The state of one’s wishlist on Steam is a reflection of both their aspirational desires and realities their gamer self. For those whose wishlist is too long suffer from the idea that they could play them all some day but, in reality, will never get to them. There are those with a blank one are either simply don’t wishlist at all, or only do so to support those chosen few games they know for certain that they’ll play. Then there’s people like me, who use it as a tracking device for games they want to play and promptly forget why many of them made it on there in the first place. I also play this great game of going through it every so often and simply refusing to play anything on it, just because I can’t remember why I wanted to play it in the first place. This is how IXION sat on my TODO list for so long, even though it objectively ticks a lot of boxes for me. After being reminded of it again, and seeing a good mate of mine with 20+ hours in it, I finally decided to tick it off my wishlist and oh boy…

Why the heck did I wait so long.

The Earth is in its final days: its atmosphere and economies on the brink of collapse at the hands of humanity. There is one corporation however who’s set their sights on ensuring our survival: DOLOS and they have created a massive space station called the Tiqqun. This ship will be capable of interstellar travel and tasked with a singular mission: find another home for humanity. You are the administrator, the chosen one who will lead this ship through the vastness of space and bring it back home with news of success. Your first job is simple: position the Tiqqun around the orbit of the Moon and build the VOHLE engine: the machine that will allow you to travel great distances in a fraction of the time it would take conventionally. Your first step on this journey will not go as you expect however, putting you on a course that will have the survival of humanity resting in your hands.

IXION’s graphics are simple but brimming with detail, meant to be enjoyed zoomed out as you survey the station you’ve built for yourself. This is also part necessity as well as the simulation ramps up in complexity very quickly, something to which my redlining fans will attest to. There’s a modicum of visual confusion early on in the piece as the muted colour palette and numerous similar-looking structures making it somewhat difficult to discern what you’re seeing at a glance. Performance did remain good all the way to the end though, showing that the devs have struck the right balance with the visuals to ensure that it doesn’t descend into a slideshow as the game progresses.

The lazy way to explain this game would be to call it “Frostpunk in space” which, whilst apt, hides a lot of the nuance. To be sure the core gameplay loop feels similar: the ship is decaying around you and needs constant repair which requires a constant stream of materials to support. Your crew need to be fed, housed, kept healthy and have their requests met every so often lest they start to question your leadership. The ship has 6 sections which you can build out but opening each one will increase the rate at which the hull repairs. There’s a technology tree which has an array of upgrades for you to pursue from the mundane “just a better version of X” to others which can drastically alter the way your ship functions as a colony. The solar system you’re in can be explored extensively, both to find precious resources to keep you going but also to find other points of interest which can both help and hinder your journey through space. Layered on top of this is the game’s overarching narrative which is driving you towards the ultimate goal of colonising another planet, with each system presenting a new challenge which you’ll have to overcome. You won’t find anyone calling out IXION for lack of mechanical complexity, that’s for sure.

IXION does a good job of guiding you through the game’s opening moments well enough, laying out a path for you to follow that should get you setup with a relatively stable base to get things going. From there though you’re somewhat on your own as the game doesn’t really give you much instruction beyond explaining various alerts as they pop up. This can lead to encounter some weird issues which, on the surface, have no clear answer but are in fact intended parts of the gameplay. My first encounter with something like this was when I expanded into my first new sector and the game refused to allow me to build certain buildings. Thinking I’d forgot to tick a particular checkbox or something I clicked around blindly for ages before heading off to Reddit. The issue was that the game requires a few buildings to be placed before you can build others, just so you don’t end up completely ruining yourself. Once you know this it’s obvious, but the game doesn’t communicate that particularly well.

Once I’d gotten past that particular stumbling block I started to feel pretty good about everything, that was until I started having issues with the one of the core mechanics: stability. The stability of a sector influences the Trust meter: Stability being high making it go up and low making it go down. Like Frostpunk’s cold mechanic this will continually pile on additional negatives to make keeping trust up harder, pushing you to take certain upgrades, construct certain buildings or take sub-par courses of action to boost stability. One particularly insidious one is “staying in a system too long” which, if you’re a newcomer, feels like a firm push to take the leap into the next system. So feeling semi-secure with the ship in all things but stability I took the leap to the next system and immediately found myself in an even bigger hole than I found myself in.

The trick the game successfully played on me there was thinking that I had everything sorted out and pushing me just enough to make a bad decision. To be sure I held on for as long as I could but the issues just kept piling on until I ran out of resources to keep the hull repaired. In reality I had just managed a kind of unstable equilibrium in the first chapter with enough resources coming in to balance myself but not enough to endure any particular challenge that might come my way. So I restarted the game again, rushing through the tutorial parts until I got to the part where I was in full control of my destiny. There I enacted my grand plan which would lead me successfully through the rest of the campaign: explore, consume, stabilise, jump.

Basically the idea was to explore the system as much as you can in order to capture as much of the science available as possible. Whilst that’s happening you want to build out your resource base enough so that you’re running a surplus, researching any key technologies along the way to make achieving that goal easier. Only once that system has reached stability do you even want to think about opening up another sector as that radically shifts the balance towards doom. You will have to do this multiple times though so it’s always good to get yourself into a good surplus of all materials before shaking things up. Then once you’ve gotten all the science you can, done all the events it’s time to jump. Usually if you’re doing things right the additional stability penalties of being around too long don’t matter so much and certain upgrades (like better quarters) go a long, long way to improving things.

It can be easy to get lost in the sea of potential upgrades and new tech, so much so that I think my initial playthrough fell through because I kept thinking climbing the tech tree was the only way to go. Whilst you do need to progress a fair way up to unlock some of the better upgrades it’s far more effective to focus on improving the current things that are challenging you rather than trying to unlock the next tier upgrade. After the first couple solar systems it’s then worth thinking about investing in sector specialisations, another (not really explained) mechanic that can help you do a lot more with less. The long and short of it is that once you reach a certain number of tiles covered by certain buildings you can unlock a specialisation which improves certain things for that sector. The most useful of these are the food and space ones, both easily achievable even if you don’t plan your sector effectively right from the start. With both of those under your belt, along with certain upgrades, you can have single sectors that provide all your food and can repair your ship through even the toughest of the game’s sections.

The game still has some rough edges though, even this long after its full release. There are some visual bugs that’ll show up from time to time, like all the sectors of crop or algae farms showing that they’re powered down, something that doesn’t affect their function but can be really misleading (can be cleared by turning it off and on again…haha). There are also some weird interactions with the mess halls which can lead to people starving even when there’s food available for them to eat. I’m not sure what caused it but destroying and rebuilding them seems to fix it most of the time. Resource transportation between sectors can also get a bit iffy later in the game, so much so that at some points I had to disable food trade between all sectors but 2 in order to ensure they actually got some sent through. All of these things aren’t game breaking by themselves but if unchecked it can easily ruin a particular run, pushing you back to your last save (which could be quite a while back).

The game’s story really brings everything together though, providing you with enough plot points at the right intervals to keep pulling you forward. Whilst there’s a host of characters introduced early on they’re not really used in the rest of the narrative, instead most of it being told via events that you send your crew on and through other events during your playthrough of the game. The main narrative arc doesn’t change but your experience of the world will be different thanks to the numerous small events and their many different outcomes. There’s also the story you’ll craft as you go through the game, of how you overcame particular challenges and what quirks you discovered that changed your playthrough for better or for worse.

IXION is a masterclass for this genre, offering deep mechanical complexity coupled with a solid overarching narrative that results in one of the best games I’ve played so far this year. I was surprised to see some rough edges still, even this long since its release, but given the sheer complexity of the game it shouldn’t be surprising. I’m not even mad at the game for baiting me into bad decisions over and over again, my hubris being my downfall more often than anything else. But there hasn’t been many things more satisfying than making it to the end, being presented the final challenge and beating it with time to spare. IXION is a game that I’m sure will hold up well for many years to come and I only hope the devs continue to build out more games in this franchise and genre.

Rating: 9.0/10

IXION is available on PC right now for $50.95. Total play time was 22.7 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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