Oxygen Not Included has sprung forth from the recesses of Early Access, gulped its first air of official release status with confidence, and boy, does it deserve to.
Klei Entertainment has once again proven why they’re one of the best developers in the world, as Oxygen Not Included relishes in the Canadian studio’s unique style with their first attempt at a colony-building, space survival game.
Exactly like Matt Damon in The Martian, your crew of duplicants (wonderful, little caricatures) start beneath the surface of a procedurally generated asteroid with nothing more than a ration box, a cloning device, ear-to-ear grins and a desire to start colonising. Okay, so maybe not exactly like Matt Damon, but stick with me.
You’ll soon set your little duplicants the task of digging away the dirt, sandstone or whatever mineral stands in the way of a shovel as you start to expand, snaking tunnels throughout the asteroid and turning rocks into rooms. It ends up looking like an ant farm your Mum bought from the Eden Project in Cornwall when you’re six, as the tunnels weave through the 2D landscape and your little humans run back-and-forth frantically.
What first starts as simple goals of constructing an outhouse, finding/creating an oxygen source and being able to make food quickly evolves into ideas of generator rooms, hospital, functioning bathrooms, a greenhouse and even a place for your duplicants to sit and relax after a hard day’s work.
Oxygen Not Included allows these plans to germinate organically as you stumble through the various menus, popping into the research screen to read the description of an ‘Algae Terrarium’ and only truly seeing what it does when you’ve plonked it onto a piece of land. As someone who rarely plays games like this, the terminology felt slightly alien but that didn’t matter to me. Experimenting with the various contraptions is part of the fun, as well as creating a clunky pipe system which has to be adjusted on the fly to suit another ambitious idea.
Retconning decisions is a massive part of any colony building game and Oxygen Not Included is wedged under that umbrella, as your humble beginnings turn into a spider-webbed mess of pipes, ventilation shafts and power grids. All of it trying to fit in a system to help you survive, prosper and eventually shoot a rocket into the stars.
While the game gives you goals like surviving 200 cycles or making space travel possible, it’s largely fuelled by your own desire and the micro-goals which end up taking hours upon hours of planning and execution.
With its childlike art style and humour, Oxygen Not Included looks like less of a space simulator and more like The Sims in space, but don’t let that fool you. Beneath the playful crust, it’s brimming with complexity and a level of depth which will challenge any space simulator out there – it just happens to showcase it in an easily digestible way. Klei have done a good job of allowing you to access required information easily, which is nice, because you’ll be doing a lot of it.
To thrive in Oxygen Not Included’s subsurface world you’ll need to understand its systems. From temperature management to gas distribution, Klei want you to think about the weight of hydrogen or which gas will be more useful to cool down an area. Trying to figure out the best course of action can feel a bit like being back in science at school, except a smiley, overly-evocative cartoon will keep your attention, rather than a stern teacher. But you do end up feeling like Matt Damon in The Martian as you recycle and reuse polluted water, filtering it clean again or sending water into an electrolyzer to create hydrogen and oxygen.
The attention to detail is wonderful. Klei’s art team shine again with creatures chomping enthusiastically, their mouths becoming larger than their heads or weird mealwood plants which have creepy crawlies scurrying over their branches. It’s a style which has its roots firmly in one of Klei’s most popular games, Don’t Starve.
Alongside the world’s depth, your duplicants also have their own personalities and skills, with some loving to dig and others randomly falling asleep or farting frequently (this even creates natural gas which can be filtered!). As well as their abilities and stats, the duplicants have morale which is affected by a whole variety of factors; in particular, when their comrade ends up suffocating in the area where the toilet waste is sent. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
While there are niggles to the experience, from relatively frequent frame rate drops at the start of each cycle and the AI occasionally getting confused to the game outright crashing (which is naturally quite frustrating), these issues seem like the aftermath of Early Access. With the game having a decent swell of community support and the developers just as keen to keep improving, Oxygen Not Included appears to be going onwards and upwards – or whatever direction you fancy, really.
[Reviewed on PC]