Video Gamers

Review: A Long Journey to an Uncertain End

This is a long drive for someone with nothing to think about

One of the things I respect about the medium of video games is its ability to tackle difficult situations in a way that other mediums can’t. Even when it comes to non-visual mediums like, say, the written word, we’re only spectators. A video game can make things about us. Some empathy is still required, but we can be the ones trapped in an uncomfortable situation.

Sometimes this is too much. When I played He Fucked the Girl Out of Me last year, it actually dug up memories of (unrelated to the subject matter) trauma that I had repressed. It was for the best, but it was also a lot.

But it doesn’t always have to be a lot, as A Long Journey to an Uncertain End proves. You can approach difficult subjects carefully and with a light heart without minimizing the seriousness of it. If you asked me before playing it how such a thing would be possible, I probably wouldn’t have an answer. And yet, here it is.

A Long Journey to an Uncertain End (PC)
Developer: Crispy Creative
Publisher: Crispy Creative, Mooncat Games, Fig Publishing Inc.
Released: June 28, 2023

In A Long Journey to an Uncertain End, you’re on the run from your abusive ex. Also, you’re a spaceship. Actually, you’re the AI pilot of a spaceship, but you’ve been “unshackled,” so you can feel the full spectrum of emotions. Your ex wasn’t treating you well, and after a particularly violent episode, you’re liberated by a crewmember and are off to, well, an uncertain end.

That may sound rather ridiculous, but the presentation is eerily realistic. Someone smashing the control panels of a vehicle may sound more like property damage, but I feel really gross for just writing that sentence. If that’s too outlandish to really latch onto, your ex-partner is also psychologically abusive. And boy howdy, that gets across very clearly without being blatantly said.

As you travel, you meet a colorful cast of new crewmembers to recruit. Their antics do a great job of helping you forget that someone wants to emotionally beat you into submission. The sci-fi elements do a decent job of taking the edge off, the characters make things fun and entertaining, but the whole abuse angle is still there and capable of biting at you whenever a cutscene comes up.

I guess the best way of putting it is that A Long Journey to an Uncertain End is very careful and compassionate about how it handles the subject matter.

Dice or die

The game itself is sort of a mash-up of a visual novel and a simple tabletop RPG. There’s no combat, but there are a whole lot of dice rolls. Essentially, you move from planet to planet with the primary task of keeping your ship supplied for the next jump. You do this using simple trades, or by having your crewmembers do side-jobs. Sometimes these side-jobs will net you additional crewmembers or advance the plot in some way. People you help may also assist you in the final part of each sector.

Each member of the crew has expertise in a certain area, like tech or seduction. Then it’s just a matter of odds. You can call in favors to increase these and…

Ugh. Okay, so the gameplay is where everything breaks down with A Long Journey to an Uncertain End. As much as I have admiration for its unique premise and deftness when it comes to telling a difficult story, the gameplay is easy to get through at best and mystifying at worst. And it’s frustrating, because I don’t know where to begin.

I guess the best place is with its biggest issue: There’s very little feedback here. It seems like A Long Journey to an Uncertain End is trying to be an extremely friendly game, but part of the way it does this is by withholding punishment. If you run out of supplies on a jump to a new planet, for example, I’m not sure what the result is. Does this upset your crew members? I’m not sure. Can you fail a job entirely or just not complete it well? Why does calling in a favor sometimes wipe out all the crew mood increase that I get from a job and replace it with something else? What am I missing here? Why won’t you tell me!?

I don’t like these odds

It’s not as though I had a difficult time getting through 2-3 hours of A Long Journey to an Uncertain End. Largely, the only credible threat I could find was a clock that ticked down to when your ex catches up to you. That’s not nothing, but it’s pretty easy to just make sure you just take off before they get too close.

But midway through, I noticed I was packing bags of favors that I could call in. You typically use these to simply increase the odds of success for jobs. Since I had dozens of these things by the mid-point of the game, I was suddenly able to just scatter my crew across the jobs on a planet, then whiff it through all the decisions. Once at the end of a job, I could just pile on the favors and walk away with the reward. I’m pretty sure that’s not how the game is supposed to be played.

It’s almost prototypical. The framework of the gameplay was laid down, and all the writing was dropped on top of it, but nothing was done to tweak or polish it into an enjoyable experience. It’s not a completely non-functional wreck, but you can see what it was aiming for, and it falls way short.

A sloshing bucket

It’s a shame, because the characters are fun and the story is reasonably well-written. I feel that the actual sci-fi elements are a little trite, but its integration of difficult themes makes it a success. The characters are a splash of LGBTQ+ color, to the point where the spaceship is filled to bursting with gender fluid. Their preferred pronouns don’t necessarily play much into the narrative, but their identities help each feel distinct.

A Long Journey to an Uncertain End is just such a well-intentioned game that it’s a shame that it’s so limp where it counts. You rarely see its sensitive approach to difficult topics in video games. Yet, when it’s time to engage with it as a player, it falls into a heap on the floor. The cast of characters and narrative themes help elevate it above simply being average, but it’s hard to get over the nauseating sting of disappointment when you discover that A Long Journey to an Uncertain End isn’t quite where it could or should be.

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