Exo One is a new atmospheric exploration game in which you control an alien craft in a strange mission guided by abstract messages and images towards an undetermined ending. If you are like me and enjoy a relaxing, albeit linear experience, then you may have a good time flying alongside the Exo One from planet to planet. I found it to be a similar experience to the game Journey, as they both have that similar sense of moving forward towards an unknown destination and purpose but enjoying every minute of it.
The apparent scarcity of good titles that you can just spend time on because the playing experience is rewarding enough, rather than to achieve an objective or milestone, may be playing a part on my perception of Exo One. And while I do mainly enjoy story-driven titles and even the mind-numbing multiplayer experiences, it is relaxing to be able to turn all that off and just submerge myself on a game that can be beautifully daunting without putting the adventure of exploration aside. Exo One is published by Future Friends Games and developed by Exbleative.
Exo One is available on Steam for $16.99 USD and Xbox Series X/S and One.
Story – Missing the Mark
To say that Exo One’s story is abstract would be an understatement. The reality is that the story turns into a mere excuse to frame the experience of the real focal point of the game, which is, first, the gameplay and second, the ambience. But this doesn’t mean that there is no story at all, but rather that what can be said about the story is likely to be as abstract and seemingly random as the actual story is.
You are controlling this strange alien craft through a variety of planets, and while travelling you get glimpses of images of astronauts or ships, and hear muffled, unintelligible dialogue that you can luckily read on the subtitle, that offers, to a certain extent, the foundation of what is going on and provides a sense of direction while doing so.
The implication is that since you are the ship, you can’t possibly understand the human language as words, hence the muffling of the dialogue. But you can still somehow gather the meaning of what is being said, and that’s the subtitle text. You will hear at least one reporter asking questions to a scientist and other incorporeal characters about the ship, which serves to provide some background as to what you are and what you are doing. It is immediately obvious that you are searching for something, or someone.
Gameplay – Carrying the Game
It is on gameplay where Exo One really excels, with a physics-based traveling adventure. Your objective is to traverse the planet or asteroid you are currently on and reach a blue light in the horizon that marks the way, you can do this by spinning on ball form or gliding on disc form, provided you are able to get yourself off the ground. This is accomplished by taking advantage of the terrain and your ability to alter your gravity, from moon-like gravity to nine times the gravity of earth.
Increasing your gravity lets you increase your speed as long as you’re falling or traveling down a hill or elevation, and releasing the gravity at the right time is what will allow you to take off and glide momentarily.
The amount of time you can glide is limited, and quite short at first, allowing you to only gain a small distance at a time at first. You are able to increase your power and thus your gliding time if you collect the mysterious power-ups you can find scattered on the worlds, marked by a white beam of light that is both smaller and less noticeable than the objective, which is the blue beam. If you are looking for the power-up, you will have to pay attention to your surroundings to find the white beam first, and then figure out how to reach it, which isn’t always a straight-forward process. Grabbing these power-ups is optional, and you can still finish each level without them.
What is marked at the distance with the blue beam is an interplanetary cannon that, upon contact, will launch you through space to the next stage, typically a different planet. Then the process repeats itself: you can find the power-up if you want and then move to the cannon or go straight for the cannon, with the only difference being the terrain itself. Each planet bring its own challenges in the form of different terrain, landscapes, vegetation (or lack thereof) and weather. Adaptability is the name of the game, and you’ll have to use different techniques within your limited range of motion and powers to make it through.
The game gives out a vibe of open-world exploration and free-roam, which is misleading. If you try to roll endlessly in any direction other than the obvious goal while on the main planets, you will eventually hit an invisible wall, announcing itself in the form of a glitching screen, so there is no real free-roaming except technically on the smaller asteroids, on which you can move across through the entire surface without issue. On the stretches of space where you have to glide for an extended period of time, you can’t really fall from the floating stance, and the air in the planet will always launch you back up, so there is no real risk of dying or having to restart from getting stuck.
Exo One‘s gameplay offers good replayability, but the sections that show the story will likely get in the way if you are just in the mood to be absorbed by the ambience and not care about anything. The game would benefit from an option to skip the story sections and also a free-roam game mode. If anything the main issue with Exo One’s gameplay is that it’s just too short.
Graphics and Audio – Fitting Like a Glove
While playing Exo One, the first thing that becomes obvious is just how attractive and beautiful (even when dreadful) the planets and scenery can be. You would naturally assume that barren planets would be bland and boring, but Exbleative really manages to get you genuinely impressed and at awe when you finally elevate yourself above ground and just look at the horizon, the miles upon miles of terrain and ambient light opening up to you, and far, far in the distance the blue beam that you are moving towards, enticing and calling you.
The planets with other types of terrain do not fall short either, the blue water planets with their eerie deep oceans are a sight to behold and can even be a bit terrifying. And the red lava planets with their terrifyingly magnificent steam geysers are fun to navigate.
This very well-made effect that Exbleative manages would not be possible without the exceedingly great audio. I am not only referring to the music. The sound effects of the craft rolling through different surfaces, and the sound suddenly stopping when you take off from the ground really help cement the feeling of being mostly weightless. Add to this the sound effects of gliding, falling, breaking the sound barrier, and plunging yourself below water, it all becomes a symphony of sounds (and silences) that kick in at the right time and to provide the right feeling.
The music is scarce, specially if you take your time to explore the levels. This is because the music itself mostly serves to indicate that you are moving in the right direction or that you have reached a certain milestone in any given world. Slow and profound electric guitar notes will accompany you here and there, and the music choice not only helps the feeling of lonesomeness, but it also manages to be adequate, being a sci-fi setting and all.
The combination of graphics/audio and gameplay that can be found in Exo One has been masterfully crafted, to the point where even the silence plays an important role in what you are doing and where you’re going, adding to the journey experience without falling short and without eclipsing it, which is in itself an extremely thin line to walk.
Exo One was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Future Friends Games.