A lone pod lands on a distant, inhospitable world under an unfamiliar star. A small group of colonists have come to tame a deadly new frontier. Planetbase tasks players with the construction of a facility that will allow these colonists to survive and eventually create a self-sustaining community. It’s a fairly topical release, coming days after NASA released a 36 page plan to put humans on Mars in the next couple decades as well as the recent critical and financial success of The Martian. Space colonization has become a part of the cultural zeitgeist and looks more and more like an impending reality. I don’t think it is a stretch to say we’re all interested in the inherent drama of inhabiting space, where one small mistake can spell doom for everyone involved. It represents perhaps the ultimate test of human will and ingenuity. A game that asks players to solve the problems of oxygen, food, shelter, and isolation (among other things) through brilliant base construction is a truly tantalizing prospect. Unfortunately, Planetbase stops just shy of realizing its full potential.
The opening hours of base building are really quite great. Juggling the limited resources available at the outset with the immediate needs of shelter leads to some really moment-by-moment, do-or-die scenarios. Planetbase shines in those opening hours, capturing that elusive just-one-more-turn vibe that the best simulation games offer. As soon as the basic necessities are taken care of players need to begin working toward sustainability by building mines, processing plants, bio-domes, labs, and more. Simultaneously, players must expand the power grid and its support systems to be able to accommodate those structures. It is a tricky balance to maintain; if you don’t put enough resources toward the power and water grids, you could find your facility completely powered down and running out of oxygen.
As you expand your facilities and become self-sustaining, you’ll be able to build a landing pad which allows for trade and population growth. Trading is the only way to obtain powerful new technologies through blueprints. New blueprints could mean being able to construct a massive solar array or gigantic wind turbine or it could be the ability to construct new robots to more efficiently perform menial tasks around the base. As all of this is going on, remember that you are usually only one poorly timed solar flare or meteor strike away from complete disaster. Random events could happen at any time around the base and result in some tense challenges.
The problems with Planetbase seem relatively minor at first, but slowly magnify as the base grows and more colonists enter the mix. On the game’s Steam page, developer Madruga Works claims Planetbase has been beta tested, but there are so many little things that should have been caught and fixed prior to release. Trading is slow and grinds the game to a halt while you click several hundred times to finish your late game transactions. For some reason, colonists can’t sleep in beds when a room is not powered. Access to vitally important UI options, like bringing systems to a minimal power state or putting the base on high alert for a solar flare, feels inconveniently put behind two or three clicks, when it could be readily available.
Let’s really dive into the minor annoyances with trading. When a trade ship arrives, players can exchange excess resources for different items their base might need or for new technologies. One of the things that can be traded is a currency simply referred to as coins. You can earn coins by allowing visitors into your base for some space tourism and then use those coins to even out trading transactions. However, heaven help you if you earn a lot of coins and want to use those to pay for the entirety of a transaction. You can only offer one coin every time you click and coins are only worth one in space currency. That means if something costs 600 units of space currency, you will have to click 600 times to pay for it entirely in coins. That’s just irritating and could be fixed with some simple UI tweaking to allow for typing how many units of each thing you wish to trade. However, that’s just a small, easily fixed issue.
A much more pressing and complicated problem is that of the colonists’ AI. Early on, it functions adequately. However, once Planetbase enters its mid-game the AI becomes frustrating in the extreme. There are several different types of colonists: Engineers, medics, biologists, workers, and guards. While workers can mine and process raw materials, engineers are the only type of colonist that can use those materials to create more complex objects like guns or spare parts to fix power systems. As the game progresses being able to fix your solar panels and wind turbines becomes incredibly important. Without power, everyone dies very quickly. However, sometimes the AI just decides to take a break for a while. I watched in horror as one by one my power generators deteriorated and shut down while my engineers stood around the room where they could be making spare parts. They had the material in the machines, the room was the number one priority in the base, and the simply stood by as all non-essential rooms were powered down and then even oxygen systems were taken offline to maintain power in that one room. As everyone began asphyxiating, one engineer finally started making the much needed spare part until even that room powered down, leaving him to die cold and alone.
That anecdote repeated itself several times with slight variations throughout my time with Planetbase, but there are also several other strange problems. As my base grew larger and larger, some colonists would choose to don space suits and make their way around an entire mountain and across a plain to reach a different part of my base rather than walk inside the base to their destination. I’d see robots broken in the middle of nowhere or get notified that a colonist had suffocated only to see them fallen prone, alone in the middle of a hostile wasteland. Watching AI make decisions this bad is like watching the dignity of the human race curl up into a fetal position and cry.
An even larger problem was the priorities the AI seemed to have. Even if you have a room prioritized, the most control you have over colonists, many will simply drop what they are doing to carry supplies to a trade ship if you have struck a deal or decided to construct several items in a room. This can throw off a precious balance and leads to starvation or power loss, destabilizing the entire colony for practically no reason at all. All of these issues make the colonists of Planetbase feel more like lemmings than capable space settlers. What should feel like triumphant achievement in the face of adversity feels more like wrestling with esoteric systems. At one point, I lost all of my biologists, but had plenty of workers and engineers. Unfortunately, biologists are the only type of colonist that can cultivate and maintain crops, so all of my settlers shortly died from starvation. As smart and as capable as an engineer or worker might be, they apparently couldn’t handle even poorly attempting to grow crops.
All of this frustration compounds when you finally work around all of these issues to reach the late game and find relatively few interesting things to do. Only a handful of technologies exist for players to obtain from the randomized trading ships. Even the technologies that you can acquire aren’t all that interesting or exotic; most are just bigger versions of the things you could build before. Random events start to feel repetitive due to the small pool of circumstances that can occur. There are some minor goals, like getting a population of over 300, but no rewards or cool things that happen if you manage that feat other than a small box being checked. It feels like a lot of struggle for a disappointing payoff.
Planetbase begins brimming with hope and good ideas. It captured my imagination and filled me with such enthusiasm that I spent hours grinding through irritation to see if different environments or events might reignite the promise of the early game. Unfortunately, they do not. Planetbase feels like a game that should be an early access title, working through kinks and refining both the AI and UI while adding more mid and end-game content. If Planetbase was a work in progress I could forgive its faults, but as a fully priced title on Steam for $19.99? Not so much.
Planetbase is available now for PC.