Rising from the ashes, The Tomorrow Children: Phoenix Edition sees one of the most unusual PlayStation exclusives brought back from the dead. The original game, which released on PS4 back in 2016, enjoyed a short life span before Sony unceremoniously pulled the plug on its servers, dooming whatever virtual settlements fans had worked so hard to build.
Despite its striking art style and unique “social action” premise, there simply weren’t enough players toiling away for developer Q-Games – of Pixeljunk fame – and Sony to keep the lights on. Having claimed The Tomorrow Children for its own, the studio is taking a second punt at the concept, but can this phoenix soar or does it simply go up in smoke again?
Trying to explain exactly what The Tomorrow Children is becomes an endeavour in itself. It combines elements of resource gathering, platforming, and managing your own settlement, all within the confines of a connected world where you’re free to go and visit other players and help muck in as part of a surreal communist enclave.
Even with a reworked tutorial in place, the game is relentlessly obtuse. Your overarching goal is to gradually expand your town by harvesting resources, crafting new buildings, and raising the population. There are no missions or stages, the area in which you play continually evolving as comrades come and go, resource-rich islands rising and falling from the vacuous void that surrounds the perimeter of your town.
It’s these islands where most of that actual “gameplay” happens in The Tomorrow Children. Each one is its own destructible miniature maze that can be hacked apart and terraformed as you search for wood, coal, gold, and other materials, transporting them back to town in order to construct new landmarks and facilities. You’ll also need to recover matryoshka dolls that can be incubated back at base to spawn a new citizen. There’s been a number of additions and tweaks, but these fundamentals remain.
Navigating each island requires tools, from shovels and pickaxes to jetpacks, piloted vehicles and the new grappling hook. The rub here is that items have a finite number of uses before expiring or needing a recharge. There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering a nook on an island flowing with resources, only to realise your tools have broken, forcing you to head back into town to buy more. It’s a mundane process that can take ages and you’ll soon come to resent the stingy amount of inventory space available.
There are plenty of moments like this, The Tomorrow Children throwing up red tape and restrictions that can impede both your immediate progress and the gradual growth of your town. Even when you do have the right equipment, plumbing the depths each island as they come and go can be exhausting, not to mention fruitless. Completely dredging one of these zones only to come up empty handed and with no currency to replenish your tools just isn’t fun.
As a result, I’d often find myself in a frustrating place playing The Tomorrow Children. I’d be excited to see what I could eventually unlock in-game, but dreading the potential hours of chore-like effort needed to make any kind of meaningful progression. Although Q-Games gutted the microtransactions, the spectre of a free-to-play economy still looms. It’s not hard to imagine the original game flogging more inventory space and far superior tools for real money back in 2016. These time-saving upgrades are still here, but are locked behind in-game paywalls that demand endless grinding and an element of luck. Freeman Dollars will help grease the wheels in just about every part of The Tomorrow Children though it’s never explained how to earn them, the odd fistful turning up here and there.
The amount of boring busywork this game demands threatens to overshadow those more alluring elements. For a start, the visual style remains totally unique, presenting players with a soviet-soaked toybox of dystopian wonder as workers line up for coupons and commendations, surrounded by an industrialised model village. Then there are the islands: abstract 3D artworks begging to be pickaxed and shovelled into oblivion.
Whether or not you’ll stick around depends on your experience with other players. While it’s possible to prosper on your own – new Comrade AI can be found to bolster your town’s ranks, and there’s now an offline mode – visiting other players’ towns and helping your comrades is how The Tomorrow Children is meant to be experienced. Whether cutting lumber or shooting down invading kaiju, there is ample opportunity to work together, though co-op can be an awkward, time-wasting endeavour. If you simply turn up in someone else’s town, there’s a good chance you’ll have no idea what to do or how to help out, with none of the resources earned being funnelled towards your own town and, therefore, your own overarching progress.