It’s lonely here. Bleak, even. Occasionally, a silky, melancholic soundscape will keep you company, but mostly it’s just you, your peculiar spacecraft, and the sound of the air as it whizzes past your ears.
Though, at times, it looks very much like the kind of UFO pulp fiction has taught us about (if the image of an aerodynamic disc that zips speedily and silently across the sky just popped into your head, that’s exactly what I mean) you might be surprised to learn that your ship is unable to retain this iconic shape for long; the momentum you build will rapidly deplete once you’re in the air. Its default form, then, is a spherical mass, a solid ball that bumps and rolls across the terrain, building momentum across the peaks and valleys of the landscape until you can launch yourself back up into the air and glide once more.
Developer Exbleative says Exo One is a gravity-defying game about interplanetary exploration, and while I concur with the latter, I’m not so convinced of the former. In a game with no enemies or combat, I nonetheless found myself fighting gravity a lot, tussling with the terrain below to maximise my cruising speed and glide duration and rarely feeling like I ever get it right.
Most of what you’ll learn about getting about will be picked up on the fly – literally – and the controls are simple enough: you can roll, glide, and dive. You can also maximise the gravitation pull, improving, theoretically at least, the height and speed of your projection. A sudden dive can help prolong your glide, too, but even after picking up several of the game’s power-up collectibles, I could never maintain my glide for as long as I’d have liked. Yes, there are levels where you get a little help with this – iridescent blue particles support you on one planet, whilst in another, you can infinitely skim across the waves like a proverbial pebble. Most of the time, though, your energy – which burns white-hot in the centre of your spacecraft until it inevitably splutters into darkness – will disappear, reverting you to the highly un-aerodynamic form of a stone marble.
And at first, it all feels very zen. You slide and glide and race and dive to the sound of plucky electric guitars and woodwind instruments, using the gentle contours of the landscape below to maximise the height and distance you can travel. Exo One makes little demands of you; there’s no way to fail or die, exactly (and if you do lose your way, you can reset to the start of that planet again), and progress is made when you locate, and climb, the “transport monolith” located in every level. You’re not explicitly told this, of course – Exo One explicitly tells you very little, actually – but the “giant light in the sky” is a bit of a giveaway.
A couple of hours in, though, I found my interplanetary trip was more dull than zen. While Exo One definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome, every planet you reach is just that little bit more difficult to traverse, requiring you to make use of tree trunks and wind currents to get about and reach the monolith. There were also several occasions where I was fighting the camera, too, particularly later in the game when you need to approach openings and currents a little more precisely than before.
I’m not, by nature, the kind of person who enjoys the scenic route. I take journeys because I’m trying to get somewhere, and never in my life have I ever felt the desire to go for a “lovely” walk. I suspect this is why games like Exo One – and yes, even Journey (I know that’s blasphemous, but the lack of signposting and, well, purpose, frustrated me, I’m afraid) – don’t exhilarate me like they do others. And though it’s impossible not to appreciate Exo One’s smooth music and the sound of air whistling past your ears as the speckles of moisture hit your screen, I found myself ever more impatient to locate the next monolith so I could move onto the next planet and get out of there, too.
The worlds are gloriously diverse, though, so you’ll be soaring over sandy dunes and leafy forests and bubbling lava and rough seas and dark, alien pyramids, manipulating the land below you to help keep you airborne for as long as possible. Which is just as well, really, as the world looks best from up high; get too close – which is inevitable given you often have to plummet to the ground to build up yet more momentum – and you may notice that the textures of those stunning expanses look less impressive on closer inspection.
But as you transition from planet to planet, you’ll be treated to brief vignettes that help explain what the hell has happened up until this point. A framed photo on the wall. The sound of voices far, far away. Of everything, that’s what kept me playing until the end. The desire to know how we’d ended up here, in this strange ship that has – as one incorporeal voice told us – “nothing in the design for a cockpit, no internal space for a pilot”.
Of everything, that’s what intrigued me most; if there’s no space for a pilot then who – or what – is flying this thing? Who, exactly, are we?
There is space (pun oh-so-definitely intended) for exploration, and I’ve no doubt that if you stray off the path and hunt beyond the transport monolith there are secrets to be found, but for me, manoeuvring the ship – particularly in later levels – wasn’t challenging as much as it was simply frustrating. Throw in the lack of action and agency, and, beyond its curious story and novel concept, there just isn’t enough to do in Exo One to convince me to make a return trip.