When one thinks of roguelites and procedurally generated games, there's a certain connotation that comes with it - challenging experiences with dark and dungeony atmospheres, usually. Well, Away: Journey to the Unexpected lives up to its name, as it has these elements but it couldn't be more colourful and cutesy if it tried, hitting us right in the face with bombastic anime tropes and weird and wonderful characters right from the title screen.
We've been playing a preview build on PC ahead of its launch on PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One in February, and having gotten a taste of what it's all about, we very much enjoyed how it combined the randomised with the handmade. What we mean by this is that there's a story that's been crafted for you to experience, that sees you go to the basement of your family home to enter a world full of monsters, but then randomised elements are added in the form of dungeons.
From what we've seen of the story it seems very sweet, as you investigate why some animals have turned into monsters, which all revolves around a corrupting liquid and a big evil corporation. All the story notes are jotted down in your character's notebook (he's a kid, not a hero or a warrior, as the descriptions make clear) and it's adorable to see the notes on the strange events that are going on.
If that wasn't cute enough, this is also a tale about friendship, and by collecting magical cubes and initiating appropriate conversation options, you can get allies to help you out. These add to your party, and by switching between them on the fly you get new abilities, like a tree friend who plants mines in the form of dangerous seeds. This is so much more than just a new ability, as this first friend you get also changes the viewpoint of the game as well, bathing everything in a sepia tone.
Combat is pretty much just you swinging a stick (that you get from your family dog) at enemies, which is easier said than done. All bad guys do damage when in close contact with you, so you really have a narrow window to attack them where they're close enough for you to hit them but far enough where you're not hurt yourself. Then come the enemies that can shoot projectiles, carry bombs, not to mention the larger baddies later on and the bosses that you fight. It's all a lot harder than the facade would indicate, although you're helped a little by your new friends and extra items like fireworks. There's even a shop to visit to get items like a burger for health and another friendship cube, and you'll need to carefully consider this, because if you die you're sent right back to the beginning again (unless you've unlocked shortcuts - it's a roguelite, remember).
What makes hitting enemies all the more difficult is that the whole game has 2D characters in a 3D first-person world, kind of like Danganronpa except the characters move and are animated. It's a unique style that Away wears proudly, and while it makes things a bit tougher it's definitely a joy to look at. If the style as a whole is unique though, the environments play on classic themes like dungeons, forests, ice, deserts, and so on, with areas that you unlock as you progress through the game.
We touched upon the anime tropes right from the beginning, and that doesn't just apply to the characters and cinematics. The music from Kazuhiko Naruse is perhaps the most intense part of the whole game, as it's just as crazy and over-the-top as you'd expect from something like Dragon Ball Z, with wild guitars helping add weight to the action as you swing your stick at any and all adversaries.
We only saw a few worlds in Away: Journey to the Unexpected, but what we've seen is already packed with personality and flavour, while at the same time there's an engaging challenge lying just underneath the cute exterior of friendship and childhood. We're looking forward to seeing what other 2D bad guys await in two months time, and what friends we can make with our cubes, because right now we've got a taste for this colourful universe.