.
You also get to choose the ship and landing shuttle used for the journey, but it'll likely take you several playthroughs to work out which one suits you best. Aspects like choosing the colour scheme for your vessel may seem like minor customisation, but help further cement your ownership of this mission and in turn, responsibility for whatever transpires.
The maiden voyage goes wrong, of course, and leaves your ship stranded on the far end of the galaxy. The goal is simple and unchanging: find your way home. It's a premise familiar from the likes of Star Trek Voyager and Farscape but, with a single objective to keep your eye on, the game is able to puts lots of deviations in the way without ever losing focus. And you'll be taking a lot of them.
The game's divided into a few largely-shallow segments. There's the system map where you'll have to steer your ship into orbit or around great pulls of gravity. You can engage in encounters with passing vessels or get intercepted by them. In certain areas you zoom in for some fine control over your ship, and here combat plays out like a prettier Asteroids.
Then there's planet landing, where you have to steer your little shuttle against the elements, whether they be gravity, weather or anomalies. The diversity of hazards means you have to be on your toes for every new planet. There's managing your ship too, whether that be crew, resources or special items which your team debate how to use. Lastly there's diplomacy in which you can converse, over a broad range of topics, with the various species you encounter.
While it's broken into simple sections, that does mean the game can go to town on creating oodles of variation, whether it be in the planets you land on or the aliens you encounter. The flying segments are, over prolonged periods, particularly repetitive but they've still given me standout moments. I have discovered forgotten cities made of light, encountered living ships, and wandered the graves of long-dead leviathans. For a science fiction fan this is a treasure trove of delights, consistently offering novel ideas and playful interpretations of familiar tropes.
Exploration is a matter of necessity as much as pleasure though. Your ship constantly requires fuel and, on top of that, you'll need regular repairs to maintain the equipment. You need to pay attention to the star systems you enter, what kind of planets await, and if they can offer helpful resources. The more inhospitable the planet, the rarer and more valuable minerals or gases you'll likely find. Many a time I've been in a life or death situation, navigating the crushing depths of a gas giant for precious fuel to keep the life support running.
Whilst The Long Journey Home gently nudges you into these extreme scenarios, it never made me feel at the mercy of invisible dice rolls. Unlike FTL, where chance dictates so much of your survival, things here largely come down to your own skills. Whether it's flight or diplomacy, control is in your hands. It can be frustrating to have an overzealous boost on the thrusters lead to an early demise, of course, but I prefer this to the inescapable deaths that come from nowhere in most rogue-likes.
The game has two difficulty settings: Explorer and Rogue. Rogue plays more traditionally for the genre, with death definitive and the risks harsher. Explorer is a kinder option, offering a chance to rewind to the last significant event. It won't let you undo a series of bad decisions but, should you stumble into failure over one obstacle, you can have another try.
I ended up preferring Explorer because of this feature, which I made fair use of. The game isn't as harsh as some but death certainly awaits the reckless. You're never far from resources dwindling to zero, and each risk taken to recover more can end up with you taking on more damage or, worse, losing crew members.
What the game boils down to is balancing your longing to see new sights versus the needs of your crew and vessel. Many a time I've burned precious fuel in a bid to reach a secret or chase down a mysterious new species. Tempering your curiosity is key to your survival yet, without it, you'll see so little of the amazing things tucked away in the game.
You want to explore, because this universe is anything but dour. It's colourful, sometimes wondrous and frequently funny. I've offended roaming raiders by accidentally offering them salad, and been had by an amateur interstellar scam artist. The Long Journey has great twists on sci-fi tropes and builds great mini-adventures from them, but it's equally happy to poke fun.
In the end, no matter how you choose to fly, the responsibility stays. Whether it's a catastrophic decision or missed opportunity, each mistake on the journey home is yours to bear. The game doesn't guilt-trip you or overdo the sentiment but it makes the crew so integral to the experience that the loss of even one voice in your four member team is a huge blow. You're not going to be finding any replacements out here.
The way it moves between moments of wonder, humour and tragedy makes The Long Journey Home a rare pleasure among science fiction games. So many hone in on one idea, a single story. This has hundreds, most of which will take several playthroughs to experience. It captures the feel of a Saturday TV series, each episode tackling a new threat or entertaining a goofy premise. These unexpected turns made it a delight to return to, even in the face of repetitive sections.
It was the four crew members, every time, that made each return memorable. Their opinions mattered, and their skills created new possibilities. Their loss was always hard to bear. With this kind of company, I never wanted The Long Journey Home to end.