Roguelite games always tend to have a rather serious edge to them. After all, who would want to replay the same stuff over and over again, learning from their deaths every time, other than the most hardened gamers? That's why it's a nice breath of fresh air to see that Away: Journey to the Unexpected is a roguelite with a colourful exterior and an art style reminiscent of anime like Dragon Ball Z.
If it wasn't already far away from the staples of the genre, the game is also about a little boy in search of his parents with nothing but a stick to defend himself with. You awaken one day to find that some mischievous soul has dug a tunnel into your grandparents' basement, where you live during your parents' absence for work, and it's up to you to find out what's going on.
It's not too much of a spoiler to say what's going on relates to some weird substance that has started corrupting everything in its path, and that, in turn, has something to do with aliens. It's a very outlandish plot suitable for the make-believe world of a child, and the story notes are few and far between, mostly comprising of short bits of dialogue and notebook entries as you fill in the blanks and explore the world.
One might think with this description that Away sounds like a linear game rather than a roguelite, and you'd be right. The game balances the two aspects very well because, while there are set levels, you need to work to earn stars so you can unlock more, which can only be done by replaying the existing ones until you defeat them.
Each time you die (or get knocked out, or whatever) you earn XP which then gives you upgrades like more hearts. In each level, there is a requirement of stuff to do before you can progress, like search three dungeons for three switches to raise the door to the final boss dungeon, but with these upgrades, you can also negate these elements and speed up your process each time rather than just making yourself more powerful.
So each time you die, it's back through the grandparents' basement and into the corresponding doorway you've unlocked, replaying all of the content. However, one of the pitfalls with this roguelite format of Away is that there's a lot of backtracking (which sounds obvious but hear us out). The beauty of a similar game like Rogue Legacy is that as soon as you upgrade you're back into the fun stuff which is the combat, the meat of the experience, but with Away you often have to do this tedious box-ticking of going to places, getting your friends on your team etc. It's more like busywork before you get back into the dungeons to fight once more and it certainly becomes a slog.
Friends are a core part of the experience, so you'll always need to go and collect them. After all, it's not just the protagonist child that you have at your disposal, but with friendship cubes you can unlock more dialogue options to talk to characters such as a crazed tree and get them on side, meaning you're able to use them for a limited time. These additional characters offer new attacks and abilities which will help you in your run, alongside other items such as fireworks.
On top of that there's even a vendor who sells you items (only one is in stock at a time; don't want to make it too easy) like food for health, fireworks, and friendship cubes. By using all of these in one run you can survive a whole lot longer than usual, and by collecting XP and coins you'll find yourself getting further and further each time, as is the case with any good roguelite.
While you can use fireworks and friend abilities to deal damage most of the time you'll be using melee attacks afforded to you by your trusty stick, and this is the area that lets the game down most. All of the enemies are 2D models in the 3D world, which is fine in something like Danganronpa where they just serve as characters to talk to, but this makes it very hard to gauge how close you have to be to hit them. Countless times we swung too far away to make contact or got too close and took damage, meaning there's this constant shuffle as you swing while trying to hit that sweet spot.
That said, while this style does prove a bit of a logistical challenge, it is lovely to behold as you explore the colourful world. It's simple but far from ugly, and these character models are befitting of the fantasy world we keep stepping into. It's just a shame they're all in two dimensions only because that makes things a hell of a lot tougher.
In our brief time with Away, since the game is with us less than five hours overall, there's a lot of variety and a lot to take in, especially when it comes to the visuals. It's not perfect and the combat's a little clunky, but it's an easily digestible roguelite with some extra elements sprinkled in that you'll struggle to find elsewhere. After all, where else can you play as a murderous living tree that applies a sepia filter to the entire game?
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