Spacebase Startopia

DEVELOPER: Realmforge Studios
PUBLISHER: Kalypso Media
EXPECT TO PAY: $57 AUD ($65 Extended edn) 

When it comes to base-building/management games, there’s quite a lot for players to choose from, depending on what they’re after. Want the thrill of managing a sprawling city, complete with traffic management? Cities: Skylines may be your port of call. How about protecting a small, Victorian-esque community trying to survive the trials of a new Ice Age? Frostpunk is there. What about running your own banana republic? Look no further than Tropico 6. But what if you want to build something light-hearted, whimsical and futuristic? Something where the future looked like fun? Not the boring white, sleek and pretentious designs of the 21st Century’s view of the future, but an over-the-top, neon-drenched view of what the future looked like in the 1980s? Enter Spacebase Startopia.

Part base-building game, part management sim, with a dash of Real Time Strategy (RTS) thrown in, Spacebase Startopia puts players in command of their very own space-station: a donut shaped ring with three main levels - a Sub-Deck (where your basic amenities, manufacturing and admin buildings are housed), a Fun Deck (stuffed to the gills with games and amusements), and a Bio Deck (for all your plant needs). Colourful, crazy, and with a sense of humour which will appeal to anyone fond of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, players try to design and manage their station whilst contending with generally inefficient robots (Fuzzies, named after Fuzzy Logic, which is like wooly thinking but even more so), a sarcastic AI which occasionally gives you ‘upgrades’ in an attempt to ‘help’ (which often have a negative effect) and an endless stream of visitors ranging from ‘Drifters’ with low expectations, to ‘Snobs’ who pack large wallets and extravagant tastes. The better your ratings, the more visitors you will attract and the more money you will earn, as well as gaining access to economic bonuses and new buildings and upgrades.

This turns out to be a surprisingly complex task, with multiple interlocking systems that feed each other. Aliens produce trash which, if left to accumulate, will attract vermin and negatively impact your station’s rating. Trash, however, can also be recycled to produce energy (the in-game currency), but the recycling plant produces noxious fumes, requiring air-scrubbers to be placed next to it. These, in turn, require oxygen which is harvested from plants grown on your Bio Deck. Your Bio Deck needs Dryads (a plant-loving alien species) to operate properly, but if your Fuzzies don’t get to the crates in time they spoil and end up as trash. Also, many of your essential buildings require employees of a particular species to run them, and if you don’t have enough to keep a building staffed while one employee is off getting food or sleeping, you can expect problems ranging from negative ratings from guests frustrated that the disco is shut, to entire rooms being destroyed by a space-quake which your Communications Center failed to spot because it was understaffed. And that’s even without considering the RTS element which will see you fending off space pirates or hostile commanders. While it may sound daunting, in reality it’s all quite easy to grasp and new players will have their bases up and running efficiently in no time, thanks to the excellent series of tutorials.

While most games in this genre are fairly hands off, limiting the player to decisions about where to place buildings and assign staff, Spacebase Startopia is surprisingly hands on. Along with the obligatory controls to place buildings and modify rooms (including a handy feature which lets you choose from pre-designed rooms or even save your own blueprints), players have the ability to pick up crates, garbage, and Fuzzies, harvest plants and even select individual guests for ejection or incarceration if you so wish (though your brig, Security Station and Drones will do a pretty good job of that last part on their own). Then there’s fabricating components and rooms in a factory, running your research station, trading your excess resources and everything else required to make your base operate smoothly. This really makes you feel far more involved in the actual running of your base and is extremely engaging.

Thankfully, however, very few things require immediate action, meaning that while there is always something you can be doing in order to make your base run better, you rarely get punished for taking your time and simply enjoying the view. This is, without question, one of the most insanely detailed base games out there, with players able to zoom right down to ground level so it looks like you’re mixing with all your alien guests. Each alien looks different, whether it’s the clothing, colouring, floral display (in the case of the Dryads) or even hats (gotten, amusingly from a Lootbox game you can place on your Fun Deck).

Really, a huge amount of effort has been put into making everything as colourful and detailed as possible. Aliens bop and breakdance on the disco floor, garbage can be seen whizzing through the transparent tubes of the recycling centre, giant space-ogres wrestle in the Battle Arena (entertainment reserved for the most snobbish of guests), and advanced cleaning pods feature a window where you can see your guest going through a rinse and dry-cycle, before being sucked up through a gigantic tube for a final scrub and deposited back onto the deck. Beyond the sheer amount of detail, there’s also a ton of character, with each design exuding charm: recycling robots – which automatically deposit garbage into your recycling building - gradually swell until full and then comically waddle over to the garbage chute; Fuzzies assigned to cleaning duty will sprout a French maid’s headdress, and the Space Sushi restaurant features a giant octopus wearing a Japanese-style headband and shouting ‘hiya!’ as it wields its knife. (This charm also extends beyond the gameplay itself, and if you boot it up after midnight, you will find VAL, the sarcastic AI, asking if you suffer from insomnia.) Its bright and vibrant look is also quite unique (as one person remarked, looking over my shoulder as I played, it looked like a cross between Space Invaders and My Favourite Pony).

These visuals are more than simply fun: they also give valuable feedback. There’s no need to pull up a dreary chart or some other metric in order to see if a room is at capacity or people are getting annoyed about the quality of the air – simply observe your guests. If a room has a long waiting line outside, you probably need to do something to stop negative ratings coming in. Likewise, if a whole lot of aliens are coughing and spluttering, you probably need an air-scrubber in the vicinity. This also contributes to making running your base feel far more engaged, as the easiest way to tell if everything’s ticking-over well is to simply run around your base and look at it. And ‘running around’ is an apt description, because the base is actually curved (in fact, if you unlock enough bulkheads, it’s possible to do a complete circuit of the station). While this may be visually disorienting for a while, it’s surprising how quickly you adjust.

While you can simply enjoy building a well-run base in Freeplay mode, it’s also possible to make the game more competitive, in both solo and multiplayer. This allows you to set certain victory conditions, such as first to stockpile or earn a certain amount of energy, who has the best station rating (which opens interesting options for sabotage - including covering your opponent’s section of the station in garbage), or even who is the first to wipe out their competitor by sending combat units to attack the other commander’s energy core. This latter features especially prominently at the end of the single-player campaign. It drastically shifts the focus from simply running your base, to getting it up and running as quickly as possible so you can build enough mechs to defend your core and defeat your opponent. This is a whole new challenge, forcing you to think long and hard about what you are going to do, and experiment again and again, which led me to make a curious observation. There is an extreme spike in difficulty in the last two missions, and I lost track of how many times I restarted the final mission in order to try a new build order when it became clear what I was doing would not work. While I would usually find this frustrating in the extreme, with Spacebase Startopia, I actually found myself enjoying the challenge – even to the point where I would lie awake in bed running through different combinations to try out on my next attempt. And this, more than anything, told me that Spacebase Startopia has managed to nail the fun factor in this genre, even with the rough edges.

And there are rough edges. The control scheme takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s all too easy to find yourself putting things from your inventory down, when you actually meant to pick something up. Upgrading Fuzzies and promoting your employees is also a bit clunky, and the combat interface is also not the easiest to control (especially as it’s hard to select multiple units, and Security Drones tend to default to doing their own thing if not given instructions for a while), which is frustrating until you realise the RTS component is more about which units you send and when, rather than actually directing them during battle. There are also more bugs than I would really like. Whilst these were, for the most part benign - such as sound disappearing whenever I moved to another deck, and only coming back after I went to the pause menu - some were decidedly not. This included a glitch which saw my opponent’s energy core, which I had been methodically destroying, suddenly fill up to full health, and a terminal crash on the final level when I eventually managed to squash my opponent’s killbot factory. Thankfully, I only encountered these glitches once, and they did not really hamper me as the regular autosave feature meant that I could restart my game only a few moments away from where the glitch occurred. That said, considering the speed at which the devs turned their initial hotfixes, its probably only a matter of time before these issues are addressed.

All in all, Spacebase Startopia is a curious blend of several different styles of games, and quite unlike anything I’ve played in this genre. While some of its components work better than others, in combination it makes for a unique and enjoyable experience. Actually, that should be “experiences.” On the one hand, you can spend a peaceful time designing, building and ornamenting your base, making it the highest rated station in the galaxy. On the other hand, you can rush around like a lunatic trying to build your base as quickly as possible to beat your opponent, bouncing around between keeping your ratings up, building your army, trying to fix your station’s ratings which have dropped through the floor because while you were obsessing over your army you forgot to keep the place tidy, to suddenly realising you need a whole new section on your Bio Deck and a building generating radioactive waste (itself a resource) in order to get the components to build that all important Holo Crystal for your next battle mech, and so on. I found each of these modes thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable. If you’re looking for a light-hearted base building game, and you like science-fiction and have a slightly warped sense of humour, then Spacebase Startopia is definitely worth investigating. ■

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