REVIEW: Sci-fi gem I Was A Teenage Exocolonist bears high stakes and teen angst
If “story-rich” gaming is where you live and breathe, then I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is for you. It’s part life sim, part deckbuilder. And according to creator Sarah Northway, there are about six novels’ worth of narrative options in this choice-driven game. And although I was originally drawn in by its incredible visual style, everything about its story, gameplay, and overall experience are sticking with me as one of the best games I played this year.
Watch our video review below or continue reading for the full transcript!
Just the Facts
Developer: Northway Games
Publisher: Finji Co
Platform(s): PC*, PS4/5, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Aug. 25, 2022
Copy personally purchased.
You might remember my reactions to this game when it was shown by the Guerrilla Collective in June. My takeaway was basically: “Wow, pretty watercolors.” Followed by “Why is everyone in this game hot?”
Now that I’ve played it through, and sadly learned that THE most stunning character in the trailer turns out to be the player character’s mother (sorry everyone) I have a bit more to say about the experience.
Let’s talk about the setup to this enormous sci-fi adventure. You are a child growing up as a member of humanity’s first colony ship in space. You’ve only ever known life on a spaceship. You were born and lived your first ten years on one, before a wormhole plopped you out onto the planet Vertumna and your life there begins.
Until age 20, you’ll choose how to spend your time and contribute to the colony. You can follow in the footsteps of your farmer parents, or explore engineering, medicine, sports, politics, and more. You’ll level up your experience in all of these areas depending on where you decide to spend your time each month and across the seasons. According to your activities and your dialogue choices, you can be loyal to the colony, or a little rebellious, and explore past the safety of the walls where a beautiful, strange and dangerous planet awaits.
The sci-fi world of Vertumna is lush and rich, rendered in a beautiful watercolor style. It’s full of creatures that blur the lines between flora, fauna, fungus and “intelligent” life form. What looks like rocks at the bottom of a pool of water might light up and communicate patterns to you when you touch them. What you think is a plant might up and walk away when you try to tear stalks from it. This alien world has a life of its own, and that makes things complex — as it should be — as your colony does what it can to survive. It makes you think twice about what you’re willing to do, to take from the planet, in order to feed, defend, and advance your human colony.
One of the main cycles of the story is an annual attack: During the Glow season that ends each year, the whole planet is compelled by some mysterious force to launch a semi-coordinated blitz on the colony, frequently destroying its food sources and lowering its overall defenses.
Along with the narrative RPG elements, Exocolonist uses a roguelite deckbuilding system and gameplay loosely based on poker to have you pass or fail story events. As you make decisions about how to spend your time, you’ll level up different mental, social and physical stats, and be rewarded with any of the game’s more than 200 battle cards. These cards are physical manifestations of your character’s memories, and you’ll use them to play the best possible hand to complete anything from school projects to annual festival competitions to scary life-and-death scenarios.
The value of cards will increase as you age and your experiences become more formative. You’ll occasionally have the option to delete lower level cards, which also means “forgetting” the childhood memories associated with them, like the “First Words” card worth one point. My partner kept joking that I couldn’t let go of these lower level cards in my collection, but how can you bear to part with these beautiful memories? Letting go is simply not for me.
I have to say, I am historically not someone who plays deckbuilding games. From a glance, they’ve always felt complex and overwhelming with not much emotional payoff. And emotional payoff is kind of what I live for.
But I didn’t find those generalizations to be true in Exocolonist. With the cards tied to your character’s memories and the events that take place in the game, this addition to the gameplay feels grounded and meaningful and raises the stakes of what otherwise plays pretty much like a visual novel. The cards also add immensely to beauty of the game. There are one hundred card artists that worked on producing them, and they provide a visual to go along with scenes that you didn’t necessarily see play out.
My first playthrough took a full 24 hours in game. Others might move through faster, but no matter what, you’re bound to get a lot of mileage out of this story. Especially because it’s meant to be played multiple times. Exocolonist has a time loop element. In your first playthrough, the game hints at weird moments of deja vu and strange dreams that you can’t make sense of.
But when you dive in for a second time, you’ll start to see those moments pay off. Because your past memories can unlock new prompts and story options, helping you avoid some tragedies now that you can see them coming. Your first time through this game, you should know ahead of time, is filled with loss and grief. The sometimes volatile planet paired with major agricultural challenges will lead to several unpreventable losses, and you’ll see the aftermath of how it plays out in the community, as well as how it can radicalize some people into a sort of “humans versus the world” mentality.
Thanks to the time loop foresight I now carry, I’ve prevented at least four deaths in my second playthrough in progress. This time loop system encourages you to take new paths, explore more of the absolutely enormous story, and branch out your focus to new people as you form friendships and relationships.
Speaking of relationships, one of the things I loved most about this game was how queerness is baked into the world and the story. It has a diverse cast of characters that includes several trans and nonbinary characters, queer and polyamorous parents, and just a general spirit of reconstructing the family unit and caring for each other more collectively. Of course I love the option for players to be their queer and trans selves, but it’s also really meaningful to see queer adults made a part of the backdrop of the story.
You have a decent bit of control over the protagonist, too. You can select gender and pronouns along a slider and change them at any time. This is kind of just symbolic, because it’s represented by only three discrete appearances in the player art. But there’s an amazing option for further customization where you can manually change the words people will call you. You could change how your parents will refer to you, like “son,” “daughter,” or “child,” or how a romantic partner would speak about you, putting in whatever term fits you best. I loved this, and have never seen a game before that allows you to poke around in its script like that.
The game also allows you to pursue any of the people your age as potential friends and love interests, and for the most part they’re really fascinating and compelling characters. Some of them are militant assholes who I’m avoiding out of spite, but hey, that’s life isn’t it?
You might think that a game with nearly 30 endings would end up feeling kind of patchwork when it all comes together. But actually, the progression of your relationships feels surprisingly natural and seamless for a game with so many possible outcomes. It might take me my whole damn life, but I can’t lie, I kind of want to see them all play out.
At its core, Exocolonist is a fascinating story about collective survival, finding harmony with the planet, and how a blank slate for humanity is, well, not really a blank slate at all. The memory of the crumbling planet Earth pursues these colonists, literally. And with the colony constantly on the brink of disaster, the old systems of militarization, power imbalances and overconsumption of resources starts to make a tempting appearance. It’s up to you as the player, and as part of the colony, to decide if you’re willing to give into that ghost of a collapsing society or if it’s better to try something new.
video games are good and I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is . . . GREAT. (9/10)
+ nuanced and moving story; unforgettable watercolor visual style; engaging time loop feature encourages replayability; deeply inclusive world, character creator, and content warning availability
- difficult plot points may not be suitable for everyone, requires a lot of time to replay and inevitably leads to some repetition of events
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