Hand Drawn Roots
As game graphics become more and more advanced, we’re seeing a growing trend in games attempting to differentiate themselves in ways other than having the most realistic high resolution graphics possible. We’ve seen a rise in retro-style pixel art, amazing works experimenting with the use of color or black & white, and even games that take all their graphics from Victorian era artwork.
Original Journey from Bonfire Entertainment is a PC game that flaunts its hand-drawn pencil artwork as a major selling point. In this 2D shooter, you’re tasked with exploring semi-random islands to vanquish alien monsters, collecting ingredients for more powerful weapons and armor so you can explore deeper into enemy territory and hopefully find a means of saving your people.
The biggest selling point is the hand-drawn graphics, and I will have to give them that: They do look hand drawn. Unfortunately, it is a kind of hand drawn that is quite frankly unsuitable for a game of this type. All the sprites in the game are very “busy”, with extra folds, slides, plates, and ornamentation to make everything more complicated than it needs to be.
This is only made worse by the compact environments. The home base is the only area with screen scrolling, everywhere the action happens takes place on a single screen with a large quantity of enemies and traps on screen. Enemies, allies, and decorative parts of the environment are often all pressed up against each other, and this is before even getting into levels that have enemies floating in the background, turning finding your target against the decoration into a game of Where’s Waldo.
Lastly is the choice in color. Everything, except for some green and red UI elements, is completely monochrome in tan and black. While likely to help the “penciled into a sketchbook” look of the game, this only serves to further remove definable silhouettes from the sprites.
If this were a turn-based game, this wouldn’t be a problem. You could sit back, enjoy the art style, and issue your commands. But this is an action shooter, where one needs to constantly keep track of things that won’t always be right next to each other. You need your peripheral vision for a game like this, and a lack of silhouette makes it difficult to use that.
As mentioned earlier, your early goal is to acquire better equipment to survive going deeper and deeper into the planet. After each island you have a choice to go back to base and keep your spoils, and dying will send you back to base while leaving your loot where you died with one chance to retrieve it. All in all, a fairly typical death punishment, but as the quantity and quality of loot dropped increases as you go further, you’re encouraged to go as deep as you can before going back to town, but the biggest obstacle here isn’t the enemies: It’s your ammunition.
Ammunition for your weapons is limited, and the only way to replenish it is to get the occasional drop from enemies or be lucky enough to find a replacement weapon at a supply depot. Easy enough, but in addition to ammo being scarce to drop until you upgrade your luck stat, the game itself encourages you to spray and pray rather than take precise, ammo conserving shots. Your aim is constantly swaying up and down without any indication. Only a few weapons are an exception, with most having other issues such as low range or being destroyed by enemy fire.
At many times, it feels like you’re fighting the system and design choices rather than the enemies. There are plenty of other minor choices that make things more frustrating than they ought to: Not being able to see even a clue as to what new weapons/armor do until spending ingredients on them, the shop only having a very small selection of randomly chosen items in small quantities at exorbitant prices, and especially having no reliable way to hit things lower than you combined with enemies that hang out below the lowest piece of land. All of these little things combine to make the game feel more like a source of frustration than a satisfying challenge to overcome.
Room to Grow
At the end of the day, Original Journey takes a solid concept of a shooter with a unique art style that sends you through progressively harder gauntlets with the gamble to proceed or head back to the start and bank your earnings, and mars it with a number of poor design decisions. Thankfully this is a game in the online age, and even the review copy I played was drastically improved over the course of my review (An early patch drastically improved drop rates so it no longer took hours for the earliest upgrades).
Perhaps it will be improved down the road, but for the time being I cannot recommend it.
~Final Score: 3/10~
Review copy provided by Another Indie for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.