The roguelike genre has exploded in popularity in recent years with titles like Rogue Legacy acting as a shining example of what games in that style can be. One of the great things about Rogue Legacy is that you can tackle its four bosses in any order, allowing for enormous amounts of freedom. Away: Journey to the Unexpected is a game that takes a healthy amount of inspiration from its roguelike peers, but strips away the freedom of choice, leaving only an illusion that the choices in your runs truly matter.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected combines the presentation of a JRPG with the randomly-generated elements of roguelikes to create an initially gripping combination. You assume the role of a young boy staying with his grandparents while his parents are away working their super secret job. Before you’re even able to get out of bed you find a construction company has begun digging into your house’s basement. This sets you on a small-scale yet grand adventure, taking you to forests, deserts, tropical islands, and the Arctic.
Away does a superb job of making what starts as a very minor adventure feel like a monumental task. Much of that stems from the main character, who is the antithesis of your typical video game hero. Your character is meek and not at all equipped for battling monsters; you start with a paltry three hearts of health and have a single stick you can swing as a weapon. As you step out of your house and into the outside world, you’ll be facing enemies that take one or two hits to kill. However, you’re incredibly weak and timing your stick swings takes a while to get the hang of, meaning you’ll be fearing even the cutest of enemies in the beginning.
Most enemies you encounter will be found in randomised dungeons. No two dungeons are ever the same, making the relatively frequent deaths less of a chore, particularly when you’re still getting the hang of things. Inside these dungeons, you’ll be searching for a lever you need to pull to open up the boss dungeon in the area. Strangely, only two of the worlds you travel to actually feature dungeons. In the ice and tropical beach levels, the levers you need to pull are merely on the overworld. We found we enjoyed the dungeons far more, and that pulling levers placed around the overworld was far too simple in comparison.
Dungeons can get pretty tricky at times, particularly the much longer boss dungeons. The aforementioned bosses also have dozens of hit points, making them tougher to bring down. Luckily, your character has a special ability to recruit other people, robots, and animals to his party. Scattered around the world and in item shops are Friendship Cubes that give you a slot to recruit someone. You can recruit up to three characters, each of which has a unique ability, and this variety allows for distinct load-outs and strategy. Our personal strategy involved using the character who can one-shot kill all non-boss monsters combined with a character who would drop health pickups. To keep this from making the game too easy, characters have energy meters that are depleted upon using their ability. Once it reaches zero you can no longer use them, and if you’re not careful you could be forced to fight a boss armed only with your stick.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected might be sounding like a hit at the moment, but unfortunately it’s not without its serious flaws, and the majority of the positives are given to you within the first hour and a bit of playing.
The biggest issue is the game slows to a crawl after its frenetic opening pace. We reached the final area of the game in about two hours but found ourselves presented with an annoying roadblock. You are forced to recruit every single character in the game in order to proceed. Now, this shouldn’t be too much of a pain considering there are only eight characters, but the way you recruit them is the major problem.
To recruit someone you must first talk to them while having an open friendship slot. You’re given dialogue options during this conversation and are tasked with picking the correct lines that will lead to them joining you. However, the correct paths are often so obtuse and can feel almost random at times. This wouldn’t be too bad on its own, but if you fail to recruit them on the first attempt you have to wait until you die to try and nab them again. This turns the end game into a boring cycle of tracking characters down, engaging in conversation, picking the wrong option, killing your character, and starting all over.
Boss battles are a problem too. There are two different bosses in the game for the boss dungeons. However, the boss you face is random, meaning the first time we ran through them we faced the exact same spider boss twice. Only when we had to backtrack did we get to take on the other one.
Finally, Away features a level up system that is applied to your character when you die. Something like this is par for the course in roguelikes, but it works so awkwardly here. Most of the level up rewards allow you to fast travel to different areas, but the experience required for these means you end up unlocking them well after you started needing them.
Away: Journey to the Unexpected begins as a fun and lighthearted romp with a few very unique wrinkles to its gameplay. Unfortunately, this quickly unravels and is severely hampered by poor design choices that sour what was first an enjoyable experience. These unexpected issues in the second half of the game are such a slog, and when you’re presented with a final boss battle that falls flatter than Maroon 5’s halftime show, it makes you wish you had stayed away from the game in the first place.