Spacebase Startopia’s AI may be filled with contempt and is quick to let you know it in a not so roundabout way, but how do we feel about the game in itself?
Type: Single-Player, PvP, Co-Op
Genre: Simulation, Strategy
Developer: Realmforge Studios
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Release date: 26 Mar, 2021
I am recovering from hand surgery so excruciatingly painful the wound felt like all the rebels in Tropico were attacking it at once so my apologies to the developer for being a bit late with the Beta preview. We have a full version review coming out shortly so if you are visiting from the future you may want to go check that out too. If you are visiting from another planet, well hopefully there will be something here to keep you entertained as well. I completed everything available in the beta and am now looking forward to more of the same playful interaction once the full version releases.
Currently the tutorial feels like it takes longer than the available campaign, but that is mostly because I am playing a beta preview build rather than the final release. I have been a long time Tropico fan and this game has nothing to do with Tropico and does not feature the beloved El Presidente, nor his sycophantic advisor, Penultimo. It does, however, feature an AI, who really needs to have a diagnostic run on her personality subroutines. She reminds me of HK-47 from the classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or GLaDOS from the Portal series. Her general distain and contempt for you and other living beings is veiled very lightly by her backhanded compliments. No matter how well you do, or how quickly you do it, she is sure to respond with surprise and disbelief that you actually managed to do the trivial task and ensures you understand just how terrible you still are. I have to say I did enjoy her general candor even if it was a bit heavily negatively slanted. She could definitely endear herself even more if she breaks out into a hurtful song at the end of the game.
That is enough about VAL for now. She will likely open the airlocks if I say too much more about her. Let us talk about the general gameplay instead. You have three decks to deal with, and each one of the decks can be expanded to allow for well… expansion. Each deck has a specific purpose. The sub deck is where most things are happening, the fun deck where fun happens, and the bio deck for growing resources. Each one will need some form of attention, but the sub deck is where you will likely spend most of your time. The fun deck is just a place for your visitors to unwind and spend energy, you can build various rooms for them to enjoy and that is about it. The bio deck allows you to terraform it to change up the resources available to you. The sub deck though, as mentioned, is where the action is. It has the greatest variety of rooms available to be constructed. It is where most of the utility buildings are such as the factory that uses the materials made in the bio deck, the recycler for the trash to be dumped into, the medical facilities, the station security, and the list goes on. Some rooms have a fixed size, others can be built in multiple sizes. The rooms that can be built into multiple sizes have drawbacks as well as interesting benefits. Small rooms cannot hold that many visitors whereas large rooms can easily accommodate lots of visitors but as one would expect, certainly takes up a lot more space. Also, large rooms are harder to regulate in terms of oxygen quality as you cannot place the air filters directly into the middle of the room. Ultimately with a combination of expansion and careful planning and a few edits here and there you can design yourself quite a functional space station even if the AI will insult and mock it. You can even design the layout of the furniture and fixtures of the rooms too if you so desire or you can just let it auto-place them if you do not feel creative enough.
Other than room building, the gameplay is largely figuring out why your guests are unhappy and fixing the complaints. Your task may be hiring new staff for buildings as needed, building more cleaning facilities because everyone uses the floor as a trash can, and basically all the other fun stuff any given tourist resort has to deal with. Crime also occurs on the station so your security drones and battle mech will deal with the rabble and you can have brig to place the criminals into. Just to keep you on your toes random events occur that allow you to pick between two options or stopping bombs from exploding in your base. Your factory also produces much needed goods… or at least I think they are needed. I never really had a use for them other than as achievements or making a mech and when a quest made me do it, but that is likely a beta issue that will be resolved in the full game.
I have to admit I enjoyed the looks of this game. The kind of modern slightly cartoonish looks of the game really helped bring the game together. The various alien species visiting the station were all sufficiently unique to tell them apart and even the little robots meandering around doing their chores were fun to watch. The various buildings were animated enough to make them seem functional while not being distracting. Even being able to see indicators above the aliens to see there is something wrong is done with a shiny animated fireball like symbol. Seeing the garbage piling up around the place helped enhance the feelings that the station is both alive and that my garbage collection robots are lazy and doing a terrible job…sorry started to channel VAL there a bit.
There is a bit of weird tilt to the floor in the game what with it actually being a curved ring of the station rather than a flat floor which both gives the view an interesting feel as well as messes a bit with my ability to judge things properly as I attempt to place them. It helps keep the game more interesting though so it was a good design choice in my opinion.
There is not much deleterious to say when it comes to audio, there are the various sound effects and the subtle background music to keep it from getting too quiet. It is actually quite peaceful. VAL’s charming voice chimes in periodically, sometimes repeating herself almost instantly, but that is likely a beta bug. Her slightly robotic voice, reminiscent of GLaDOS suits her quite well, and I say that out of admiration and totally not out of fear that she will “accidently” shut all the oxygen down on the station. It would be nice if the aliens were a little chattier, but then again, I probably wouldn’t understand them anyway.
Controls and User Interface
The controls in this game are simple enough although they are also a little off feeling. Rotating the camera around to see the other way feels mostly natural but at the same time feels like it could be improved on. I also found the curved rings of the Spacebase interesting, but at the same time, made the camera feel wonky at times. The camera never had trouble showing me what I needed to see, but I sometimes found the camera wedging in the ceiling rather than where I intended it to be. These are likely a combination of beta issues and my own injured state causing additional difficulties for me, so I will not hold that against the game. Everything else about the UI and controls seemed intuitive enough other than having to drop a crate on the floor before right-clicking it so you can get a menu which then lets you left-click to open it. After doing that, you then left click where you want the contained building to go and clicking to set it and then clicking confirm so it actually builds seemed a bit cumbersome and complicated to both perform and write about! It was mostly easy to figure out what the visitors needed and to decern how to solve the problems so your rating stops sliding. There is a menu you can look at that has a “Spitter” interface where the visitors praise or complain about things.
A recommendation I would have for the game is that for selectable size rooms, allow them to be placed into unusually shaped areas. With most buildings having an exact footprint, it can be hard to place buildings which leaves you with open spaces around the area (which you might be able to stuff small things into but that is about it). It would be nice if you could extend room out to fill that space, allowing for more items to be in the room, kind of like how it is done in the Dungeons series. Sure, making it into a kind of oddly shaped room might not be the most efficient, but at least it fills some of the otherwise empty space.
So, should you pick up Spacebase Startopia? If you do not, VAL will not take too kindly to your rejection. Mind you she likely will not take too kindly to you picking it up either. There is just no pleasing VAL. I can see this game having quite a bit of potential. I did enjoy a similar game called Space Colony back in the day and this game does remind me of that so if you are familiar with that game, and want something slightly similar to it, then you might want to check Spacebase Startopia out. I suppose I should have compared it to the original Startopia, rather than Space Colony, but I figure other previewers and reviewers have done that enough by now. The slightly wonky camera caused by the ring shape of the base and the slightly off feeling controls do not really hamper the experience enough to say much negative about it. I am sure once the game is finally released it will feel more like you need to do more to please your visitors. Right now you can pretty much just build the rooms you need and ignore the statistics and still be successful, however, the levels available in the beta are just the tutorial and training levels so if they were made easy to lose, that would likely put off players from wanting to press on. VAL is mostly harmless unless you take her mean-spirited barbs personally rather than as encouragement as I am sure she intended them to be. She keeps it interesting in her antithesis to Penultimo role and makes me almost miss my glory days as a benevolent dictator in Tropico. Viva Startopia!