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Phoning Home 25th of February 2017

I’ve never seen Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E. So, I’m going to judge ION LANDS’ Phoning Home on its own merit, even if all the Robots have eyes like Wall-E, and likewise, I don’t think there’s anything about E.T. in here except the title. Phoning Home is a story driven survival and exploration game which is a great bent to put on a saturated genre, normally this kind of thing has a story that goes as far as “Don’t die.” I guess this ultimately is the same thing, but with a bit more meat on its bones.

The star of the show is ION, a wee robot that looks a bit like a claptrap from Borderlands but with Wall-E’s eyes, who spends the majority of the game wandering around some pretty nice looking environments, collecting materials and escorting another diminutive robot named ANI – this one looks a bit like BB-8 from The Force Awakens but with Wall-E’s eyes on the top. With a small cast of other characters contributing further dialogue, I can’t help but mention that the writing is cute, quirky and nicely performed by the voice actors. There’s also some surprisingly dark turns which tend to come as a shock when they do happen.
Probably the most interesting thing I found about Phoning Home is that is has a good grasp of survival elements but it’s also semi-linear. It’s bread-crumbed wonderfully, despite having such vast areas to navigate, no map and only minimal objective marking on your compass, I very rarely found that my objective was confusing, ION LANDS’ game does a great job of giving you direction without handholding. Unfortunately, the areas where this isn’t the case feel schizophrenic and made me feel like I’d perhaps abused the games’ flexibility to glitch myself to a solution that wasn’t intended. I know for a fact I did this at least once when I was supposed to pick up a resource to open a hole to drop through but as I was already full up on that particular resource, I couldn’t pick it up.

Unfortunately, for all of the charm and pleasantry of spending time with ANI and exploring an interesting and open (but somehow well structured) landscape, ANI really can bring down your mood. Without spoiling too much, ANI’s presence is effectively a timer to reach the end of the game, this timer will tick down during periods where ANI isn’t with you (though they are rare) and while you can slow the timer it requires collecting of resources and in some lengthy areas of the game there simply will not be any of some of the resources required to slow this timer down.
Because of this, resource management is the absolute number one problem with this game, after that the rest are minor issues. If it’s not ANI’s built in timer it’s your own resources, sprinting, shooting, teleporting, sneaking, soft falling from great heights and picking up ANI (who cannot jump herself) all require the same resource that does not regenerate at all and at many times the materials required to regenerate it will be so scarce that any sensible person might feel annoyed at not being able to sprint, and having to fight with a weak melee weapon as there’s a need to conserve energy for important teleports, or for helping ANI get around, this gets really awful if you waste energy because the teleporter gun somehow misses a target and then works the second attempt, or if you’ve sprinted round in circles trying to figure out where you should be going.

It’s totally maddening at times how often you have to just stop and craft consumables when you do have the materials, what’s even more maddening is the overabundance of some materials and lack of others to the point where you will never, ever run out of some of them or even hope to use them, you can only hold so many of each material at a time too, so you can’t realistically stockpile while you have abundance. Despite this being so frustrating in places, it is very much doable, and there is a wonderful sense of relief to entering a new area and finding the materials you needed so desperately right there in front of you. It’s very much up to you if this sounds like your cup of tea. To me it feels a tad artificially tense and it’s even more annoying if you enter the new area and still feel short on the materials you need.
I think “It’s very much up to you if this sounds like your cup of tea” is the best thing I can say about Phoning Home in all honesty. It’s pretty to look at, it’s cute, it has charm and it’s mostly well-constructed. Then again, it’s also bloody annoying in places, but it must be said that regardless of this, I don’t grudge the time that I spent with it. It’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, that’s for sure, but it might just be worth a look to find out if it’s yours.
Paddy Maxson
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