As video games tirelessly try to be endless experiences you can never escape, Journey to the Savage Planet is a breath of fresh air. While ironic because of its location on an unknown, likely oxygen-free planet, its mission to give players a smaller place to explore is new especially when considering others in the genre that often require a huge time sink. Typhoon Studios’ first game appears to have most of the elements and wonder of an exploration-heavy game, but in a more digestible size that’s wrapped up in a charming sense of humor.
Studio Co-Founder and Creative Director Alex Hutchinson doesn’t hide the fact that the game doesn’t have a No Man’s Sky-level of ground to cover. In fact, he celebrates it. His age and commitment to other aspects of life outside of video games means he doesn’t want to play or make an experience that commands all of your time. And frankly, this speaks to a growing trend of desiring shorter games more people can finish. Besides, this is a brand-new studio and the 24 or so people at Typhoon can’t exactly compete in a competition of scope with the likes of big developers like Ubisoft, his ex-employer.
“I wanted to make a game that is harkening back to those games of yesteryear; something that has a unique, strong flavor and is very different and colorful and optimistic and funny and also very finishable,” he said. “So you can get to the end of it and say ‘That was absolutely fabulous but I’m done with it and I can move onto the next game.’ We’ll probably do some DLC. So hopefully you’ll come back and say, ‘I really liked it. I’d like a little bit more.’ Or we’ll do a sequel one day maybe. But it’s there to be finished. It’s not there for you to live with for years.”
Journey to the Savage Planet Preview | One planet, not 18 quintillion
The titular savage planet is one planet, after all. And while that implies a gigantic, unrestricted open world, it’s more of a “wide linear” planet that lets players traverse its strange depths at a somewhat controlled pace. This controlled pace still allows for freedom since Hutchinson explained that the main goal is still exploring for the sake of exploring and documenting the local flora and fauna. However, there is an overarching mission that revolves around a mysterious man-made tower. Its linearity has objectives that rely on crafting certain materials and gadgets, which gives the game a Metroidvania-esque style of progression.
For example, the E3 2019 demo pushed players to gather materials to craft a grappling hook, but its multiple paths and bunches of oddball wildlife made it easy to trek off the beaten path just to see what was around the next corner. Directives are somewhat vague too and don’t sprinkle a trail of golden breadcrumbs directly to your objective. You’ll see the marker on your compass but it’s up to you to figure out how to get there.
By giving players a grand goal of documenting wildlife and moment-to-moment goals of crafting new gear and upgrades, it seems that there might be just enough of a backbone to give the game some structure while having an open enough world to encourage players to wander and soak in their surroundings. Balancing freedom with linearity is difficult and Hutchinson said the team is still trying to figure out exactly how to nail it.
“We’re struggling with how to have enough content that people discover without being breadcrumbed too much,” he said. “Because if it is too breadcrumbed and it’s too linear, then it’s too boring, in my opinion. If it’s too open, then people just go, ‘Well, I don’t know what you want me to do’ and they just leave. So we’re trying to make sure people engage with the area scan and the pinging system. Like we put a marker far away on a point and you’re like, ‘How do I get there?’ And you have to make a plan but it’s up to you to figure it out.”
Journey to the Savage Planet Preview | An earnest comedy… in spaaaaace
Journey to the Savage Planet may sound like a typical survival game, but it’s got a bigger focus on comedy than most of its contemporaries. Hutchinson describes it as an “earnest comedy” and that mission statement touches and improves nearly every part of the game from the goofy live-action instructional videos to the in-game animal descriptions to the Windows 95 computer booting sequence. That earnestness that Hutchinson described is baked into the game at its core since you’re working for the fourth-best space exploration company and not everything is great, but everyone is having fun doing their best.
E.K.O., your AI companion, is the best example of this as it isn’t like other all-encompassing, non-human partners. Whereas artificial intelligence usually has everything under control, E.K.O. often feels like it is barely keeping up and often unsure of what it is telling you. It’s hilarious and a solid encapsulation of the game’s personality in a nutshell.
But its humor touches more than the game’s questionably intelligent virtual assistant. There’s a potential for slapstick comedy as its elements start interacting with each other. The fauna can be manipulated via a few different ways as your toolset expands and some of the beasts are dopey looking enough to sell it. It’s reminiscent of other open-world games on the market where events cascades as mechanics collide and create a type of comedy exclusive to the medium. Hutchinson explained how this happened during his time making Far Cry 4 and how this brand of humor was a target for the team.
“There is this video game comedy that is an untapped market which is a form of slapstick but also an intentional comedy where you’re telling the jokes to yourself,” he explained. “Like you’re performing an action, which causes a reaction which makes you or your co-op buddy laugh. And I think that’s key to a new type of humor so I was interested in the challenge. Like could the creatures make you laugh from the way you responded to your inputs?”
Journey to the Savage Planet Preview | The fourth-best tools of the trade
These inputs take form in the ever-expanding toolset the player crafts and finds. Your left hand holds a gadget while your right hand holds your standard space pistol. Both are readily available similar to Bioshock 2 and let you quickly find whatever armament you need, be it throwing gooey jump pads or animal bait. It’s not Doom, but there’s a fluidity to the controls that seemed to be built for what the game is: an exploration game with some light shooting elements. The movement was also pretty smooth and responsive, which benefits a game where you’ll be spending a lot of time wandering around.
Journey to the Savage Planet appeared to know what it is and presented itself with an admirable amount of confidence. It is aware that it isn’t the biggest game ever and that’s not only just fine, but a positive quality. This more linear structure looked like it gave the game the benefits of a more traditional upgrade path while also being open enough to allow for a healthy sense of discovery. Like Kindred Aerospace, the player’s employer, it’s not trying to beat or overpower its competition. But it’s got a lot of heart and that’s what makes it stick out.