Developer: Realmforge Studios
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows (Reviewed)
Release Date: 26 March 2021
Price: $49.99 USD/$69.95 AUD – Available Here
Spacebase Startopia is bringing an old school niche favourite back to the PC. The new game hopes to recapture the witty humour of its predecessor while adding a new RTS mechanic. The game offers a ten-mission long campaign, single player sandbox, co-op, and competitive multiplayer.
Players are a human commander of a hotel located on a space station. Their murderous AI VAL serves as their guide, assistant, and taskmaster. VAL is modeled after the many evil AIs in pop culture with none of the charm that made the likes of GLaDOS or HAL 9000 amazing. The emotionless VAL is unrelenting in her disdain for biological creatures and as shallow as a puddle. The first few jokes about biological creatures’ inferiority are funny, but the thirty or so that followed fell flat. There are a few good quips in the game, but they all have nothing to do with the comparison between AIs and creatures. They were all references to pop culture or history that were weaved into the game’s setting really well. If those jokes were the bulk of the product, the writers would have had a brilliantly written game instead of the dull mess we are presented with.
Spacebase Startopia is an empire management-RTS hybrid. Unfortunately, the RTS section is painfully bad. The gameplay is shallow with only three hero type mechs and a swarm of disposable drones available. The RTS controls are incredibly clumsy. The game provides terrible feedback about what your units are doing and what problems they are encountering. Setting up the base to be economically efficient and time efficient for mech movements is an unpleasant chore given the small map size. Considering how limited the scope is, I would have preferred to see the RTS portion of the game dropped completely. Spacebase Startopia’s PVP would be much better served by focusing on sabotage and economic combat only.
The empire management half of the game is where Spacebase Startopia is at its best. It is an incredible balancing act where players are keeping multiple plates spinning at a time. The game offers a large breadth of clientele. Each race and client type have their own needs and interests, and only a few basic ones overlap. Changes in employment, adding new buildings, and new alien species can quickly disrupt the harmonious balance and send station ratings plummeting within several minutes. Digging yourself out of these messes is what makes the game fun.
Base planning is an enjoyable challenge when combat pathing is pushed aside. While it is not as intense as a full-blown city sim, players will need to make sure their space station’s air quality, power grid, and garbage needs are met. Some buildings can be customized which works well for Spacebase Startopia’s cramped maps. The game offers a few pre-set blueprints that are highly efficient. I like that players can save their own blueprints in case they find themselves relying on a super skinny design to shove into tight alleys often.
Spacebase Startopia struggles with presenting information clearly. The game just drowns the player in useless information with its social media-like voting system. The population submits feedback at a set interval. Players can filter the feedback by race, positive reviews, and negative reviews. The hashtags and likes are supposed to give a quick overview of the issue, but the commentary is rarely detailed enough to hint out where the actual problem lies. Instead, players need to dig around individual character menus and buildings to figure out what is the cause. All of this trouble could be avoided by sticking with tried-and-true methods like detailed tables and graphs.
There are two sets of tutorials in the game. The initial set of tutorials are a few quick maps to teach the absolute basic principles. The campaign is a longer chain of missions that walk players through all the game’s mechanics. When I previewed this game a few months back, I was quite happy with the early missions and wished for more. In hindsight, I should have been careful what I wished for. I got what I wanted, but not at the quality I was hoping for. The later campaign missions have very frustrating win conditions that unnecessarily drag out play time by either adding a dull grind or throwing an unwanted last-minute surprise. For example, the space trader mission dragged on for an extra half hour because fake traders that cheat the player can spawn at what I believe to be their normal spawn rate.
The controls are usable but far from perfect. I find the mouse controls never made complete sense to me as gamer who put more hours into the original Starcraft than I wish to admit. I suspect the controls were designed with consoles in mind and simply tacked onto PC with the almost singular obsession for using the right mouse button to interact with the game. A left mouse click is randomly thrown in for item management which makes the controls feel weirder than it already is. To add insult to injury for PC gamers, there is no ability to rebind keys either.
The quality-of-life features are lacking. There’s no way to dump entire stacks of items into the recycler, or if there is, the game isn’t clear about it. Moving buildings around also takes about two steps too many.
The art style is good. The art team did a great job making three visually distinct floors that reflect their different gameplay roles. The team also did a good job modernizing the original Startopia style and giving the new game a slightly more cartoony touch.
The audio is decent. The voice acting works well for a soulless AI. Players are given a few options to choose from, including no voice acting at all. The sound effects are passable. The soundtrack is extremely limited though. There’s only a handful of tracks that play on loop when the camera is near specific buildings. Otherwise, the audio landscape is just barren.
Spacebase Startopia is not worth the AA price tag. The developers took a big gamble when they tried to make a hybrid empire management sim-RTS game, and it blew up in their face mightily. The writing is bad. The RTS portion of the game is shallow and poorly executed. The empire management section is better, but there are still some glaring issues with the campaign and how information is presented. One must wonder how much better the game would be if the developers just cut their losses early and spent all that time making a better empire management sim. Combined with the dull audio experience, the only people I see playing this game are empire sim fans looking for a weird experimental title during a major sale.
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