Planetbase originally released in 2015 on PC to a somewhat warm reception. Now almost two years later console players are able to get in on the planetary colonisation action. The aim of the game is as straight forward as you would expect, and much of what you’re requested to do is given away by the games title. Which is to say that you’ll be building bases on planets in a galaxy far far away (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Despite the simple premise of the experience, actually achieving a solid result is far from easy. This is a game that will constantly see you fail, but the rewarding sense of progression you get when you finally nail exactly how to play, is certainly high up there.
In terms of plot, there’s very little to soak up. Mankind has travelled into deep space to seek out and attempt the colonisation of other planets. You’ll be taking on jobs such as creating and supporting life on other planets with very little resource, aided by both human and machine alike. You will almost immediately be greeted by how tough it is to juggle so many different priorities at once, irrespective of the helpful tutorials that the game tries to hold your hand with. I dare say that this instant show of being thrown in the deep end may well turn several players away from the get-go. There is indeed a difficulty setting that allows you to play normal mode or challenge mode, but there’s no real distinction between the two other than the latter throws requirements at you, whereas the former allows you that little bit of extra freedom to achieve them at a better pace.
As you start out playing, you’ll be sent to one of four planets that vary in difficulty. The moment you touch down you’ll need to balance heaps of mechanics at once. Oxygen, power for your food, resting chambers, water, and so on and so forth. The game gives you just enough to get you on your feet, but it’s not long at all before you’re panicking and frantically searching for ways to overcome the practical reality of making life work on desolate planets. There’s a lot of testing that you will need to do to ensure that you’re playing this correctly, or at least in an order that seals your survival. If you’re first few hours of this game are anything like my own, your humans will die for a plethora of different reasons. This however is exactly how Planetbase wants you to feel. It wants you to feel hopeless, desperate, and at the end of your tether.
The beauty on the other hand is that when you finally have a grip and begin to expand and build upon almost nothing, you truly feel accomplished. The simulation section of play makes itself apparent when you have to keep all of your workers well fed and satisfied with their position. With that being said it’s important to note that workers have specific roles and they cant (and wont) step on another workers toes. If a medic or biologist ironically bites the dust, there’s no way of healing or maintaining crops. It’s vital that you are constantly vigilant of how many staff members there are for each role, because if they begin pushing up daisies, you’re out of luck. Nope, not even Matt Damon can help you.
You can build a base to pretty much whatever extent you want, but just like in the real world, you’re going to need to make certain that it’s accessible and sufficient for the occupants. Oxygen is a your first port of call, followed by food, water, and power. Setting these components up is probably the most straight forward aspect of the game, but then soon after you’ve got to think about medical facilities, mines, and a means to convert materials into something useful. It’s a well thought out game and it’s clear that the developers have put careful planning into action, but that’s not to say that the end result is satisfying.
When playing a game like Planetbase it’s important that the game remains fun, win or lose. Here however you’re punished for not just overthinking, but for planning ahead. If you so much as build a structure too early you can easily suffer for it later on, thanks to lack of supplies or equipment needed to fill your building with all of the right content. It rapidly becomes clear that this isn’t just a game of balance, but one that comes with far too many systems and rules to overcome, or least overcome whilst having fun. I must have spent at least two hours using trial and error techniques only to find that I had overlooked a single function that cost me the colony. Sure that’s the aim of the game, but for me it just felt a little too punishing and unforgiving.
I quite enjoy the occasional management sim, but when almost everything you fail to achieve results in death, it can become somewhat frustrating. As aforementioned you can utilise the help of machines in the game, and these little robots help you to build structures and carry materials. They (much like everything else) need to be looked after by engineers or else they’ll malfunction. Engineers can also keep on top of other electrical equipment such as wind turbines and other essential gear that can and will wear down, which again will further cost you more resources. Planetbase is just one vicious cycle that has you playing the role of god whilst you overlook and overcome as much as you can. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun when you put your mind to it, but getting to that point is just rage inducing.
Expand too quickly and you’ll find that you will run out of resources too soon due to staff swiftly consuming all of those vital systems and materials. Expand too slowly and you’ll find that you’re spending too much resource on damaged equipment, leaving you with little to continue with. See the pattern here? Whilst you can play this game however you want, you need to go at a very specific and careful pace. Every action has some consequence in one form or another, but the most important aspect of play is making sure you have enough power at all times. Power can be generated in different ways. You have wind turbines for when it’s windy, and solar panels for daytime generation. Believe me, if you want to save yourself a headache (and a controller) then keep on top of your power. Without power nothing in your base will function and you can kiss goodbye to your colony.
When you’re not managing your structures or staff, you’ll be worry about whatever natural disaster is about to strike. These don’t tend to prove too much of an issue at first, but when you’ve made some significant progress and meteors or lightning storms come and destroy parts of your base, well that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. If this happens at the wrong time and you’ve just spent up a portion of your resources elsewhere, and you don’t have enough to recover from the damages, it can spell game over. Will it strike? Will it pass? This more than anything adds a constant level of suspense, and it’s certainly something that I oddly enjoyed each and every time a disaster was occurring nearby.
Despite that you can build anywhere you want when you’re dropped onto a planet, you need to build in close proximity to other structures so that they can all interlock. The problem however is that you don’t always have a clear idea as to where you can expand due to lack of space or uneven terrain. You can indeed choose between small, medium and large structures, but again you have to take into account how many resources you will be depleting if you go for the larger buildings. A neat feature is that the game allows you to reroute power if you start running low on energy, and even allows you to prioritise certain structures over others if the occasion arises. So although Planetbase is quite a deep experience with several challenges to juggle, it does a good job at giving you the creative power.
Expanding your group of colonists consists of crafting land-pads to entice visitors to check out your progress. You can fine tune exactly what type of staff will visit you, which in effect helps you to get more done in less time. Resources can be obtained in a collection of different ways and often require specific workers to get the job done, so it pays off to expand your base and fill it with staff as soon (and efficiently) as possible.
Mercifully the gameplay is as smooth as can be, and when you take into account that this comes from mouse and keyboard, it’s a transition that is fluid and comfortable on the controller nevertheless. This really could have been make or break for Planetbase on console, but the developers have mapped out the commands extremely well. Visually, the game wont be winning any awards. It’s nice to look at and everything renders well with no frame rate issues or technical faults whatsoever, but don’t expect this game to wow you with its graphics, because it wont. It’s the gameplay that attempts to steal the show.
Planetbase is a game that demands your full attention, it really couldn’t care less about anything else. With that being said it’s also a game that sings to a very specific crowd. If you’re a fan of space-themed games and enjoyed the likes of Punch Club for its management system, you’ll certainly want to pick this up. Albeit it’s not as taxing as Punch Club, but it is definitely more punishing, and on that score you’re going to need a great deal of patience to make it through. There’s enough content within and heaps of longevity to justify the price tag, and I have no doubt that fans of this type of game will enjoy working towards unlocking other planets and seeing the experience through.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.