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.
The simplicity of 2D platformer games must be really liberating for developers, especially small time independent ones. I say this because it seems that I’ve played a lot of games this year that fit into that genre and the amount of innovative game ideas that I’ve seen has really surprised me. These were the titles I grew up on and they were, for the most part, usually a small variation on the original Duke Nukem idea. One thing I didn’t expect was the introduction of stealth based game play something which has traditionally been contained to 3D games. Mark of the Ninja blends stealth along with puzzle solving and platforming to form a pretty unique game experience, one that doesn’t really have anything that I can directly compare it to.
Unlike most ninja games which take place in feudal Japan Mark of the Ninja is set during present day. You, an unnamed ninja, were receiving your first tattoo which would grant you special powers when you passed out. A short while later a fellow ninja, named Ora, wakes you up as the ninja stronghold is under attack by a security agency headed by a man named Karajan. After rescuing your fellow ninjas as well as your master, Azai, you’re then sent on a mission of vengeance against Karajan for the atrocities that he committed against your clan.
Mark of the Ninja has a style to it that’s reminiscent of all those flash animations of yesteryear but there’s a level of refinement about it that many of those lacked. The cut scenes for example feel like they came straight out of a professional animation house and wouldn’t be out of place in any cartoon you’d see on a Saturday morning. There’s also incredible amounts of detail everywhere from the interactive area which is littered with all sorts of things to the backgrounds which are done exceptionally well. This blends exceptionally well with the music and foley which provides a very detailed soundscape to compliment the impressive art work.
Mark of the Ninja is primarily a stealth game and its implementation in the 2D, platformer world is quite an interesting one. For starters unlike most 2D games Mark of the Ninja includes a line of sight mechanic which forms a big part of any stealth game. This means that you’ll spend the vast majority of your time walking between shadows, dodging guards where you can, so you can either sneak up behind guards and dispatch them quickly or just move on leaving them none-the-wiser. If it so pleases you though you can go toe to toe with every guard you meet however and there are some sections which will be far easier (and quicker) should you choose to do that.
Initially you start off with only a few tools at your disposal, namely your sword and bamboo darts that can be used to take out lights and other fixtures. As the game progresses you unlock additional abilities and equipment that allow for a much wider range of actions, enabling you do things like terrify your enemies by laying spike traps or dangling corpses from the room for all to see. All these options will mean that your play through is almost guaranteed to not be the same as anyone else’s as there just so many ways to go about doing the same thing.
Indeed that seems to be the whole point of Mark of the Ninja. Whilst it is primarily a 2D stealth platformer it also has many elements of a puzzler/exploration game as there are many rewards to be found by simply taking the least obvious path. I can’t tell you how many times I found artefacts/scrolls by going in the wrong direction or moving blocks in random ways. If you’re persistent enough too the most laborious of challenges can usually be circumvented by finding a path that leads around it or simply puts you behind the guards that were blocking your path. Mark of the Ninja then is a game that rewards the player for being curious but thankfully forgoes punishing you severely if you don’t.
The upgrade system bears mentioning as how many upgrades you can afford depends directly on: how many challenges you complete, your overall score and how many of the hidden scrolls you uncover. For each of these there are a potential 3 tokens up for grabs giving you a total of nine for each level. These can then be spent on various upgrades that either give you new abilities/equipment or upgrades to the ones you currently have. Depending on what you get this can completely change the way you play the game, especially if you combine these upgrades with one of the costumes which will grant you several benefits (usually at the cost of one particular trait).
This is usually the point where I mention any bugs or glitches that detracted from my game play experience but I’m pleased to report that there doesn’t seem to be any. Sure there were times when my character acted in a way I didn’t expect but its hard for me to blame the game for that as I get the feeling it was more me fat fingering the keys rather than the game engine wigging out on me. I did have some rather awkward checkpoint moments where it’d place me into locations that I hadn’t yet explored when reloading (which was actually great sometimes) putting me in rather precarious situations but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.
The story of Mark of the Ninja is also quite well done, especially considering it forgoes the usual ninja setting and instead brings the whole ninja idea into modern day. Whilst I didn’t really feel the levels of emotions like I did for things like To The Moon it certainly didn’t suffer from issues like poor voice acting, irrational characters or glaring plot holes like plagued other titles I’ve played recently. I will admit that I’m yet to finish it (I believe I’m on the second last mission) so I’m not sure about the ultimate conclusion but from what I’ve heard from my other friends they weren’t disappointed with it, so it has that going for it at least.
Mark of the Ninja effortlessly combines all the best aspects of 2D platformers with stealth game play to form a game that makes you feel like the ultimate ninja whilst still providing an incredibly satisfying challenge. The graphics are superbly done, the sound track excellent and above all the core game play is immensely satisfying. I could go on but really for a game that’s asking price is so low compared to its quality I’d rather just recommend you go out and play it since it’s really worth a play through.
Mark of the Ninja is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $14.99 and an equivalent amount of Xbox points. Game was played on the PC with around 6 hours of total game time and 43% of the achievements unlocked.