May 20, 2024
Fancy being a cute little sugar glider in your own nature documentary? That's the promise of Away The Survival Series. But is it Planet Earth or Deadly 60? The Finger Guns review:

It’s rare enough that we get games where the setup is to legitimately play as an animal. Not an anthropomorphised bipedal animal in a human frame, shooting things. I mean a real animal, doing real animal stuff, moving around as a real animal would. Away The Survival Series is trying to fit that niche.

Framing itself as a David Attenborough nature documentary, AWAY puts you in the tiny paws of a Sugar Glider, trying to run, jump, glide and survive in a world that has long since ousted its human inhabitants. It’s a third-person action-adventure, but not as we know them.

AWAY The Survival Series, to give it its full title, is a nature documentary in game form. It’s short and sweet at around 4 hours for the story mode (and that’s if you die a lot like I did), and maybe an hour in Exploration mode. More on that in a moment.

Earth, many years from now – storms ravage the land and humans are long gone. Some creatures, however, were very resilient. Into the evolutionary breach have come small mammals and insects, inheriting our planet and surviving where we couldn’t. Enter the Sugar Glider, the subject of this week’s Planet Earth. What starts as a young joey’s first forays away from the nest, learning to jump and hunt for himself, takes a horrible turn when his father is swept away in a storm, and his mother is taken by a vulture. What story there is, is centred around following in the wake of this vulture, testing your newfound abilities, and hopefully being reunited with your family.

AWAY is narrated throughout, in a halfway to David Attenborough style. But is that a good thing? Within moments I was reminded of the irritating constant presence of the narrator in Biomutant (do animal games have to be narrated?). Mostly it’s benign, but sometimes it was downright annoying, and often pointless. It’s really only there for atmosphere and the odd directional clue. I don’t know if it was just me moving too fast, but the narrator also constantly cut himself off, or talked over himself. I got up to three sound bites all playing at once at one point. I am told this is being patched, but I have not seen any changes at time of writing.

As the title may alude to, Away The Survival Series is a survival game, and though it’s a very simple mechanic compared to some in the genre these days, you do have to maintain health and hunger levels throughout – mostly by eating mushrooms, or the odd insect you catch. Fight a spider and you can eat them to get a little screen-blurring acid-trip for your sugar glider. Do it ten times to get a trophy. I know I did. Neither hunger or health are tied to stamina, making them little more than ‘realistic’ annoyances.

Away The Survival Series both looks amazing, and really janky, all at once. Look at a still frame and everything seems to be in order, but it’s when it’s animated that this goes a little awry. The sugar glider’s walk, the way they don’t quite touch the ground, the way they walk through plants constantly rather than bend or brush them, the way their tails stick out rigidly instead of flowing and curling. The flora on display also looks very basic, circa PS3 era at best. It just never coalesces into something that’s actually nice to watch.

Considering it’s a game about sugar gliders, you’ll spend a lot of your time on the ground. When the game does decide to take to the air in scripted moments, either catching wind currents down a waterfall or hopping from tree to tree in frustrating stealth sections, it’s universally unwieldy to control. A simple jump and second press of the button will start your glide, but aiming sensitivity is high and it’s very easy to misalign your attempts, landing you on the ground, lunch for an alligator or wolf.

When you launch, the controls also launch you straight up from your position. That’s fine if you are upright on a branch. But it’s not fine when you are even slightly tilted on the branch, as will happen 90% of the time. You then launch at that angle and keep the same strange trajectory when you start to glide.

I would say, don’t even get me started on the camera, but this is a review so I have to go there. The camera pivots all over, unable to pick a spot and stick to it. It’s no help during climbing or gliding, constantly deciding to sweep back to a position that does nothing to help you aim, or sweep in far too close. It also rigidly moves back to its favoured bad position no matter how much you try to move it. It’s even worse in combat.

Animals don’t just forage and glide places. They try to eat each other a lot, and they fight and hunt. Combat is where Away not only isn’t very good, it’s downright broken.

Let me describe one particular fight, that highlights almost every issue at once, and left me battered and bruised, unsure if I could continue playing.

During a very early fight with a scorpion, almost the first combat you see, I counted a half dozen massive issues. The game advises you to press two different buttons to dodge, where actually only one is needed, provoking you into clicking them both alternately to perform the dodge move. The move you then perform barely works and must be combined with a counter to throw the scorpion back. Even when performed correctly it throws the camera and the sugar glider into a bullet-time frenzy and often into glitches.

It all got even worse when the scorpion caught me. His claws would grab the sugar glider like it was a taxidermy model of a sugar glider, stiff as a board, chuck it about a bit, and then back off for another pass. The animation here is just objectively horrible. More than once during this semi-scripted move, the scorpion performed an act I’ve only read about in Peter Pan – he split the sugar glider’s body from his shadow. This broke the combat completely, leaving taxidermy body waving in the air, and me, the player, controlling the sugar glider’s disembodied shadow, a circle of darkness on the ground. I could try to attack and dodge etc, while just a void of light, but all the actual physical realities were tied to the body waving around in the air.

A bad first impression, and then it all got better? Sorry, nope. What about the fights with the snakes that bar the way to certain caves? The scripted dodging, waiting for the snake to tire before attacking, and then going for it, only to have the camera dance and somersault, your moves not connect and the snake grab your taxidermy body and fling it away, again and again.

Combat in Away The Survival Series needs far more than just a patch. It is broken, and only the fact that the moments are few and far between allows you to continue playing.

I’m glad there’s a different mode called Exploration because it highlights that the story mode is completely scripted (I don’t mean the narrator) in that you do not explore anything. You just follow the blue glowing mushrooms from one platform to another, with less free will than your average lemming. There is a single right path, and deviating will bring you nothing but pain as you fall through gaps and put yourself twenty minutes further back in your journey.

The other mode though, well it has some interest to it. Exploration mode casts you as a disembodied spirit, a little mote of pixie dust, floating around the same level areas. Your job is to search out all the different animal species around and possess them. Say you do, for example come across a frog, you can possess the frog and move around as a frog for a bit, eat a few things, catch some butterflies. The controls and movement options are basically the same for all the 40 or so animals, except for the flight or gliding mechanic. Most animals don’t have the glide, but a bunch can fly, and working out the controls with no help from the narrator or hints in the game is an exercise in frustration. Mostly they work about as well as the gliding and combat in the main game.

Exploration mode is really just a simple as repurposed assets from the story mode, with a barely realised possession game, which almost isn’t a game. It’s just there pretending to give you added value for your money.

As if content, camera and control issues weren’t enough, there are glitches galore. You will get stuck on things, stuck in things, stuck flying through things. Assets won’t react as they are supposed to, objects, enemies, you name it. Becoming separated from my shadow was probably the most interesting, but the most useful was dying on some out-of-bounds thorn areas, and upon reloading, the game advancing your position as if you made the jumps you hadn’t.

If it weren’t for the insane cameraman, the constant glitches, the poor graphics and the utterly broken combat system, at best Away The Survival Series would be a passable nature documentary as a game. It tells a linear story with a little peril in it if you get attached to your sugar glider better than his own shadow, but it’s very basic and unlikely to convince many. All the other parts of the package drag an otherwise buoyant sugar glider down into a slimy pit.

A sugar glider nature documentary as a video game, AWAY The Survival Series is an interesting idea for an hour. At that point its otherwise buoyant glide is dragged down by erratic camera, game-breaking glitches, poorly implemented combat and awful gliding controls. This one is better left in the wild.

Away The Survival Series is available now on PS4, PS5 (review platform) and PC via Steam.

Developer: Breaking Walls
Publisher: Game Seer Ventures

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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