Coming into Early Access games once they hit the 1.0 stage has been a mixed affair for me. About half the time it’s when is really ready for prime time with the most glaring issues worked out, the core game play set and the last few iterations being spent on polishing up the overall experience for when the great unwashed will descend upon it. Other times, and this is typical of games that spend quite a bit of time in Early Access, the game has morphed into its own entity that exists by, for and of its community, sometimes to the point of being so niche that going 1.0 is simply a milestone and not much more. Lastly there are those which are 1.0 in version name only, usually being a horrid mess of half-realised ideas and sloppy execution. Oxygen Not Included, having been in Early Access for over 2 years (but coming from a veteran developer, Klei), has feet in the first and second camps with it having most of the trappings of a polished release whilst also being so incredibly complex with all the mechanics it gained over the years making it’s appeal quite niche. So much so, I’d argue, that I think most people who would ever have played it have likely already bought it before then.
You take the role of the omniscient AI who’s been tasked with ensuring the survival of your colony. Unfortunately it seems like your calculations on where to land weren’t entirely accurate and instead of ending up on the surface of an asteroid you’ve managed to find yourself on the inside of it, making the task of establishing a successful colony just that much harder. You’ll have to carefully balance every resource at your disposal if you want your colony to survive as without your help they’re sure to perish in this unforgiving subterranean environment.
Oxygen Not Included brings with it the trademark art style that Klei is known for, reminiscent of the Flash games of yesteryear with their bright colours, heavy outlining and simple effects. It can be a little visually overwhelming at times as there’s so much going on and it can be a little difficult to differentiate different things at a glance. The game does have tools to help with this of course however they only go so far. This kind of art style is also part of the game’s optimisation strategy as when your base starts to grow you’re going to need every single spare CPU cycle you can get. All this being said though the art style fits the tone of the game well, giving off serious AdVenture Capitalist vibes with its mix of happy overtones with a layer of dark humour bubbling away underneath.
The lead design for Oxygen Not Included cites games like Dwarf Fortress, Prison Architect, and The Sims as his inspiration for this game and their influence can definitely be seen in the mechanics they’ve developed. You don’t control your colonists directly, instead you set them tasks which they’ll do, if they’re able, and they’ll attempt to take care of themselves otherwise. It’s up to you to set up an environment for them to succeed by managing all of the resources that will impact on them. The list of what you’ll need to manage is incredibly long, ranging from simple things like food all the way through gas mixtures, plumbing and wrangling the local wildlife. Indeed this laundry list of mechanics is likely what will turn many newcomers like myself off it as it can be quite intimidating to get into them, especially with the tutorial really only showing you the basics before leaving you to figure everything else out.
That being said making a self sufficient colony isn’t particularly difficult, especially in the starter biome which is particularly friendly to your duplicants. Of course a colony like that isn’t really going to be doing a whole lot of much and so you’ll often turn your eyes toward new and shiny technology that you want to implement. This will mean that you’ll need to begin venturing outside the confines of your safe haven which is where things can start to get really tricky. Indeed the first lesson you’re likely to learn is that whilst it’s important to make sure all needs are met you also need to do that in an efficient way otherwise you’re going to struggle even harder as your base expands. So, if you’re like me, your first few colonies will likely get trashed and you’ll start anew rather than trying to fix a mess you created for yourself.
From there is when things start to get really complicated as your base’s needs grow and the means to meet them becomes ever more challenging. To be sure some of the complexities came from my own desires to do things that I didn’t totally understand how to go about but I lay a good part of the blame for that on the game itself. For instance I tried my hand many times at growing pincha peppers and try as I might I could never get the environment just right for them to properly grow. So I Googled my heart out and figured out how I could best approach the problem but even then it was a long hard slog just to do something a simple as growing a plant. This of course then extends into every aspect of the game as everything beyond the basics has requirements that can’t be met simply, often requiring a long chain of things to work properly for you to get your desired outcome.
That’s where the mental load of this game got to be too much for me as whilst small to medium bases were easy enough to manage once they got over a certain size the wheels starting coming off quickly. Often I’d set a task and then it wouldn’t get done due to some other requirement I hadn’t noticed which would then have a cascade effect on other things down the chain. Troubleshooting these long complex chains of behaviour becomes incredibly taxing, especially when you then have to go back to basics to fix certain things only then to forget what you were trying to do in the first place. I’m sure there’s numerous strategies to combat this but in the time I spent with Oxygen Not Included I didn’t stumble across any, nor did I really feel the inclination to after a certain point.
I’m sure for players who’ve been with the game since the start of its Early Access days these mechanics aren’t really that hard to manage or understand but for me it made playing the game a chore after a while. As my previous reviews of other games in this genre will attest to I usually enjoy these kinds of city building games but I like the complexity to be at a manageable level. If I have to spend a good portion of my time debugging a long chain of events in an automated system to figure out the problem I’m quite likely to get bored and simply give up rather than keep playing once I find the solution. In fairness to the game I’m probably not the ideal player for them either as a game who’s influences include Dwarf Fortress is likely to have a very specific niche in mind.
To be sure I can see why the game has the appeal it does and it’s pretty much the same for every game like it: the emergent storytelling. Looking at the screenshot above you can likely guess there’s a pretty funny story as to why one of my duplicants ended up drowning in a vat of urine. So my polluted water storage area was going to overflow so I tasked the duplicants with building out larger bottom for it which we’d flood and then block up the side once completed. The duplicant, of course, happily followed orders and then built himself a prison which he then filled with polluted water by unplugging the bottom. The first alert I get of this happening? His death note in the top left corner of the screen resulting in the rather darkly hilarious picture you see above.
Oxygen Not Included is a deceptively complex base building game that, if it was your kind of thing, is likely already in your Steam library. For those who enjoy building vastly complex simulations that take into account numerous variables Oxygen Not Included will provide endless hours of fun. For players like me though the complexity is a bit too much to overcome, making playing a real chore past a certain base size. Perhaps if I had more time on my hands like I used to I’d find the charm in Oxygen Not Included but today, even after putting a good 6 hours into it, I couldn’t find much else to keep me coming back.
Oxygen Not Included is available on the PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 6 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.