Reviews

Earth Space Colonies Review – In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Curse The Lack Of Automation

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Persona and Pixel Studio
Publisher: Persona and Pixel Studio
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

Terraforming other planets has long been a staple of science fiction. As the years have passed this dream has slowly morphed into a very real possibility. It may not happen soon, but it does seem likely that in the future humanity will step onto new planets and begin to shape them in the image of our home planet. Meanwhile, Earth Space Colonies is an indie game that wants to give us a glimpse of that future right now by putting players in charge of a colony on Mars that must be slowly built up before it can begin the process of terraforming the Red Planet.

At the game’s core lies a rather neat concept; rather than just develop Mars over the course of the game you’ll also take charge of two smaller colonies on Ceres and Ganymede that you can jump between using a small menu at the top left of the screen. Certain buildings will need resources only available on to the other colonies, so you’ll need to construct launch pads and landing zones in order to ship things between locations. This  creates natural sticking points in the campaign where you can’t progress any further on Mars without building up Ceres or Ganymede further.

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Where the game’s biggest problem lies is its horrible user interface which seems to delight in leaving you to scurry around, ordering up resources like a glorified stock manager. You see, the various buildings and facilities that you plop onto Mars, Ceres and Ganymede don’t automatically produce resources as you may expect, rather you have to manually open up the production menu and start ordering from a huge list. Need  10 units of iron? Click the button 10 times, or hold down shift and click once. The problems really start when you bring up the construction options to examine what materials are needed for your latest project and then realise that for some reason you can’t effectively have two menus open at the same time, resulting in an annoying situation where you attempt to remember the exact resources and amounts needed so that you can begin creating them. Things get worse  the building you want requires items which must be crafted, because that means opening up yet another menu, checking out what resources the item needs and then bringing up the production menu to order those up as well. If you’ve got a stellar memory then maybe this won’t be a problem, but personally I found it to be a stupendously dumb piece of design that did nothing except make me jump back and forth from an awkward and clumsy user interface.

But then the system as a whole is rather insane. Having to open up a menu to manually order up resources constantly means that very little of your time is actually spent building a functioning colony or planning out what needs to be constructed next. No, instead the vast majority of time in Earth Space Colonies is spent going from menu to menu, ordering up piles of resources before repeating the process. The only way around this issue is to build multiple storage depots and then have the colony crank out tonnes of resources so that you have a large stockpile of stuff at any given time. It’s hardly an elegant fix, but it’s better that constantly delving back into the menus so you can churn out eight units of iron. Meanwhile the game makes a half-hearted attempted at combating its own problem by giving every building capable of producing a resource an automated mode so that it’ll churn out resources indefinitely, but again it’s a wonky fix for a problem that shouldn’t exist. There’s no way to set factories and workshops to maintain a specific amount of their resources, so they’ll just pump stuff out until your limited storage space is full.

These stupid design decisions would at least be partially forgivable if they hid an economic strategy game with depth and engaging mechanics, but Earth Space Colonies has nothing. To begin with none of your buildings need to be connected or in any way placed with an ounce of thought. If you toss a habitat down on one end of the map and solar panels on the other electricity will be supplied to the colonists regardless, somehow being magically transferred across the distance. Likewise, an apartment complex housing a few hundred colonists does not need to be connected or even near oxygen producing facilities, food growing buildings or anything else. They will simply function. This immediately eliminates one of the typical foundations of economic strategy games; layout planning. You can slap down factories, laboratories and other nonsense wherever you like. It doesn’t matter. By the end of the short campaign my Mars looked like it was planned by a hastily formed committee of insane asylum escapees at the local pub. Why is there an apartment complex sandwiched between a nuclear power plant and a rocket launch pad? Because shut up.

Nor do you actually have to manage the colonies, as it turns out, because it’s nearly impossible to ever get in trouble. You can’t build anything without the requisite amounts of power, people, oxygen, water and food, so it’s impossible to get over enthusiastic and expand too quickly. There’s nothing that drains your economy or can otherwise catch you off guard, either; once something is built it uses up the prescribed amount of resources and that’s it. Again, this means there’s nothing to manage or keep a careful eye on when building up colonies. You just quickly check the requirements, construct any appropriate facilities to meet those requirements and place it on the map. That’s it. There’s no consideration needed when it comes to expanding.

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Your colony will slowly degrade over time as buildings fall into disrepair unless you produce some technicians to amble around and keep everything functioning. And yet even through this the game still doesn’t present a challenge; if a building fails completely or even if you simply choose to delete it outright everything carries on as per normal. At one I ran an experiment by decimating my own solar panels, oxygen production and greenhouses, leaving my colony massively in the red for electricity, oxygen and food. What happened? Nothing. Nobody began starving or struggling to breath. There was no panic. Everybody carried on like it was just a regular day. So, Earth Space Colonies, what exactly is the point? What is there for me to manage? Failure seems practically impossible, and no planning or thought is actually needed to build up the three colonies.

This also brought to light a another feature which doesn’t even seem to be working at the time of writing. Up at the top right of the screen the general happiness of your colony is indicated. Keeping folk happy is often an integral part of economic strategy games, so it wasn’t surprising to see a smiling face indicating that the colony was quite happy with the state of things. The mood started as just okay, but progressed to outright happiness as the singleplayer campaign droned on, and I didn’t think too much of it at first. It wasn’t until I ran my little experiment that I realised that the happiness rating never changed. My entire population seemed unfazed by the fact that most of them should be starving, suffocating and bumping into walls in the darkness of their homes. In short, the system is pointless and doesn’t seem to convey any benefits for penalties based on the overall happiness of the colony. Nobody will suddenly revolt, the population won’t shrink.

The general lack of threat carries through to the disasters, which you can actually choose to activate using a menu on the side of the screen if you want. But these events mean so little when it’s entirely possible for huge swathes of your base to get wiped out and it be nothing more than a mild inconvenience. You just rebuild a few things and carry on as if nothing happened. Nor will disasters knock your populations mood, either, again displaying just how useless that system seems to be. However, there was one single moment when disasters lived up to their namesake; within the opening minutes of a sandbox game an asteroid struck, destroying my workship on Ceres. Having not yet built a transport hub I was unable to send over the needed supplies to rebuild the workshop, supplies that could only be crafted using a factory, a mid-tier building that I had on Mars. Because I couldn’t build up Ceres I couldn’t gain access to lead via the mines, and thus couldn’t advance Mars further, either. I was stuck, and had to abandon the game entirely.

Indeed, the game is littered with ideas that have been abandoned, relics of an Early Access phase that should have resulted in something a lot more polished than this. The game blithely mentions being able to mine ore and sell it to Earth for example, except that feature isn’t in the game anymore. There’s a hotel which does absolutely nothing, other than drain some resources. As for research a bit of…well, research shows that it used to be more involved in Early Access before becoming what it is now; sort of pointless. It’s used entirely to advance the plot in the campaign, and does nothing of any real value in the sandbox mode. There’s also the case of the combat system, which feels like it was intended to play a more important role in the game. Ceres will come under attack during the campaign, so the game prompts you to build some defenses, and you can take manual control of these in a FPS style shooter. Sadly the sequence is brief, and largely pointless. The only time you’ll need to use defenses on the other two colonies is if you activate a disaster yourself.

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As for modes there are three to choose from. The story mode holds your hand a fair bit, guiding you through building up the three different colonies with objectives that frequently get muddled thanks to a lack of clear explanation, such as saying that you can get Copper on Ceres via the mining facility, when in reality you get it from Ganymede using extractors. I also hit a huge problem in the campaign when it demanded I ship ten units of Copper to Mars, except that it wouldn’t class the objective as being completed regardless of what I did, leaving me unable to progress any further. There’s also a sandbox mode. It’s hard to say if its better or worse than the campaign. On the one hand the campaign guides you through building everything bit by bit which can be dull, but on the other hand there simply isn’t any room to fiddle around in sandbox. There just aren’t enough mechanics, systems or building options to give players a chance to design an interesting, unique colony. No matter what you do every game feels exactly the same, with no variety. Compare that to something like Cities: Skylines where there was loads of room to experiment and play around, and Earth Space Colonies feels weak.

There are other minor irritations, too, like a camera that never lets you pull far enough back, or the fact that just as soon as you actually begin terraforming Mars that’s the end of that story.

I don’t like being harsh toward indie games. No team sets out to make a bad game, with the possible exception of devs responsible for Slaughtering Grounds. But the blunt truth is that Earth Space Colonies isn’t worth the asking price or the effort needed to download and play it.  It markets itself as a strategy-simulation, and states that you need to, “Balance your resources and expand the infrastructure.” Yet the game fails on each one of these claims; there’s no resources to balance, no strategy to building a colony and as a simulation it’s laughable. How are workshops simply capable of pumping out iron and other resources? Where are they getting their materials? Why can buildings get power without any form of connection to the solar panels or nuclear reactor? There isn’t enough depth to the mechanics to make this a fun economic strategy game. Not once will you need to actually think about anything.

 

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