Developer Underflow Studios has put together an interesting text based game. The Away Team feels like a novel and reads like something that you’d find on the sci-fi rack at your local book store. The Away Team is an interesting experiment in gameplay, so find out what we thought about it below.
You play as the Artificial Intelligence of a spaceship with the last remnants of humanity on board. As the habitability of earth declined, humanity sent out many ships far and wide to try and find a new home. None were heard from again, and you are the last ship sent. Your mission is simple, find a fully habitable planet or (better yet) find a planet already inhabited by humans who left earth. The resources on your ship are limited, so you will need to stop off at planets, choose who on your crew will go on away missions, and make some hard calls to make sure that the last of humanity survives.
The story is very much like a choose your own adventure novel, and offers players something around 8-10 hours of narrative driven gameplay.
The gameplay in The Away Team consists of two parts, and the first is navigation. The player is in control of the spaceship in each new solar system you visit. You can freely move around and choose which planets to visit. When you are done with that particular solar system, you navigate your way over to the edge of the system where you can jump to the next one. Your two considerations are fuel and food, and moving consumes both. When you run out of either resource, you enter into an event where you have a few options, converting one resource into another, scanning the surrounding area, or killing a crew member and converting their bio mass into the needed resource. Considering that you are the AI steward of what are quite possibly the last humans, killing them is obviously a last resort. The problem is that if you run out of either fuel or food, your journey is over.
The second part of gameplay is the away missions. These are essentially a ‘choose your own adventure’ section where you are given a chunk of text and a few options. When you select a planet you choose who will go down for the away mission out of your remaining crew members and, depending on the traits of your crew members, you will end up with different choices on each planet. While you are on an away mission many, many different things can happen. You end up finding some really cool stuff and as a result find fuel, food, danger and mystery. On these missions you have a very real chance of losing away team members, so it’s always a gamble.
On the away missions there is some strategy when choosing who to send down to the planet. Don’t make the mistake I did and assume that military minded personnel are the best choice for away missions, it will not end well. Keep Star Trek in mind while you are playing, so send down a proper medic and engineer to fiddle with things. Fiddling is important.
Performance & Graphics
One very good thing about The Away Team is that virtually any computer can run it. The Devs say that pretty much any computer made in the past 10 years should be up to the task, and there is a lot to say about that. If computer power is not a barrier to entry, it means that more people can enjoy games, such as those who aren’t usual computer gamers. This is especially important for games like The Away Team that are not your typical mainstream experience. A text based adventure is more like reading a novel, and this is something that a non-gamer can get into even if they have an out-of-date computer.
The problem is that there is simply not enough of a visual element in The Away Team. When you start the game, you get to select your little pixel art crew, direct your ship around a charming interstellar map, and visit really interesting looking planets. But, as soon as you initiate the ‘story mode’, the graphical interface stops and it is all replaced with text. The charming pixel art is under utilized and that’s a shame!
The audio track during the solar system navigation is very synthpop and has a great beat. But there’s one big problem; the audio tracks do not continue into the text based portions of the game. Much like the graphical deficiencies discussed above, I felt like we needed an audio track playing in the background that transformed into something more exciting at specific points. It really would have been great to hear more of the indie-themed synthpop tracks.
I fully understand that The Away Team is a text based adventure game, and that it’s essentially a choose your own adventure book in a digital format, but I always found myself wishing that I could see more of the story that was unfolding in front of me. If the Devs would have added in a background picture for each planet, or maybe some artwork for special events (like when you are attacked by robots, find an alien, etc) it would have raised the bar and made this a stellar experience. The story is interesting, pretty well written, and different enough to keep me interested for a time, but reading blocks of text on screen without much in the way of a visual distraction is tiring.
That being said, I was not expecting this to be The Witcher 3. I was expecting a novel, and it delivered in a big way. I am a huge fan of games that straddle boundaries and push what we consider to be a ‘video game’. The Away Team might not be perfect, and it might need some more visual pop, but this is a unique experience. I am truly looking forward to the next effort by Underflow Studios, because they are onto something that, with a little bit of refinement, could well make for a game with mass market appeal.
Images © Underflow Studios