One look at AWAY: Journey to the Unexpected’s visuals and I knew that I had to play it. Long before I even knew what type of game it was, it drew me in with an art style that somehow straddles the line between first-person dungeon crawler and 2D anime. Quite literally, too. The whole of AWAY takes place in fully 3D environments that are populated by flat, hand-drawn characters, enemies and NPCs alike. It’s a truly striking way to present a game and, despite the 3D stuff being quite basic, makes me question why I haven’t (personally) seen this done in a modern indie game before. It also helps that the 2D art oozes charm and even extends to a dope anime intro with surprisingly high production values. I have a feeling that AWAY is going to sell a lot units based on looks alone.
So, dear reader, let’s posit that you’ve succumbed as I have to the charms of this little indie joint, what exactly can you expect to be doing in it? Hitting things with a stick, to begin with. Actually, to end with as well, but I’ll come back to that. Your character, an (intentionally?) androgynous anime type with no predetermined name, awakes at home to find their parents missing and a shoddy construction company burrowing into the ground beneath their home and accidentally unleashing hordes of monsters. That all happens in the space of one text block, by the way, the story here is as loose as a newly-divorced aunt at a 21st birthday, which is fine. Once that’s out of the way it takes all of a minute or two to procure a stick with which to beat things and head out into the greater world.
Grandson, you’re aliv- uh…awake!
Said world is separated into themed and visually distinct zones, each with their own unique NPC characters to meet as well as dungeons to conquer in order to progress. Though there are four zones in total to adventure in, a full run of the game only requires besting two. That’s because Journey to the Unexpected happens to take its gameplay inspiration from the ‘roguelike’ genre, in which falling in battle at any point sends you packing back to the beginning of the game, albeit with experience and items gained previously. The crucial thing is though, while most other roguelike games are punishing affairs that push players to repeat their mistakes over and over until they either get better or are at least better prepared to push through, AWAY is fairly toothless. Enemies are predictable and easy to dispose of, and the whole thing can be run through in less than 45 minutes. In fact, I made it to the end of the game on my very first play, only to be turned away at the finishing line because I hadn’t died enough to collect the necessary number of stars. Boo.
Those stars are found by taking advantage of AWAY’s most interesting feature — its playable NPCs. Just about everyone you meet out in the world can join your party, up to four at a time, by talking to them while in possession of ‘friendship cubes’ found or bought in each zone. Once in the party, they can be switch to and controlled at will, each with their own unique power (and visual filter!) and an energy bar that stands in for the main character’s health, making them good fodder for getting through tricky dungeons. Recruiting the motley cast of elderly people, mutant construction workers, sentient popsicles and killer robots requires careful negotiation through dialogue choices; say the wrong thing and you lose your shot to buddy up. While a neat wrinkle, this particular mechanic frustrated me more than anything because not only did I have to purposefully restart my adventure multiple times after reaching the end on my own to find these guys and earn their trust (and those pesky stars), but failing any of them meant restarting yet again for another shot. Not once in the game did I die because a monster bested me in combat, but not once was it my choice either, rather I regularly found myself with no option but to off myself in order to take every mandatory alternate path before being allowed to complete the game.
Crab…stick. Crabstick. That’s a joke, right? Yeah.
It might sound like I’m being overly negative about AWAY: Journey to the Unexpected, but in truth I quite enjoyed it. I didn’t mind the simple gameplay or lack of challenge, in fact it does a really great job of feeling like a cute, abridged version of a bigger game and I think that’s awesome. It looks the part too, as I made clear back in the opening to this review. It’s just disappointing that the developers were seemingly so hung up on players judging the game for being too abridged that they decided forcing people to see absolutely everything on offer was the smarter move. That or their game just isn’t as hard as they think it is. Either way, it’s still a neat little game that could easily fill an afternoon for someone who wants a break from all of the excess of the AAA sphere. The end is a tad disappointing though, taking an awesome twist on the usual end boss encounter and making it lame by half-arsing it.
AWAY: Journey to the Unexpected feels a little like the first (well, maybe second) draft of a fantastic idea. There are some genuinely exciting concepts at play, but it’s almost as if it’s undone simply by settling for adequacy. It might not be more than a parody or abridged version of bigger and better games, but it could have been. The end result is a fun time-waster that I still feel confident in recommending to those drawn to it, and that’s as far as it goes. It’s fun, it’s accessible, it’s adorable and quirky, but it could be better and it deserves to be better.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher