I hadn’t heard of NetEase’s new weird-survival game Once Human until my friend Dusty mentioned it in Discord. A quick visit to the game’s website and I thought that this might be something up my alley: it was a survival game, which I’ve been into lately, but with a modern-day supernatural twist. Nightingale has already taken on the “supernatural sandbox”, but with a steampunk vibe which is a genre that I’m not normally fond of (it’s not steampunk just because you glued gears to something!). Once Human, on the other hand, looked kind of familiar…kind of very familiar.

I KNOW I’ve seen this somewhere…

You awaken after a brief “forced corporate downsizing” incident involving some masked functionary in a high-tech lab. Upon opening your eyes, you find a nasty piece of ephemera lodged in your abdomen, so yanking it out counter to every good medical guideline saying not to do that, you fall out of your sleepin’ tube and into a world of complete fuckery.

…I can’t quite put my finger on it…

At this point the tutorial has me looking around for chests to loot and tells me how to use my “Spacetime” ability — a kind of sixth-sense ping that can identify points of interest in the vicinity. I find several logs of lore, a machete, and some food and drink, but no pants. Considering this is an Eastern game, I’m not entirely surprised.

Wait wait wait…it’s coming to me…

With butter-knife in hand and this strange “totally not Death Stranding” cat carrier on my back that I picked up at some point between blinks, it’s maulin’ time. Assuming these weird enemies don’t move, I have the option to sneak up on them and take them down silently. If they do move, it’s just a few regular or powered slashes until their are sent back to whatever copycat Hell they emerged from.

Oh Christ, it’s…

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this game. Apparently there’s something called “Stardust” which isn’t fully explained except in bits and pieces both inside and outside of the game. This weird material apparently thins the walls between the physical realm and “Rift Space” which is another thing that isn’t explained. This Stardust has a chance to corrupt the physical world, either creating new or turning existing humans into weird and supposedly terrifying chimeras, but again, being Eastern, seeing a guy in dress slacks and button-down with a tie wearing a briefcase for a head isn’t the worst or even the most serious thing I’ve seen in a video game.

…actually not the Oldest House, sorry. Maybe the Second Oldest House.

At some point I wandered into a situation which completely smash-cut from the weird lab I was trying to escape to…a modern country cottage?

Still no pants, and also not the Oldest House. Very much a Modern House.

Here I met a young girl named Mitsuko who I had seen via in-game cut scenes. She’s apparently some powerful Stardust-controlling savant who has taken up refuge in this pocket dimension with the help of “V” (popular letter in video games these days), a talking bird made out of glowing HDMI cables.

“…but not get me some damn pants!”

I got introduced to “Deviants”, which I believe are Stardust creatures which can be charged up and stored in my cat carrier. Packed Deviants can be used as weapons or, in the case of the paper butterfly that is granted in the tutorial, can provide benefits like illuminating an enemy’s weak spots. That came in handy when I had to fight a mobile 5G hotspot outside of the cabin.

It’s hard to get a signal when the signal won’t sit still.

Immediately after this I found myself soaring above the countryside, clinging to V’s talon like this is just another day in the world, sans pants, and now the real game begins…I guess?

At least it looks warmer here.

I had to collect some wood and stone, the Holy Duality of every single survivalbox game on the market, in order to create a base of operations for myself. Here’s the weird thing: as I was Fortnite’ing over the landscape, I could see the bases of other players. Once I set down and got my land-legs back, I could actually see other players in the world with me, building or hanging out on their cut-and-paste plywood decks. Once Human is multiplayer by default, and I guess I knew this when I chose a server at startup (they were all PvE, BTW) but it’s really weird to see everyone setting up camp in close proximity. There are a lot of trees around, and a lot of rocks, copper, and sulfur that I could see, but these seem “one-and-done” so I wonder how resource sharing works. Also, there’s a “zone of control” around a claimed plot, so I am curious if resources inside that zone belong exclusively to the plot owner, or if anyone can deforest with wild abandon.

If it ain’t broken, I guess?

It looks like we can unlock our blueprints through the cat carrier — don’t ask how or why — and it’s so bog standard a process that I’m not even going to explain the image above; it should be muscle memory for anyone who has played a survivalbox game in the past 5 years.

Every journey begins with a single flight in, clinging to the talon of a supernatural crow.

I logged off right before the next phase of the tutorial, which was to go out and collect some materials that the game wants me to have, but not enough to just, you know, give them to me.

Once Human is weird. Looking at the promo material on the website, I though it would play a lot like a survivalbox Division or Ghost Recon: Breakpoint which are both open worlds full of optional POI that we could tackle as we saw fit, but with a supernatural “fallen world” kind of vibe. It wasn’t until I logged in and had to run through the lab that I got the strong whiff of Control. On the surface, I was giddy because Control is in my Top Five Favorite Games of All Time, but I was brought down to Earth very quickly by how janky this game presents itself. Yes, this is technically a BETA access and I hold anyone to it if they say that their game is Not Ready for Prime Time, whether others consider it an excuse or not. I got stuck on one quest step because they used a lot of in-game jargon that I hadn’t digested, so I didn’t know what the heck they wanted me to do, but mashing some keys in specific ways got me through it (it was not a QTE). Transitions between scenes sometimes make little sense, and with little-to-no in-game backstory, Once Human feels like you’ve been dropped into a conversation with a group of people, none of whom can finish a sentence because they’re too damned hyped about their own big ideas.

That’s not to say it doesn’t seem to be trending in the right direction. Combat feels pretty OK. Animations and visuals are excellent when they work. The Interface is a bit weird, with a healthy reliance on the RMB to make some selections, LMB for others (which makes me wonder if NetEase devs have played too many Ubisoft games after all). VO conversations tend to repeat whenever the player has a choice to select a conversation line, which is also weird, but probably something that can be easily cleared up in time. I did like how collecting resources without tools didn’t resort to “punching stuff”, but instead saw the character picking up a hefty rock to brain the shit out of the tree or boulder. At least that seems somewhat more realistic than most.

It’s weird shit like this that makes me resist any “return to office” mandates.

Once Human could be a fun, open world survivalbox someday, and I hope it does because I really do like the “modern supernatural” vibe of games like Control and The Secret World, but as much as I also liked my earlier forays into the as-of-yet-unreleased The First Descendant, which has kind of an “off-Broadway homage” to Destiny feeling, so too does Once Human reflect the much better treatments found in Control and — yes, I’m saying it — The Secret World.


  • Bhagpuss

    April 5, 2024 - 5:35 pm

    I was in the previous beta and loved it. I just started this one and it seems a little more beta-y than last time, which is a little worrying. The dialog overlap, for example, didn’t happen last time as far as I can remember.

    For me, the intro is one of the most atmospheric I’ve ever seen. The cut scenes, that is. The tutorial parts are a lot less immersive but functional enough. Personally, I strongly prefer games with lore and backstory that’s elliptical and elusive so the more I have to imagine, the better. The translation is odd – the dialog and in-game text is in perfect demotic English but the big walls of text that describe functions and mechanics are stiff and full of jargon.

    All in all, though, I think it’s excellent. It’s also a full MMO, not a co-op, which is very different from all the other survival games we’ve been overrun with lately. I think it has a good chance of succeeding. I hope so, anyway.

    By the way, you can craft some pants almost right away if you want. I had the recipes for blue jeans by the time I got to the part in the Journey where you build the gear workbench and I was onlyLevel 3.

    • Scopique

      April 5, 2024 - 5:58 pm

      Nice. Iā€™m going to keep at it because I want to see how things progress. I also have friends who play nothing BUT The Division so maybe I can get them to deal with the survival and crafting and join me over here šŸ˜„

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