Oxygen Not Included (Early Access review 1)

This review applies to the game as it stood as of the Space Industry update.  I have not completed the game successfully, nor explored every inch of its feature set.  This piece is intended to give readers an impression as to whether they would enjoy the game as-is, based on a dozen or so hours spent with it.

After my initial disappointing brush with Rimworld, my urge to find a graphical Dwarf Fortress-like remained unsatisfied.  I basically got sad and gave up on it, however, and was just looking around randomly at other games that were on sale on Steam.  It was during this random sadbrowsing that I stumbled across Oxygen Not Included.

I was already familiar with Klei from their work on Don’t Starve and Don’t Starve Together, the former of which I’ve put hundreds of hours into over the years.  They have an immediately-recognizable and gothy-cute style of hand-drawn art (reminiscent of very early Tim Burton) that’s a real treat for the eyes, and I enjoy their ability to weave together and balance lots of intricate moving parts into their games’ systems.  Both of those things also apply to ONI.

When I grabbed the game, it was just because it was on sale, I knew I already liked Don’t Starve, and I like sci-fi stuff.  So I was like, “Klei game in space, huh? Neat.”  Turns out, it’s actually nothing like Don’t Starve, instead being closer to the graphical DF-like I was after in the first place!  I’d accidentally found exactly what I was looking for.

ONI is played from a side-on perspective, like a platformer.  However, you have very limited direct control over your colonists (called “Dupes” because they’re duplicates printed off from raw genetic material.  Also they’re not smart).  Instead, you queue up job orders and set priorities, and your people get around to things as they can.  Since you start deep underground in the core of a planetoid, one of your first major tasks is to dig out the general structure of your base and make rooms.  You have to grow food, pump water, provide sleeping quarters, and keep your Dupes healthy as you expand and design your base and contend with various hazards.  Sound familiar?

It should, because this is exactly Dwarf Fortress.

There is necessarily a loss of complexity in the mechanics, compared to DF, because ONI has graphics and thus bears the burden of visually representing things that can go on.  Any increase in mechanical complexity has to be accompanied by representative art for all possible outcomes and events, and with Klei’s hand-sketched style, this is work-intensive stuff.  However, I don’t really count this simplicity against ONI in the least.  In practice, the game flows very nicely and is relatively easy to pick up and learn, without sacrificing the core feeling of managing an ever-growing workforce and designing their home and goals.  I feel a lot of the same emotions playing ONI that I do while playing DF, and I find myself thinking in the same ways I have to while I’m digging out a fortress.  I’m a huge fan of DF, so this is meant as a high compliment to Klei’s work here.

One bit of mechanics that’s lacking here that I actually do miss is the relationship system present in DF.  The Dupes are basically asexual and everyone is just good friends automatically.  There’s no interpersonal drama, romantic relationships, or anything like that.  Everyone just works.  I suppose that’s fine, and I prefer it to how Rimworld handled things, but I hold out hope for some kind of interpersonal system of SOME kind in a future patch.

The biggest twist on DF’s formula presented by Oxygen Not Included is right in its name: oxygen.  ONI simulates the movement of gases in its environment, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, and so on.  Each has density relative to the others;  some will tend to rise, while others settle to the lower levels.  Gases also carry temperature, and various building materials act as conductors or insulators.  At first, the game seeds in special ores that drip-feed oxygen into the cave system, to buy you a little time to get up and running.  But these run out fairly quickly, and oxygen generation requires electricity, which means somebody’s gotta go run in the hamster wheel.  Meanwhile, all these Dupes breathing is generating a lot of CO2, and it’s filling up the lower levels of the base.  How will we deal with that?

Initially, you don’t have much in the way of technology.  However, as you research more and more (a task that requires a Dupe to sit at a table thinking as hard as they can), you unlock more and more complicated and powerful methods of getting things done.  As you progress, you very quickly unlock a surprisingly-complex system for wiring up your base with various devices, as well as pipes and pumps to move and filter various liquids and gases all around the place.  In addition, outside of a central circular area that’s relatively temperate, the temperature starts to vary wildly.  If Dupes get too hot or too cold, bad things happen, but you quickly need to start expanding beyond the safe circle.  As I expressed in my Factorio review, I love these kinds of engineering and logistical challenges in games.

Once you start amassing better and more specialized methods of dealing with the many problems that crop up, however, your basic Dupes will start to lag behind in what they’re capable of.  You can shift their priorities toward certain kinds of tasks and away from others, and set global priorities on a task by task basis using a relatively intuitive numbering system.  You can also print a new Dupe every few days (“cycles”) from a central printer thing, to add to your workforce and try to speed things along.  But that’s another mouth to feed, too, and another set of lungs breathing up all the oxygen.  It’s a careful balancing act.  You’ll want to set up the job system relatively soon in order to get the most from your Dupes.

Giving a Dupe a job gives them a fancy hat to wear and improves their skills and ability to use relevant devices.  Miners get better at mining and can bore through tougher rocks and minerals, cooks can use a fancier stove to make food for everyone that isn’t just bars of literal dirt, et cetera.  But with greater responsibility comes expectations and stress, and in order to not freak out under the pressure, Dupes with jobs need fancier surroundings, better food, and so on.  This creates a nice little feedback loop, similar to managing nobles in DF (but far less irritating), where you want to keep promoting your Dupes so their skills improve and you can get more things done, and this drives your base expansion and research goals so you can keep everyone happy and healthy as well, as they have to adult harder and harder.  It’s really well done.

Speaking of “adulting”, and at the risk of sounding like a pretentious old lady, I feel like this game is in touch with the zeitgeist of the kids these days.  The little description each Dupe gets, the stress and job mechanics, the gender fluidity of the Dupes, all feel like this is a game that “gets” Gen Z and is speaking directly to their insecurities and such.  Even though I’m a bit older than that demographic, I can still appreciate the thematic touches that go into design decisions like that.  It lends the game a quirky sense of personality that I find endearing.

Working against all these good things is a UI that feels just a touch rough around the edges.  I’m not a UI expert by any stretch of the imagination, so I can’t exactly put my finger on why it feels that way to me.  They’re having to convey a lot of detailed information about a lot of moving parts, so this cannot be an easy interface to design at all.  But there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi that’s missing, here.  Whether it’s something in the menu graphics, the animations, or something in the layout, I’m not sure.  But it feels somehow “stiff”, like it was cobbled together very quickly to be functional first and foremost.  This is at odds with the cute, personable art on display in the rest of the game, so it stands out.  The UI is probably the biggest indicator that it’s still an Early Access game.  This is not a dealbreaker, but it bears mentioning.

Another fairly major issue (for me, anyway) is that the game does not run properly on Linux despite saying it’s compatible.  It boots up to a blank screen, doesn’t respond to any key presses beyond that, and needs to be manually shut down from outside the program.  I really hate having to boot into Windows just to run particular games, but I’m willing to do so for titles that don’t purport to have Linux versions at all.  But when a game says it runs on Linux and then doesn’t, well, that bugs me.

Update: The game now works on Linux as of December 28th 2018.

I still have a ways to go with this game before I’ve explored everything on offer here.  Looking through the research tree, I can see that I’ve barely scratched the surface.  It seems you can eventually plan expeditions to other places and gather samples for study, which sounds pretty cool.  Part of the reason I haven’t gotten farther is that I keep starting over, compelled to make a more and more perfect base.

All in all, I strongly recommend Oxygen Not Included even as-is, particularly for Dwarf Fortress fans looking for a non-incel alternative to Rimworld.

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