An apocalyptic event known as The Shift has rendered mankind virtually extinct and the animals are taking over–or something cheerful like that. On your travels you'll occasionally come across decaying remnants of man's existence, but the scenery is mostly just a tangle of jungle, deadly brambles, water and cliffs–there are some spectacular views.
Away: The Survival Series sees you starting your new post-Shift life as a Sugar Glider, a tiny (they'll fit in the palm of your hand) extremely agile marsupial. The game controls as you'd expect; movement on the left stick, camera control or 'look' on the right.
In a Bambi-esque playable intro, your father is blown away in a storm and you have to learn the sugar glider ropes by following your mother and baby sister who's riding around on mama's back. The entire tale is narrated beautifully and has excellent music, making the game feel a bit like you're watching a nature documentary.
The 'X' button is jump, you hold Square to eat things (watch out for poisonous stuff), mash Square to dash, tap Circle to attack enemies. L2 is aim and can be combined with X to perform a precision jump to a narrow ledge or branch, or a jump attack, at which point hopefully you can eat your catch by pressing Square (successful jump attacks are a bit random, so you usually end up scrapping with the enemy by tapping Circle.) When you jump with 'X' from a high place you can then hold 'X' to glide.
When you get hungry, clicking the right stick turns your 'instinct' on, which looks a bit like thermal vision and highlights both food sources (flora or fauna) and predators. Eating either edible plants or creatures you killed will replenish both your stamina and your health–but don't eat poisonous spiders!
Although the world is large and confusing for a tiny Sugar Glider, at first at least it's hard to get completely lost (even at night) because of the fluorescent mushrooms that guide your way, and there's also a handy map accessible via the PS4's touch pad. Unfortunately this doesn't last for long and the correct path becomes less and less clear until you end up dying repeatedly just trying different routes or approaches to obstacles or predators. You always need to try and spot those telltale shiny mushrooms, even though they may be so distant as to be barely visible, or even hidden around a corner, they will always lead you in the right direction.
The story mode has several virtually identical 'boss' battles that require you roll left or right to dodge, then time your attack, then rinse & repeat. If I called these "unimaginative" it would be extreme flattery. There are also some Crash Bandicoot-style out-of-the-screen chase sequences and other QTE (Quick Time Event) sequences that are exciting and fun and add a welcome change of pace, but there aren't enough of them.
Unfortunately, what on the surface appears to be a pretty wildlife-based survival game soon becomes a struggle for survival, not just because of the many predators that want to have you for lunch, but also because of occasional laggy button responses and some terrible clipping as creatures (including your mother!) disappear into the scenery or vanish altogether for no apparent reason. Verbal instructions and button prompts also often appear too late to help and get you killed! Even the relaxed narrator gets cut off when you die sometimes, and even as your sugar glider exits a level, which doesn't exactly add to the game either. The initial impression of A:TSS being a highly polished game disappears, and it makes the game feel a bit sloppy.
Another pet hate of mine is the ridiculously small fonts that some games use, and A:TSS has one on the load/save game screen, which shows its PC origins, and a lack of care when porting it to console. If developers want to use fonts this small, then maybe they could include a telescope with the review code? To give you some idea, when playing A:TSS I was usually sitting 5ft or less from a 42" screen and struggled to read what it said!
The game has quite a few dark, dingy areas where the trail of fluorescent mushrooms becomes sparse, and at times you won't have a clue where to go. Now let me say, there's nothing wrong with making you explore to complete an area but when you're as small and vulnerable as a Sugar Glider and even water and thorny bushes can kill you, then it becomes a precarious, life-threatening business.
It's yet another one of those games that I'm not sure who it's aimed at. I thought it'd be good for one of our reviewers who play along with their kids, but it's scarier than any survival horror I've played this year! It has some nasty deaths in store for our tiny marsupial too; chomped by crocodiles, snakes bite you and coil around you to crush you... wolves, bobcats, giant spiders and rats, you name it and it'll have you as a snack...
But wait, there's good news! The Exploration mode means you can go on a much less fraught expedition and take control of just about any creature you discover by possessing them by aiming at them with L2 and pressing Triangle (although I did find some spiders that wouldn't be 'possessed'). You start as a glowing ball and you can hunt and explore the entire map to unlock more creatures. You'll be able to find the following;
Ant, Beetle, Butterfly, Cicada, Cockroach, Crab, Dragonfly, Fire Salamander, Frog, Grasshopper, Stag Beetle, Lizard, Praying Mantis, Rat, Spider, Sawyer Beetle, Scorpion, and the slowest of the lot, the Snail. There are creatures in the world that I didn't see on my playthrough and rare versions of many of them too. We also found collectible creature cards that mean you can spawn as that creature, as well as other secrets and 'Easter Eggs' to discover. This side of the game allows you to enjoy the scenery without being in constant peril and could literally last you weeks or months if you wanted to explore everywhere and discover everything and get all the related trophies.
Away isn't a bad game, especially if you consider it was a Kickstarter project and the fate of so many of those, but it lacks the polish to be considered a really good one too. Its Jekyll & Hyde nature also left me confused, the story mode isn't easy to complete, will take you 5-7 hours depending on your stamina for the subject matter, and could be rather distressing to the young or sensitive, yet.. the exploration mode is a really chilled out, fun experience that's more likely to draw gamers back to the game.
When all is said and done, and if this is indeed to be a series, I'd quite like to see a second episode, but hopefully with tighter controls and less graphical glitches.