The Tomorrow Children is something of a departure from Q-Games' vibrant, punchy, arcadey PixelJunk titles. This is a game far grander in scope, darker in tone, and more varied in gameplay than anything from the Japanese studio's previous gen efforts. It also explores new territory, treading the lines between genres and feeling genuinely fresh in the process. However, it's still somewhat an enigma: what exactly is it, and what are you supposed to be doing in its cold, sinister world?

We'll do our best to put it simply: The Tomorrow Children is an online, collaborative multiplayer game in which your main goals are to build towns, manage their resources, and increase the human population. Most human life has been lost in a Russian-science-experiment-gone-wrong scenario, and their collective consciousness has manifested itself as the Void – the deadly, pristine nothingness that gives the game such a distinct look and feel. You play as a projection clone, a light-based, doll-faced being capable of braving the quicksand-like surface in order to restore order to the world. Oh, and there's also the perpetual threat of giant monsters wreaking destruction on your town.

Things aren't quite as doom and gloom as all that sounds, however. If anything, the game comes across as a bit creepy, partly thanks to the wood-carved characters with their stiff movements and middle distance stares. Once you get past the slightly sinister opening, things lighten up as you get to grips with your new duties in whichever town you spawn into.

The problem is, it can take a little while to get to a point where you fully understand all the systems at play in The Tomorrow Children. The tutorial gives you the basics, and key aspects are introduced over the course of your first couple of hours, but there are certain elements that are largely left for you to figure out. For example, it teaches you about the Ministry of Labour, a building in each town where your work is tallied up and coupons are doled out accordingly, but it doesn't overtly explain how you upgrade the town hall, necessary to expand the amount of houses players can put down.

Let's rewind a bit. Your basic gameplay loop consists of gathering resources, like wood or coal, from the bizarre islands that emerge from the Void every so often, then ferrying them back via the hover-bus, and depositing them in their corresponding zones. This is what feeds the growth of the town. With enough resources, you can craft new buildings, defences, decorations, lighting, etc to expand and improve your home. All this would be for nought, however, if you fail to seek out and collect matryoshka dolls hidden within the aforementioned islands. These, when placed on a pad at the rescue apparatus, will restore a human, and the ultimate goal for each town is to reach a certain population, so they're pretty important. There are also other tasks you can partake in, such as running on a conveyor belt to generate electricity, or defending the town by shooting down any encroaching monsters.

It can take a while to get past the fact that, individually, you're not going to make a huge difference, and at face value, none of the basic tasks are fun in the traditional sense. However, once you do, and you find the joy in cooperating with other players for the good of the town – it works better than we expected. It's fascinating to think that a group of players, who are invisible to each other 90 per cent of the time, is able to pull together just enough to keep a town running. There's something delightful in seeing some players mining and throwing down gold from high up in an island, and others running the items to the bus stop, ad verbatim. And you know full well that, back in town, there are even more players that will take those transported goods and put them where they belong.

Compounding this dynamic is the simple fact that the more you work, the more money you get, which translates to better tools and equipment, and so it goes on. If you want even better tools, you have access to the black market, where they sell the best items, including powers that help you traverse the Void and its islands more effectively. Microtransactions allow you to purchase the special currency needed for this area, but we were never short of cash. You also level up as you play, earning points to apply to various stats such as dexterity or strength. All these layers tie together rather well once you learn the ropes – especially if you find a group of players all working together effectively.

Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any real differences between towns beyond their layout, and so the appeal of travelling to Town B once you're done with Town A will depend entirely on how much you enjoy that core loop. The Tomorrow Children is essentially in early access right now, though, so it may be that by the time the free-to-play version is out, we will see more diversity, but we're not holding our breath.

Conclusion

The Tomorrow Children is an extraordinary, mystifying game with a fantastic core concept of working together for a common goal. While there's a steep learning curve, and the fundamental gameplay is not all that fun, we'd be lying if we said that we weren't engrossed in our duties, and there's just enough depth to keep you absorbed for a while. We imagine that the game will change a lot over time, and as it'll become free-to-play at some point in the future, this is definitely worth a try if you're looking for something different.