Scan in Progress: Spacebase DF-9

When I was a child, I had something of a space phobia. I would stare up at the night sky, and my eyes would sink into that endless sea of black, searching for an end to the infinite darkness. Within seconds, I would start to get dizzy, and the feeling that I was about to fall into that void would overwhelm me, forcing me to avert my eyes. Seeing Apollo 13 in theatres right as I was starting to get over that reaction only served to ensure that I didn’t, in fact, get over it. It was into my teenage years that I finally overcame it, and my fear of the stars was traded in for wonder. I’ve visited several observatories, gazed at constellations and galaxies aplenty, and every now and then on a cold night, a simple glance at the sky spreads a soft smile across my face.

That makes it kind of remarkable that Spacebase DF-9 has managed to make space feel… mundane. I don’t mean that in a bad way- with Spacebase, Double Fine’s goal appears to have been to use a Sims-esque daily life game to make the effort of rebuilding the human race a mellow, mild affair. After some unspecified event leads to intelligent life abandoning the Milky Way Galaxy, a handful of spacefolk are sent to form Spacebase DF-9: the space station that acts as a first step back into the Milky Way. First DF-9, then the entire Milky Way, one supposes.

Screenshot 2014-01-21 23.02.30

The good news is, you’re not the only ones. It seems our home galaxy is more like the American Old West, with new people taking the metaphorical Oregon Trail to this new-but-old set of stars at frequent periods throughout the game. They don’t come at a constant enough rate to be a hassle, bothering you with constant oxygen worries, but if you find yourself wishing you had one more person, you probably will before long. But I’m afraid there’s some bad news: your guests don’t always arrive with the best of intentions. Armed bandits show up, meaning to murder and loot your base for its goods… though they do not do so. Chalk this up to Early Access, but the one time bandits actually did kill everyone, they just ran laps around my base, looking for more people to kill when none existed.

They aren’t particularly fun to fight off, either. If a citizen of your starbase is assigned to Security, they will fight the bandits (likely getting injured in the process) automatically, having a brainless shooting match where they both stand in doorways just dumping with laser rifles. There is no strategy involved in the slightest, and the best plan is to reassign every citizen to security the moment bandits show up- if you don’t assign enough, someone could get killed or seriously injured. There are basically no jobs on the station that require 24/7 vigilance, so you can safely drop everything and grab a blaster for some unsatisfying combat whenever bandits appear.

Bandits are just supposed to be a complication, however, not the main challenge to overcome. Neither is power management, which is currently not in the game- a generator is just a paperweight you can drop to make things look pretty. It has no practical effect on your base. The only things you have to worry about are oxygen, food, and happiness… except no matter how extravagant my base got, my citizens grew ever more depressed. It’s fun to think that it’s a message about decadence and excess never satisfying, but I suspect it’s just the game not working.

Screenshot 2014-01-21 23.48.03

Which, sadly, is just how the game goes right now. Your botanist can grow a variety of crops, but the differences between them seem to currently just be cosmetic. These crops can replace synthesized food, so that your citizens can eat proper cooked meals instead of mass produced garbage, but they don’t seem to get any benefit from it. Meteor swarms hitting your station don’t seem to do any lasting damage, new citizens eventually just stop arriving… it’s a very interesting framework for a game, but there’s not only not enough there to be worth playing, there’s not enough there to know if it will be any good. There are a few little touches, like every member of your crew having their own social media feed (essentially Twitter) full of funny and charming banter, but details like this are too few and far between at this point in development.

Certainly, that’s the problem with Early Access impressions- trying to see the shape of things to come from what is here already. It’s difficult, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. I was able to get a sense of what Kenshi was trying to be when I played it, and it was even less far along than this game is. What Kenshi had established, though very limited, immediately conveyed a tone and a personality, and whether or not you liked what they were going for was easy to tell. Spacebase still feels so generic, with only faint touches of the charm that Double Fine is known for. I can’t say that you should buy it yet, but I can’t rule it out, either. I think we’re gonna have to come back to this one. For now, I’d suggest holding off. The one nice thing about endeavors covering thousands of lightyears- waiting a few months doesn’t make that much of a difference.

An Early Access Steam copy of Spacebase DF-9 was provided by Double Fine for this article.