The other day I found myself awake at 8 am, having not slept at all the previous night. The reason? Planetbase, a management sim with an astronomical spin.
In Planetbase, your task is to set up a viable colony on various, harsh exoplanet landscapes. There are four planets to choose from, each with their own unique hazards. The starter planet, for example, suffers from periodic sandstorms and random asteroid crashes, which can quickly reduce entire groups of colonists to asphyxiated mush in the vacuum of space.
PlanetBase is an ID@Xbox game, and it represents good value for your money, but it lacks the depth of similar games. It won't be long until you find yourself doing the same tasks over and over, with little to change up the flow of the game.
Still, until that sense of repetition settles in, Planetbase is a viciously addictive management sim that puts a sci-fi spin on the classic city-building formula.
Controls, menus, and engine
Planetbase, like other strategic management games, might seem best played on a PC where you can leverage the precision of a mouse for efficient play. Thankfully, however, Planetbase's developers created intuitive menu controls that make the game a joy to handle.
The Xbox controller's bumpers open separate menus for both interior and exterior buildings, and holding down the right bumper allows you to select individual colonists to assess their needs, and select buildings to place facilities.
The joysticks and triggers control the camera and zoom, and while you won't get as much control over the map as you do in Cities: Skylines, you can zoom out a fair distance, allowing you to view the entirety of even extremely large colonies.
Each map presents different challenges, whether they're extreme atmospheric hazards or things like falling asteroids, curveballs will appear at random to wreak havoc on your colony. The visuals and animations aren't ground-breaking, by any means. Planetbase's planets are, by design, barren wastelands, devoid of features and life. The weather effects aren't as spectacular as they could be, and even events like asteroid collisions aren't as dramatic as you might expect, seeing buildings erupt in a puff of smoke.
Still, even as your colony grows to gargantuan sizes, complete with hundreds of individual colonists, Planetbase's engine does a good job of handling the load. There are times when frame rates clearly suffer, but it's never game-breaking. I played for several hours in a single session, never enduring a crash or freeze.
Planetbase's UI, menus, visuals, and audio won't win any awards, but they all get the job done. The controls in particular are well crafted for gamepads, and you won't find yourself frustrated once you complete its informative tutorial.
It's hard not to compare this game to Cities: Skylines, considering they share a launch window and similar gameplay mechanics, but it should be known that Planetbase edges a little more into the strategy column, rather than management.
My first colony died in mere minutes, as I forgot that they, you know, have to breathe. The first thing any budding colonist should do is set up an oxygen generator, paired with electricity and a water extractor. These are the basic things you need to manage to keep your colony alive.
Later, you will need to build canteens for eating, farms for growing food and medical supplies and sick bays to handle injured workers, as well as mines, factories, and planetary defense systems.
The cool thing about Planetbase is that it's not just building-focused. You can zoom into each building to place items and objects as you see fit, whether they're green plants to improve the happiness of your colonists, or chairs for them to sit down and de-stress occasionally. Unhappy colonists don't work as fast, which could lead you into a tough spot if you're desperately trying to feed a colony that grew too fast.
My second colony died after a few hours, because I started accepting immigration, and found myself with more colonists than I could prepare food for. I ran out of healthy biologists, which meant no more farms, which in turn, meant no more food. My planet died a slow and painful death.
Every time you master one type of problem, a new one pops up to throw a wrench in the works. Space pirates will sometimes infiltrate your colony, meaning that if you have neglected guards and weapons, you're looking at a lot of dead colonists, very rapidly. Also, maintaining a flow of storage and trade also becomes critical, because surplus supplies can build up and degrade without proper storage, halting your ability to manage crisis moments.
Planetbase doesn't give you a huge amount of freedom over where you can position buildings and connections. There are no curved pathways and no elevation options. Everything has to be placed on flat ground, quite far apart from each other. A little more customizability would have been welcome.
There's a lot to learn in Planetbase, from trading, to space tourists, robot production, and radio tower control, which gives the game depth – for a while. Eventually a sense of repetition sinks in, as you realize the "upgrades" to most buildings are essentially just larger versions of existing buildings, color-swapped versions of existing crops, and so on.
There aren't a huge amount of emergent gameplay events to keep things interesting over longer periods of time, and Planetbase settles for dull artificial challenge modes, like "grow a colony really fast," in an attempt to hide its lack of longevity.
There's a lot of potential with what the developer has built already for future updates and future content. As an independent game from a small team, it's very impressive and well priced for the amount of fun you can get out of it.
For me, Planetbase proved an addictive little time waster for around five to 10 hours before I realized that there wasn't really much more to it than what I'd experienced in the first few hours.
The game could have done with more dynamism and perhaps more customization, there are only three vanity buildings available, and the "upgrades" you get amount to color swaps and larger models, which gives it an unfortunate sense of grind.
- It's viciously addictive, with a great concept.
- Intuitive controls.
- Engine performs well.
- Sense of grind settles in quite fast.
- Could use more building types to keep things interesting.
- The upgrade systems are boring.
Complaints aside, I enjoyed my time with Planetbase and found myself hooked, to the point where I forgot to go to sleep. The game deserves credit for that reason alone.
If you're a fan of strategic management games, you have to give Planetbase a look. It's very good value for money. And who knows? Maybe you will enjoy the added challenge missions they throw in more than I did. Either way, Planetbase is well worth your attention.
Planetbase is available now for Xbox One and PC for around $19.99.
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