Once Human Preview – Looks amazing but has some identity issues to work through

The early images for Starry Studio’s Once Human, featuring weird fusions of everyday objects and pulsating alien flesh, were certainly striking and my interest was piqued without knowing anything about what kind of game it was set to be. I was a little disappointed to discover that it was to be an online rather than single-player affair, but when a demo became available during Steam’s NextFest I grabbed the opportunity to try it out – even roping in some friends to try out the multiplayer aspects. My overall impression is still one of intrigued confusion as the game emulates many other successful titles but still needs to find an identity of its own.

Once Human throws you straight into a tutorial mission that plays out like a lost quest from Remedy’s Control. The uncanny surroundings and even the graphical style feel very familiar and this opening left me excited to play out a more narrative and single-player-focused version of the title. That being said, my co-op friends who switched servers to join me were less enamoured once they had to complete the tutorial each time they did so. This is hopefully a demo-only issue and you would hope will be skippable in the full release.

Once into the main game you’re required to find a patch of land to stake your claim and begin building a base. The shared nature of the space means that it can take an unfortunate amount of time to actually find somewhere, however, which doesn’t make for the most impactful early impression. There are multiple servers to play in but the aforementioned tutorial issues will put off players if not remedied. When choosing a server the game will warn you if it is busy so hopefully this is another aspect that will be smoother at release.

Building a base is simple and the construction mechanics are fairly intuitive. I initially went for a barebones approach and just built parts as and when the progress required it. It was clear that others had put a lot of time and thought into their homes though and it’s great that the potential for such different approaches appears to be present. One massive caveat for this whole preview, however, is that it is still unclear quite how the season progress of the game will work. At present, it appears that the game will work on a six-week rotation with different quests and challenges every week before progress is reset and the season repeats. This one decision will probably make or break it for many and it remains to be seen quite how Starry manage to retain players and what will be carried over in-game.

The main game plays out as a fusion of third-person looter shooter and survival mechanics. Hunger and thirst mechanics need to be managed and there is an additional sanity meter that diminishes based on how much exposure to the mysterious StarDust entities you have. The gunplay is solid if unspectacular and there appears to be a decent range of weapons to construct and enhance although the blueprints needed to unlock new ones are scattered in pieces so it may be a while between each new one.

At present, the 6-week season resets character and items but you retain global collectables and building (maybe but the language is unclear on this). This in theory prevents a huge onboarding ceiling for coming in later but also means there’s little reason to grind out other than just running through the core objectives each time. There seems to be an ‘Everdream’ mode unlocked after a decent amount of story progression that may be more permanent? Again, the wording is unclear and subject to change. In general, I think they’re currently juggling several different approaches and seeing what sticks.

Multiplayer is a key part of the game though the current implementation is functional but somewhat limited. You and your friends can occupy the same world and interact with one other to some extent but only the boss fight instances are true co-op. Entering into one of these teleports you to a separate boss arena and these play out pretty well. The one I tried with my friends wasn’t especially challenging, something that characterised most of my 8 hours with the game. That being said, this was all on the first area and I think things ramp up as you make further progress. After my friends decided to log off I carried on a bit and fought with a spectral treant doppelganger that was vaguely challenging on my own, not just because I was under-levelled but mainly due to my running out of bullets part way through. I beat it eventually as dying and respawning don’t renew the boss’s health, letting me whittle it down by burning it with molotovs and torch.

I’m still tempted by the full game for Once Human, especially if you can solo when others aren’t around to avoid missing out on the progress before season shifts, but much will depend on what is lost each time as I don’t relish starting from relative scratch. Once Human is also free-to-play so a lot will depend on how predatory the cash shop is, how many different currencies it tries to squeeze in, and to what degree it becomes pay to win. Hopefully, we’ll have answers to all these questions this week.

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Just your average old gamer with a doctorate in Renaissance literature. I can mostly be found playing RPGs, horror games, and oodles of indie titles. Just don't ask me to play a driving game.

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