“The following is a guest review by The Timely Mage.”
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan
No Man’s Sky is one of those special games that captured the imagination of the industry and beyond because of the technology and the possibilities that it opened up. This unfortunately led to some uncontrollable hype by many players which continued to grow due to its prolonged incubation. However, I want to make it clear that my approach to this review will not include anything outside of the game and I’ll try to be as objective as possible.
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” – Albert Einstein
What is No Man’s Sky?
People have been asking this question since the first day it was revealed and still struggle to wrap their arms around it years later despite constant and consistent explanations given by the creator. In short, No Man’s Sky is a survival exploration game.
Like most games within this genre you’re given a limited (but expandable) inventory, tools to aid in your survival, and a vastly diverse universe to explore. The objective and appeal of this type of game is the drive to go from a lowly vagrant to the master of your realm using only your ingenuity and determination.
One of the invaluable tools you’ll use to accomplish this is appropriately called the Multi-Tool which is a gun-shaped device used to mine resources as well as defend yourself from hostiles. The tool can be further customized to scan the environment for points of interest, launch grenades, and change its combat style.
You’ll also be given your very own starship which you’ll use to traverse the galaxy, store resources, and combat hostile spacecraft. You can upgrade your starship to focus on either of these functions through crafting as well as swap it for a new ship for greater capacity.
What do I do in No Man’s Sky?
At the beginning of the game you’ll find yourself struggling to gain your footing as you learn the mechanics and how to make do with your limited capabilities. As you continue to mine resources, expand your inventory, and maintain your ship you’ll find yourself becoming more competent and efficient which leads to greater freedom.
To encourage this evolution you’ll find new challenges as you wander further into the galaxy which forces you to adapt. Once you pass the threshold where you’re no longer scouring every planet for resources and deciding what to throw out of your inventory to make room for more stuff, you’ll find that your focus shifts from tedious micromanagement to discovery.
No Man’s Sky features a passive narrative because it doesn’t actively force you along its path and tell you exactly what’s going on. The story is told through text describing the thoughts and feelings of your character as you stumble upon various monoliths and alien entities. Each interaction gives you further insight into the nature of the universe, its inhabitants, and yourself.
Is No Man’s Sky a good game?
While it’s certainly not for everyone just for the sheer fact that it’s a survival exploration game, the true measure of its quality relies on the success of its execution within the genre. Predicated on this concept, I believe the answer is yes.
While I know we all go to games looking for slightly different experiences, I find these to be the cornerstone elements of a successful survival exploration game: aesthetic variety, a robust crafting and upgrade system, escalating challenges, and freedom of exploration. I will also tag on thematic intelligence because it weighs heavily on its science fiction nature for its appeal.
Let’s start off with aesthetic variety. I believe this is important not only because it provides the breath of fresh air needed to keep your attention but also because it is the drive for you to explore. No Man’s Sky excels in this area. While the “18 quintillion planets, each one unique” catchphrase might be misleading to some, it’s still difficult to deny the sheer variety of colors, flora, fauna, and topology you’ll encounter on your journey.
Now let’s tackle the crafting and upgrade systems. In No Man’s Sky you don’t craft shelters or contraptions like other survival games but rather, because you’ll be constantly traveling, you’ll want your upgrades to effect what you take with you which includes your suit, ship, and multi-tool. There are plenty of upgrades that increase the effectiveness of your basic functions but sadly you won’t really find anything that provides a new way to experience the game.
Our next category is the challenge. An artistically balanced level of difficulty that promotes a meaningful risk/reward hook will string you along willfully for many hours. While No Man’s Sky tends to waver in this area, it does accomplish this to a certain degree. While you won’t find yourself on the cusp of death very often, there is an innate pressure that comes with leaving your ship and seeing your hazard protection drain (quite rapidly if you’re on a planet with extreme conditions) or deciding whether to swipe a valuable resource at the risk of alerting the sentinels.
The final metric for a successful survival exploration game that we’ll be examining is freedom of exploration. The reason I feel this is an essential component to the genre is because it is the measure of progress in an exploration game. This is an area where No Man’s Sky shines. To look up at the sky and know that you can fly to any planet you see is an awe-inspiring concept, one that is well realized here.
“The true delight is in the finding out rather than in the knowing.” – Isaac Asimov
I mentioned that there is one more standard by which this game should be measured due to it being reliant on its sci-fi themes. The integrity and intelligence of No Man’s Sky’s subtle narrative is solid but not well executed. I thought that learning more about the universe through monoliths and character interactions was perfect for this game but certain key events lacked the impact they potentially could have had by not giving the moment enough gravity when it mattered.
No Man’s Sky is a solid game with a mind-blowing amount of variety and great sci-fi themes. It occasionally suffers from some spotty execution and it’s sheer vastness leaves room for more activity but overall I’d say the game I’m playing today is the game I understood it to be when it was first announced it and for that I am very pleased. No Man’s Sky is nothing short of a technical marvel and despite some issues at launch I am still surprised at how well the game functions when you consider that all the terrain and placement is procedurally generated.
The 8-Bit Review
From gorgeous alien sunsets to megalithic planets looming overhead, No Man’s Sky is a never ending supply of beautiful vistas. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of most lifeforms you run into not to mention some technical inconsistencies that come with rendering such large landscapes on-the-fly.
The soundtrack is a great piece of work and one of the most solid aspects of the game. Starship engines and mining lasers fit their role but do not stick out as anything spectacular. The otherworldly ambience of alien environments really emphasizes the experience.
In typical survival game fashion nothing is handed to you, everything is earned. While my reservations are not with the core gameplay, I do feel the upgrade system is lacking any excitement. It seemed to only make incremental improvements on gameplay mechanics rather than introduce new features. The in-game economy leaves little to work toward in the short-term with long-term investments like starships being ridiculously out of reach. Overall combat and navigation mechanics are solid but basic and are just there to get the job done. However, starship battles can be quite fun.
Featuring a passive text-based narrative, I feel it suits the universe quite well and lends to the feeling of reading a good sci-fi novel. However even having an appreciation for this storytelling method doesn’t blind me to the fact that the climax can be quite anticlimactic given the lack of any in-game fanfare or causality of any consequence.
While the game could do with a little more risk/reward, I felt the overall difficulty fit the nature of the game. Progressing further toward the center causes the difficulty to ramp up, as it should, and random encounters both in space and on land will keep you on your toes but you rarely feel like you’re in a situation you can’t escape.
Truly one of the most replayable games in existence. Knowing that each planet is unique with its own flora, fauna, weather, atmosphere, and resources compels you to continue exploring a nearly unlimited supply of content.
The uniqueness of this game and its tech is what drew the masses to it from day one and it certainly stands proudly within a relatively small genre.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Even with its faults, I respect the accomplishments this game has made and I continue to thoroughly enjoy the experience today. It’s everything I expected it to be and wanted it to be and I look forward to seeing how it evolves in the future.
Aggregated Score: 8.5