Exo One is a game about momentum.
Fittingly, the game spends no more than a few seconds teaching its mechanics. You control what is essentially a high-tech marble in a desert of endless, rolling dunes. The rhythm of the game comes from the marble’s ability to increase or decrease its relative gravity: high gravity down a slope to build speed, low gravity to rocket up the other side. You can also keep the marble spherical, to better roll on the ground, or flatten it into a disc, to better cut through the air.
Exo One wastes little time on exposition or tutorialization. Instead, it assumes that the sheer joy and freedom of hurtling across these landscapes will be enough to hook the player. It assumes correctly.
It helps that the feel of virtually everything in Exo One is honed to perfection. When you dial up the gravity, your marble positively plummets downward, rolling as unstoppably as a bowling ball thrown down a halfpipe. When you use that inertia to hurtle back into the air, you can feel the wind whipping around the marble, the landscape stretching out endlessly in front of you. Fly high enough and your next descent may break the speed of sound, the marble’s sheer velocity outpacing its own sonic boom. The physics of Exo One are forgiving enough that you never feel completely inept, but precise enough that you’re always determined to reach a higher speed, a more perfectly maintained momentum.
The worlds you’re given to speed through are similarly spectacular, a series of planets each made of a single, overwhelming aesthetic. The desert of the first level will eventually be replaced by monumental cliffs, rolling oceans, and icy peaks. The art design has an eye for the dramatic; the sun will almost always hang low in the sky, and enormous storms frequently sweep each biome, covering the map in clouds just begging to be flown through. Exo One’s levels feel ripped from the covers of paperback sci-fi novels, more concerned with tone and feeling than any practical ecosystem.
Unfortunately, while the planets are consistently beautiful, they are less consistently fun to traverse. Many present novel challenges, like a massive mountain range to hurdle or an electrical storm to draw power from. But these challenges are hit or miss. A planet covered almost entirely in water is more tedious than exciting to move through, and an asteroid field halts the game’s otherwise speedy momentum. More than once, I wished I could return to the first planet’s simple rolling dunes, which were the perfect match for the marble’s mechanics. The last level is particularly disappointing in this regard; though visually astonishing, it largely abandons the physics I had grown so attached to over the course of the game.
Exo One’s rapid pace means that no frustration sticks around for too long, though; each level goes by in a matter of minutes, and I finished the entire game in under two hours. However, this brevity also means that the game’s story, hinted at through fleeting flashbacks and garbled dialogue, doesn’t have much chance to make an impression. It is interesting to be struck by lightning in the midst of an extraterrestrial thunderstorm and catch a split-second glimpse of an obviously terrestrial photograph. But the narrative’s vague delivery meant I never felt as emotionally engaged as I wanted to be. It’s not bad, and it doesn’t get in the way; it just feels so tertiary to the experience Exo One offers.
Ultimately, though, these complaints pale in comparison to just how deliriously fun it is to rocket down the hills and soar through the atmospheres of each gorgeously rendered planet. Exo One is not a mechanically deep game, nor a narratively enthralling one, but nevertheless, I see myself returning to it many times in the future. The game pulls off a fantasy I’ve heretofore only approached in my dreams: to leave all remnants of Earthliness behind and skim the surface of an alien world, the desert as smooth as polished glass.
Exo One was released on Nov. 18 on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.