We don’t often know what caused the apocalypse, but it’s obvious that happens. The skeletal remains of a dead civilization dot the landscape. Half-buried by the swirling sands that stampede around the globe swallowing oceans, these ruins mournfully watch survivors scavenge for resources in their shadows. Freak storms flashing across the sky: their rain spiked with acid.
It’s bleak. So bleak.
The reason why it all ended up like this is rarely relevant. It’s the stories of those who remain we have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for. Fascinating examinations of what it means to be human. The good, the bad, the frequently ugly. After all these years and all this media, you know the apocalypse well. We’re sure.
Which is why FAR: Lone Sails by developer Okomotive makes such an impact. Out now on PC and heading to Xbox One and PS4 in the future, FAR: Lone Sails is unlike anything we’ve played before. This unique take on the apocalypse is, in its barest form, a sidescrolling platformer. But such labels criminally undersell it.
This is a game that carefully wraps you around its finger and tugs at your heart in bizarre ways, despite the lack of context and dialogue.
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Don’t expect much preamble. It clearly time for our little hero to move on; that’s all you need to know. A small, near-shapeless bright red in a landscape drained of nearly all its colour, our hero has spent their post-apocalyptic time closeted away from the wasteland building a road train. A vehicle capable of carrying them from here to there.
Like something out of Mad Max, via Machinarium, this heaving beast is a fascinating piece of engineering. As soon as you lay eyes on it you’re intrigued and it quickly becomes evident that your first task is to work out how to get it moving.
It’s not much of a brain bender: your natural curiosity will lead you in the right direction. You need to collect rubbish from the world and place it into the train’s furnace to create the fuel needed to move forward. As this fuel burns, steam builds up, which you must release rhythmically to keep your engine from exploding.
With this simple gameplay mechanic mastered, you bust out the doors of your ramshackle home and begin motoring across the landscape towards… well, towards whatever lies at the other side.
It’s not safe out there. The harsh reality of the apocalypse beats at the side of your new, mobile home relentlessly, right from the off. Inside it’s cosy and warm, and as you’re forced to venture outside to collect more bits to burn or equipment to hang throughout the vehicle, the connection you form with your vehicle grows. It becomes a love affair.
Customising Your Ride
In the belly of the beast you may feel safe, but it’s far from capable of making the long journey across the sands when you begin. Things must have gotten desperate for you to risk all and leave.
At first you’ll fear running out of fuel and having to leg-it across open expanses in search of more. And as you push through the landscape, you will frequently come up against impassable structures. These require you to leave the safety of your mobile home and platform, then puzzle, to a solution.
The barricades in @FARtheGame were designed to prevent Lone from entering certain areas without her vehicle. Also they can apply damage to the vehicle or even start fires sometimes. #FarLoneSails #indiedevhour #indiedev #gamedev #madewithunity pic.twitter.com/woEsqjOGcR
— Okomotive (@okomotive) May 23, 2018
There’s no timer or immediate threat to these moments, leaving you free to relax, explore, and think. But the solutions to each puzzle always open up the game to more surprises and possibilities. This includes upgrades to your vehicle. Before long your four-story ride is packed with various gadgets, mechanisms, and buttons that each act to help you push on against the odds.
While there are some thrills to be found here in much the same way a Metroidvania game unravels itself alongside ability upgrades, it’s not what makes FAR: Lone Sails sing its merry tune. Instead it’s the way they all combine to meet your single goal: to keep moving.
Before long you’re rhythmically dashing about the vehicle, loading fuel into the furnace, pushing the button that drives you forward, releasing steam at the perfect time to get a little nitro boost on a steep hill, and repeating. Then you begin getting mechanical failures or fires. You’ll have to hose down the flames or weld a part. Maybe the wind might turn favourable, allowing you to hoist a sail to try and conserve fuel.
It’s all terribly mundane work, but it’s balanced so well and with such simple and concise controls, that it’s addictive. There’s an instant proof-of-work system here where the analogue nature of every action produces a measurable result. It feels good to keep moving, even though you don’t know where you’re going.
A Stunning Piece of Art
The final and most vital piece to FAR: Lone Sails’ puzzle is its world design. It’s a truly beautiful game, both aurally and visually. In smaller spaces there is such intricate detail in the backdrop, that when you find yourself trundling through vast, barren landscapes, the contrast is just as impactful.
Watching the ruins of civilization come into view and then drift behind you creates an intense sense of isolation and sadness. At night, when the stars come out and darkness grips the play space, it manages to evoke a sense of fear and loss. Especially when electrical storms then ravage your only safe zone: your vehicle.
Special mention has to go to the audio, which does a tonne of the leg work in keeping the game’s pace and emotional resonance on point. The sound of rain hitting the steel body of your vessel is harsh and lonely. The hard, metal-on-metal clunk of your vehicle soldiering through the wasteland feels raw and desperate. Even the subtle change in the wind volume as you step in and out of the vehicle is just right.
Add the sparse, but perfect score that drifts in and out and it all comes together into something that can only be called, “art.”
Vitally, it’s this attention to detail and love in the design that makes you care about pushing on. With no story and no destination driving you forward, it’s the cathartic nature of keeping your vehicle running and the “what’s up ahead” mystery generated by the world design that plays the role of antagonist.
What are you doing here after all? Are you trying to find an end to the apocalypse? Or do you just have to keep moving? Either way, Okomotive’s subtle yet sublime take on post-apocalyptic adventuring is an experience you won’t forget.