One of the first games to appear as independent support for the Switch, Away: Journey to the Unexpected has always been a title of nebulous nature. Though visually striking, Away claims to be a “Feel-Good FPS,” a title that mixes adventure and rogue-lite features, which means it doesn’t really fit into one genre. Sure, rogue-lite mechanics mean that Away could be considered a role-playing game and there are plenty of FPS RPGs in existence. But attempting to categorize Away becomes more and more difficult as you focus more on its individual parts. The main problem with Away is that its parts are individual, and while some of them are genuinely novel, they don’t blend all that well. So, let’s take an unexpected journey and see what makes this game so unique.
I’ve broken from the usual format in order to approach Away from what is by far its strongest suit- the visuals. The game seeks to emulate its opening sequence with a distinct graphic style, using cartoonish textures in its landscapes, and a nostalgic two-dimensional NPC facing system. Essentially, you’ll never see another character’s back, as they automatically track to your location. This means their delightful illustrations and bopping animations are always running. Playing Away feels like stepping into a cartoon, especially since its character designs are so endearing. You’ll meet talking trees, mutated construction workers, defense robots, and an angelic popsicle stick on your way throughout the game, and each one of them looks as ludicrous as they sound. From the moment you meet your grandparents and doofy little dog, to the cute crayon drawing right outside your room that depicts your name, Away truly does look the part of its “feel-good” description, one that is enhanced by its very laid-back gameplay loop.
The game features a variety of locales that (oddly enough) rarely offer anything outside of the unexpected. You have your forest, desert, island, arctic, factory, moon castle… you know, the usual stuff. While the Switch handheld screen depicts these effectively, the transition to a television screen might stumble a bit – I had to adjust my image settings in order to see what was going on in the space castle, which has tons of dark corners, as well as to make sense of the sea of red that was the desert biome. However, most of the elements in the game are easy enough to identify in order to react to or navigate around – the pools of multicolored goop all over the place help punctuate the landscapes, as well. The music is nothing spectacular, setting the mood of certain areas well and transitioning in when necessary. There’s a pair of particularly nice vocal pieces book-ending the experience, but most of the music exists to settle the player into the environment and lighten – or intensify – the mood when the situation calls for it. I can’t give a shout out to any of the tracks in specific, but both dungeon themes are very good.
Away’s writing and narrative are truly something to behold. The main objective of the game is to get to the bottom of things…by having friends. Yes, the plot kind of just happens, but it helps that you, the player character, are a very inquisitive person. For the most part, you’ll have two or three dialogue options to select from as you talk to various NPCs in order to either gain their trust or figure out what the heck is going on. There are definitely some logical leaps to be made, but the story leans heavily on absurdity and most of what transpires will be… yeah, it’s unexpected. The dialogue is silly enough that the player character’s own choices between “acknowledging the stupidity” and “embracing the stupidity” feel very justified, but you’ll need to follow a specific path yourself if you want to reach the game’s ending.
Halfway through my experience with Away, I came to this conclusion: it is a rogue-lite 3D collect-a-thon with dialogue-influencing gameplay and a first-person combat system.
First, the rogue-lite element: you’ll start the game with six health points, a stick, and little to no experience with how enemies move and how to succeed at negotiations, so you will die. Each time the player falls, they are sent back to the start of the game, though they carry over all progress previously made, and any enemies they defeated will grant them experience points, which can be used to level up. These level up prizes can either be new combat options, exploration benefits, or health upgrades.
The collect-a-thon element is as follows: Most of your time will be spent running around the game’s environments, looking for treasure chests that contain one of three different resources: hearts, which replenish your health, currency, which helps you buy things at the in-game stores, or fireworks, which are the player character’s projectile option in-combat. There’s plenty of open space to explore, but once you’ve combed an area, you’ll figure out where its treasure chests and currency spawn, as well as each level’s friend cube, the item that allows the player to talk to NPCs.
I’d like to say the negotiation system or even the combat are the main focus of Away, but that’s simply not the case. Considering there’s a whopping eight characters to negotiate with in order to obtain as party members spread out across six potential progression paths, you’ll only do so much talking. Even then, the characters with dialogue have very set prompts, so you’ll likely follow one dialogue tree and get to the success or fail state. Sometimes the game will give you a bit of wiggle room, but usually, it is a matter of scoring the correct answer immediately, or failing and returning when you restart the whole experience. Oddly enough, each level’s single friend cube allows the player the chance to talk to only one of its two NPCs, so at most, the player will have to return to each area four to six times, with the latter number only occurring in one of the first two zones, which feature three NPCs. You can buy two additional friend cubes from the in-game shop, but they are by far the most expensive item.
Combat is fun, but also a very mixed bag. The player can swing their stick and throw fireworks, which are a limited resource. As is sometimes the case with first-person combat, your melee range is a very finicky thing. Although there is a reticle that will alert the player when an enemy is in range, it is far too small in order to accurately keep track of, especially when being swarmed by enemies. Often, the best method of melee combat is literally poking at enemies by continuously dodging in and out of their range. The alternatives are fireworks, or party members.
Away is at its best when the player has multiple party members to choose from, as each character (save for the Labiworker) has unique combat options. The living tree puts out a clump of spores that hurt characters who run through them, the old man casts fireballs, the old friend can summon hearts to heal the player character – there’s a lot of really neat ideas here, and with a bit more enemy variety, the combat system could truly shine. As a spirit cat in-game mentions, party members have a combined attack and health bar, which depletes with every attack dished out and taken. This means they can serve both as an alternative means of attack as well as a shield. Players need to manage the energy levels of their party delicately, as they can become exhausted and unusable, but this can be easily circumvented by the single-use hamburger sold by the shop, which replenishes the energy of the entire party.
Combat plays out in subsections of each of the levels, with the first two levels possessing caves that are randomly selected from a set of environmental layouts. These can vary in length, but take no longer than five to ten minutes to complete. The later levels have set level geometry, but their enemies are a bit trickier. Players must complete these segments in order to flip switches and open up the path to the main dungeons, which are lengthier affairs with no shop available and a boss fight. While longer than the other segments and much more varied in layout, there isn’t much to them outside of their enemy groupings – both possess environmental hazards, but they can be easily avoided just by walking around them in safer parts of the level geometry.
Impressions and Conclusion
Because of the progression systems in the game, Away’s pacing and conclusion approach rapidly. Although the opening hours of the game are spent coming to grips with all of its systems, I fell into a predictable rhythm soon enough. Another aspect of the game that hearkens back to collect-a-thons is how each successfully negotiated party member helps unlock new paths – at the start, the player can only begin in the forest level, but upon gaining partners there, they can access the desert level. Likewise, players can then only progress to the arctic level after defeating the first boss, but will eventually open up the beach level. This is where the branching paths end, however, as both the beach and arctic lead to the moon castle and to the final boss. In addition, after reaching a certain threshold, players will be able to quick travel directly to the beach or arctic, bypassing the first two levels and dungeon entirely. While this does expedite the process of unlocking more party members, the player locks out the potential to recruit the earlier party members, as well, which is unfortunate.
The most baffling choice, however, is that through character progression, the player is actually locked out of combat. Upon reaching certain levels, the gates to the first dungeon are permanently opened, which the game also interprets as their switches having been accessed, thus closing the cave entrances to them. While you can still engage in combat with the enemies in the beach and arctic areas, it feels a bit disappointing to have an entire avenue of combat shut out, especially when the levels themselves are mostly lifeless. It is true that you’ll spend plenty of time running around them looking for resources, but that’s all there is to do in these large zones. It’s disappointing, because the level geometry here is very open and varied in ways that the sometimes claustrophobic dungeons are unable to offer, so having these areas just exist as a means of gaining resources feels like wasted potential.
If the negotiation aspect were perhaps a bit more nuanced, then returning to these levels might not feel like such a waste. There is only one party member who requires an alternative method of unlocking – the robot whose weapon always scores critical hits – but every other character is just locked behind dialogue trees. I began to tip the store owner, who hinted that something good might come of the result and I interpreted as a potential recruitment, but she just expanded her store shelf. I thought having a certain party member with me would help recruit his superior, but nothing came of it. Likewise, only one of the doors that unlocks inside the starting house seems to have positive benefits, with a little quest line between two spiders resulting in… absolutely nothing, and the spirit cat giving hints that seem painfully obvious. After combing over the entirety of the game, I feel as though I might have missed something, but I can’t imagine what it might be.
But Away isn’t without challenge or difficulty. Depending on the path the player takes through its worlds, the bosses they face can either be very difficult, or slightly less so. Attempting to use only melee attacks in boss battles is a suicidal venture, as they will easily soak up hits and never recoil. There is a strange karma system that exists, as well, which can shut you off from being able to recruit friends and boosts the damage and health points of all enemies. You can even reset your progress and attempt to get as far as you can on a single life with lower health and fewer options, despite being unable to complete the game in full this way. The thing is, you need to go out of your way to impose these limitations on yourself, as the game very rarely rewards you for attempting to do so.
I don’t know if I can recommend Away unless I say this, so here it is: If you find rogue-lites to be too unforgiving or are looking for a beginner rogue-lite for your child, Away is a suitable choice. It allows the player a great deal of freedom, but one they realize how broken the robot with the missile launcher is, the illusion of difficulty is wiped clean. The narrative is bizarre and certainly unexpected, with the final… “boss…” being unlike anything the game has yet to offer, but players might feel cheated by the lack of options present. It’s a game that has so many good ideas individually, but fails to put them together to form a cohesive and substantial challenge. If you’re not really looking for challenge, though, and you love the game’s aesthetics as much as I do, you might be able to find something to love here. While I love the way this game looks, I cannot say the same about the way it plays, and that’s an unexpected disappointment.