Gaming has never been a medium that’s shied away from taking shots at capitalism, and when you consider the ludicrous size of the video game industry today, that shouldn’t be surprising. An interesting trend that’s existed in this subgenre of anti-corporation video game stories, however, is that many of them tend to be set in outer space. There’s something about being stuck on the other side of the universe, alone with your thoughts for hours at a time, that marries itself beautifully to the gradual realisation that maybe galactic megaconglomorates *don’t* have your best interests at heart. What a funny coincidence it is that the creators of these games have discovered a parallel between existing in this daily late stage capitalist hellworld and the existential dread that comes with confronting the horrific inescapable void of the eternal black vacuum!
Games that fall into this bracket include The Outer Worlds, Tacoma and Void Bastards, among others. All these games share clear similarities, but they go about their business in wildly different ways when considering tone and execution. Tacoma is a “walking simulator” type game where you piece together events spanning days before a major disaster puts the staff aboard a space station in peril. That game takes a very realistic approach, focusing on delivering dialogue and characters that are convincing, and ideally interchangable from actual humans. The characters need to feel like real people for the killer ending to land as strongly as it does (no spoilers here, just play Tacoma please it’s really good). Void Bastards takes a different approach, choosing to utilise survival mechanics to elicit the feeling of being stuck in a shitty, low-paying job, except you’re a scavenger in space. You’re forced to worry about maintaining food supplies, making sure your health isn’t too low, and whether or not you have enough fuel to progress. It’s all in service of making the player feel desperate and disposable, quite literally so in the case of the latter since dying simply means you take control of a new employee. It tells its story through its mechanics and the game is worth a shot if it sounds interesting to you.
The Outer Worlds, likely the most well known of these three, takes a more comedic approach, but remains decidedly honest in its delivery. The comedy in TOW comes less from character quips and fart noises, but rather simply from the absurdity of the situation you find yourself in. This is late-late-late stage capitalism and the lengths these companies go to protect their bottom line surpasses the insane. One side quest talks about a character who kills himself, and the person within the closest proximity to him at the time of death is fined on his behalf for “damaging company property”, as every citizen is legally owned by this corporation. It’s absolutely ridiculous, which makes it funny, but that doesn’t mean you forget that a man was made so miserable that he shot himself. The characters in TOW are layered and distinct and each of them have been fucked over by the corporations at some point. The game has an exceptionally dark sense of humour, but it works because that attitude causes the world to feel unfair to the player. You might be laughing along the whole time, but the game does a good job of always making the joke at the expense of the awful people in charge, rather than those who are trapped under their boots. I mention all of this because Journey to the Savage Planet takes a different approach entirely. All throughout the game’s seven-hour runtime, I kept being reminded of all these games, and it made me think about the best way to go about commenting on capitalism in video games. Put plainly, who did it best? That’s a matter of opinion, I suppose, but I think this game took a pretty unique and effective crack at it.
Journey to the Savage Planet, unlike those listed before, commits to being an out-and-out comedy game, almost entirely ditching any semblance of seriousness concerning its tone. It’s essentially a cartoon come to life, exaggerating its features as far as can be considered reasonable. The beginning of the game allows you to pick from a number of profile pictures to decide which character you want to be. Obviously, I elected to ignore all the human options and went straight for the border collie, and this turned out to be my signature on the bottom of a contract which decided every little sound that came out of my character’s mouth from then on would be a variety of dog sounds. My protagonist was whining, barking and grunting all the way to the end credits and it continued to be funny the whole way through. The ridiculous lengths the game goes to present my character in such overwhelming discomfort and misery was consistently hilarious, which is the main aim, but it’s so over-the-top that I looped back around to feeling sorry for them and being angry at the corporation that sent them here in the first place for putting my beautiful doggy friend through so much strife.
The main character’s grunting and groaning voice acting acts as something of a microchasm of what I really enjoyed about Journey to the Savage Planet‘s approach to critiquing capitalism as it pertains to its tone. This is also evident with your AI companion named EKO, who exists to provide another voice in order to break up the game so you don’t get too bored wandering around in absolute silence. Wherever you are and whatever you do, EKO is intent on firing a missile barrage of sarcastic quips into your ears. Unfortunately, a lot of these don’t really land as individual jokes, but they all share the same dismissive tone, designed to make you feel like the tiniest, least important cog in the machine possible and on that level, it works.
However, aside from these two examples that achieve this intention rather well, there’s very little else in the way of gameplay mechanics that elicits this same reaction. For the most part, your time in Journey to the Savage Planet will be spent exploring, scanning the world around you, and shooting some nasty critters. There’s a variety of creatures you’re forced to become familiar with, and each of them are memorably designed, both visually and mechanically, and unique from one another. Much of the momentum of this game is propelled by the anticipation of discovering something weird or wonderful around the next corner.
The exploration aspect of Savage Planet can be a lot of fun when it works. Scaling a mountain with your newly crafted grappling hook to reveal a huge mysterious structure guarded by strange alien statues is a magical experience. However, the game begins to fall apart slightly when it starts piling on a tsunami of tedious fetch quests, most of which were left unfinished by the time I was done with the game. Some of these missions ask that you retrieve rare materials that you can use to craft new equipment, and those are okay since there’s a tangible reward at the end of it. What’s less okay is the quests which demand you find 100 orange goo blobs or retrieve fuel for your ship or scan everything that could possibly be scanned in the world. These missions exist more so as an incentive to explore the area as much as possible which is perfectly fine, but perhaps the game could have done with a map detailing areas which you haven’t explored (a la Jedi: Fallen Order or Doom 2016) so I didn’t spend quite as much of my playtime rubbing my face against walls in search of obscured pathways. I suppose part of the fun is finding these areas yourself though so ultimately it’s a matter of taste.
The slightly worse version of this is the science experiments, which seem to exist as a way of allowing players to roleplay the exceptional tedium of conducting scientific investigations. These missions end up being an excuse to prolong the playtime. They aren’t essential by any means, but you do need to complete them to unlock equipment upgrades, so if you’re struggling with some of the enemies or boss fights and want a damage upgrade on your pistol, have fun backtracking through old areas collecting creature samples with absolutely no challenge attached. I understand the point of these quests – they exist to provide additional content for those who are looking for it – but personally all it did was clutter up my quest log. Thankfully, I never needed those upgrades and managed just fine; a clear side effect of my pro gamer skills.
This seems like a good time to bring up the combat: it’s fun! The enemies are varied enough to make every encounter unique, and the bosses were hilarious to look at, as well as being exciting to take down. The combination of equipment and resources at your disposal, like the grappling hook or the jetpack, lend a surprising amount of depth and flexibility to combat scenarios. Some enemies are weak to acid, others are weak to explosives, and sometimes the best strategy is shooting the fuck out of the bad guy until they stop moving. You have a fair amount of options, and while it’s obviously not the most complex or exciting combat system in the history of video gamedom, it serves its purpose perfectly given the kind of game Savage Planet is trying to be.
I mentioned earlier that the anti-capitalist message the game is clearly positing doesn’t really come through as far as gameplay goes. However, that doesn’t mean the game is without substance or fails to make a point. What starts out as a ‘lol capitalism amirite’ story slowly blossoms into this progressively sombre atmosphere, where you begin to question the ethics of landing on a foreign planet and murdering its inhabitants. The game ends on a strange note that leaves you feeling a bit empty. You get the sense that by working for this corporation, you may have only left the universe in a worse state than how you found it. It’s a feeling that hits with a bigger punch than usual, since the overtly comedic tone masked it wonderfully. It speaks to the lengths corporations will go to continuing profiting, almost always at the expense of the underpaid individuals responsible for their advances succeeding in the first place. The ending manages to reiterate the point the game was making from the very beginning: you are an insignificant speck of dust on the mantelpiece of your superiors.
Despite the downer tone I’ve managed to establish in this review, I still think Journey to the Savage Planet is a very enjoyable time. It’s an experience greater than the sum of its parts, not really great at anything in particular, but good in all the right ways to make for a satisfying full package. I do think you’ll get your money’s worth here. I’m glad I gave this a shot, because it’s given me hope for how the rest of the year might pan out. Fingers crossed it only gets better from here!