Don’t overlook this indie masterpiece
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is one of those games that I kept hearing about, but it took me a minute to get around to playing it with all the amazing titles that came out last year. I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, as the game originally came out back in August of 2022, but I’m so glad that I went back to give this one a shot.
I went into this playthrough without knowing anything about the game and without any real expectations, and exactly one completed playthrough later, I’m absolutely in love with this title. I can’t think of any other game like it, and I can’t think of a game I’ve ever played that’s made me want to dive immediately into another playthrough right away as much as this one did.
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist (PC [Reviewed], Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5)
Developer: Northway Games
Released: August 25, 2022
From the gorgeous art to the lovable characters to the addicting gameplay and so much more, I Was a Teenage Exocolonist had me hooked from the beginning, and my intrigue only snowballed as the hours ticked away.
The premise of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is that Earth’s first extrasolar space colony has set down roots on an alien planet called Vertumna that they accessed through a wormhole, and the player takes on the role as one of the teenage members of the community. The game follows the player character from age 10 all the way up to age 20, chronicling the dramatic highs and lows of colony life.
Let’s talk gameplay
Gameplay-wise, it’s a mix of a narrative RPG presented in a visual novel style with deckbuilding mechanics. The main gameplay loop consists of growing friendships through conversations and gifts, completing helpful tasks around the colony, and taking part in card-based battles and other deckbuilding mechanics.
Players also have a total of 15 different stats, which are broken down into three different colored categories: emotional, mental, and physical. Specifics include characteristics like bravery, creativity, toughness, empathy, and organization, just to name a few. You mostly improve your stats by taking on different jobs around the colony, but there are some other modifiers that can make leveling up even easier.
This game offers a huge variety of content, including 10 different romanceable characters, 25 different jobs, 200 battle cards, 1,000 story events, and 50 different endings. It’s also important to note that the game only took me roughly 10 hours to get through the first time, but it’s designed to be played on repeat – it’s even advertised on its official website as a “narrative deckbuilding RPG with a timeloop twist.”
I’m a huge fan of deckbuilders, so I was pumped to jump into the card-based mechanics in this game. Basically how it works is that whenever you partake in an activity or need to participate in a “check” to see if you were successful at performing a task, you’ll enter a card challenge. Each task has a specific number goal that you need to reach, either in one go or at the end of three rounds. The cards themselves have a different suit (yellow, blue, or red based on their associations with the three different stat categories), a numerical value, and often a unique card power that affects the other cards on the board.
There are also other mechanics that can help you gain bonuses or get rid of cards you don’t need anymore, but otherwise, it’s a fairly simple minigame, but a balanced and endlessly enjoyable one at that.
My other absolute favorite thing about the cards is that they correspond with memories your character forms – having a new or particularly compelling encounter, either with other characters or alone, will reward you with a new card. This ties the main battling/minigame mechanic back into the game’s story incredibly well by acting as a meditation on how your experiences shape your personalities, interests, and abilities. It also just encourages you to reflect on your journey so far as you regularly look at everything you’ve gone through and the bonds you’ve formed, which not only ties perfectly into the themes of the game, but also mimics how our memories work in real life quite beautifully.
A loop you won’t want to break
If you’re worried you’re not gonna get your money’s worth with this one, I can assure you that there’s nothing to fret about on that front. The game encourages you pretty strongly right after you finish that it’s meant for you to start again, and I know for a fact that I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is only going to get better with each subsequent playthrough, as per a friend’s anecdotes now that they’ve played the game three times through.
The characters in this game are so incredibly loveable. You not only get a clear sense of who everyone is right off the bat, but it’s particularly intriguing to see how each individual changes and grows as time goes on. The young cast members are truly shaped by their environment, and every step of the way you get to see how your friends react to the hand that they’ve been dealt. It’s some of the best character work I’ve seen in a game in a good while, and I know I only scratched the surface of those 1,000 unique story events.
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is also a game that hinges on its choice-based narrative and let me say, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like my choices matter so much in a game before. Even the smallest action, or lack of action, can entirely alter the status quo of a playthrough in the opening hour, which will send ripples throughout the entire rest of your experience. It’s so incredibly easy to miss certain encounters that the ones you do find feel truly special.
I know the “visual novel” style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but any skepticism should certainly be helped by the fact that the art in this game is gorgeous and so full of life. Another benefit of the game’s restrained yet stylized art is that it allows for a ton more variation in what players can experience in the story – a lack of animation and smaller scope means that the story can branch any which way without it being a strain on resources, which further opens the door for a choice-based game to fully embody its descriptor.
I also have to say that I absolutely love the music in I Was a Teenage Exocolonist. I’m already pre-disposed to enjoying anything remotely related to the lo-fi genre, but I found the music always perfectly matched the mood and heightened the emotional atmosphere. It was just nice to listen to, honestly. This game is highly polished, as well. Everything looks and feels great, and I can’t recall a single bug from my entire run.
It’s darkest before the dawn
Right from the start, I Was a Teenage Exocolonist makes it clear in the form of some lengthy content warnings that it’s going to be touching on some pretty dark subject matter, and let me tell you, I’m glad it did – this game does not pull its punches. I was pleased that any darkness that’s included, though, is not gratuitous or there for the sake of making the title edgier. Basically, the whole premise of the game is that this colony of people has come all this way through space and landed in a precarious position on this new planet where they don’t know whether they’re going to make it or not.
It makes sense that they would encounter some harrowing situations, but what makes I Was a Teenage Exocolonist really shine is how it uses those difficulties to reflect on the characters, their relationships, and ultimately what it’s like to continue living on in the face of life-altering adversity.
Considering the time we live in now, where so much of our lives are online and we can all feel so distant, there was something really powerful about a story that focused on a small, tight-knit community that has to work together in the face of an ever-present existential threat. Whether it’s from a lack of resources, difficulties adjusting to the ecosystem of their new home planet, or straight-up attacks from both outside and inside forces, there is never a point in this game where it feels like the colony can entirely breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s certainly a difficult scenario to imagine, but I can’t deny the sense of hopefulness I felt in engaging in activities in the community that were a clear benefit to the rest of the group at large, whether it was digging around in the greenhouses, helping out in the kitchens, or assisting in the med bay. It was refreshing and honestly pretty grounding to have such a tangible, beneficial effect on a fictional community when in the real world, having an impact on anything truly substantial feels out of reach.
Touching on colonialism
Of course, the game’s narrative also touches on the “colonist” part of this whole endeavor. Clearly, colonialism on Earth has its own dark history (something the game also acknowledges), but I Was a Teenage Exocolonist leaves it up to the player to decide what they make of people from Earth staking their claim on a planet that is not their own. This decision is made slightly easier due to the fact that the colony only really encounters animals/insects/plants as opposed to, from what they are able to ascertain, fully sentient beings, but it’s still a key piece of the game’s story.
There’s an interesting question to be explored about how much destruction of nature can be justified in the name of survival, which I think is always relevant as we are a species that not only rely on nature to survive but has turned around and exploited it as means to our own selfish ends. You can probably guess where I landed in the game’s political divide – regardless of where you fall, this game presents an interesting way to explore topics like this in a simulated environment, and one that challenges you to come at its story with a different perspective on each playthrough.
I know this is high praise, but it’s deserved – this game reminds me a lot of Disco Elysium. In fact, it feels like I Was a Teenage Exocolonist saw Disco Elysium, learned from it, and put its own spin on the heavily text-based RPG in a way that really moves the genre forward. Don’t let the cutesy characters and art style fool you – this has to be one of the most well-told and integrated RPG stories I’ve seen in a good while. I know this is partially because I need to play more RPGs, but the point here is that this game is one for the history books.
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a game to get lost in, from its heartbreaking, hopeful storytelling to its engaging gameplay. I think it’s a shame that this title probably didn’t get as much widespread recognition as it deserves, because it has to have one of the most touching stories about what it means to be human that I’ve seen in games. I’m so thrilled that this title is meant to be played on a loop, because it’s a game I’m looking forward to returning to, and learning from, again and again.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]