Game review: Oxygen Not Included is a deep space survival game

The makers of Don’t Starve launch a new survival game that makes living in space seem even more difficult than you’d imagine.

The recent 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing was an odd experience. Despite how much technology and society has changed since 1969 manned space exploration has all but stopped, to the point where the space shuttle has been mothballed and the International Space Station is the only reason humans now go into space. Supposedly that’s going to change in the next decade or so, but many kids today must view NASA’s glory day exploits with the same sense of unrealness as the average sci-fi film.

Although there was nothing specific to tie in with the anniversary, and in general video games rarely attempt to portray space in any kind of realistic way, they are an obvious avenue for those frustrated at humanity being currently earthbound. Of course, surviving in space is very difficult and there’s an almost infinite number of things which can go wrong when you try, which are two issues at the heart of this new survival game from Canadian developer Klei.

We always preferred Klei’s other work on Mark Of The Ninja and Invisible, Inc. but since Don’t Starve seems to have been their most successful title it’s no surprise to find them returning to similar ground with this new game. Although new is a relative term, since Oxygen Not Included has been in early access since 2017 and it’s only now that it’s been officially launched. There’s no sign yet of a console version but we hope it’s just a matter of time because this is one of the best survival games in a long while.

Although it is a survival game in the strictest sense there’s also a business management element to Oxygen Not Included that’s not a million lightyears away from games like Prison Architect and Two Point Hospital. The set-up is that you’re in charge of a trio of cloned colonists who arrive on an asteroid with only a few pockets of breathable air to survive on. Realising that help is not going to be forthcoming any time soon you have to help them survive on their own, something like the film The Martian, and eventually build a rocket to escape.

All this is done with a knowing sense of humour, as your unhappy charges mine out parts of the asteroid for floor space and resources and get to working creating sustainable greenhouses and researching new equipment. Despite the cute 2D visuals many elements of the game are surprisingly realistic in terms of the technology and underlying scientific principles, especially in terms of the way gases and liquids behave (remember: oxygen floats, carbon dioxide does not).

You’ve got three primary resources to keep an eye on for each colonist – oxygen, hunger, and waste – but you also have to make sure they get enough sleep, exercise, and stimulation to keep them healthy. Colonists can easily go stir crazy, but while it’s funny to see them freak out occasionally, they otherwise don’t have particularly obvious personality traits, which is a bit of a missed opportunity.

If we’re making all this sound very orderly and mannered then we should make it clear that it Is anything but. Although the theory behind what you’re doing is very straightforward every step is extraordinarily complex and the unexpected sense of realism means your colonists are subject to far more dangers than it first seems, from freezing to death and unsanitary toilets to chlorine poisoning and the unwanted attention of various alien creatures.

In most games of this sort you plonk down a few generators and attach them to a Ferris wheel or electric fence – or whatever the theme of the game is – and that’s usually it. Maybe you’ll have to give the equipment a maintenance check every now and again but with Oxygen Not Included it’s much more involved than that.

Machinery and pipes often have to be kept at specific temperatures, filters are needed to keep out unwanted gases, and water and other liquids seem to always end up exactly where you don’t want them. Cave-ins are commonplace, illness can spread in minutes, and colonists will literally go mad in the chaos – even if you don’t.

In other words, Oxygen Not Included is a hard game. In fact, it’s an incredibly hard game, not just in terms of the basic difficulty but the fact that it refuses to explain many of its details. If it weren’t for early access ensuring the wiki is already well populated with information we would’ve have been stumped multiple times and even then we’re sure there were far more elegant solutions to many of the problems that we never discovered.

A little more in-game help would’ve been appreciated, although in general we were very happy to be tested in such an unusual way. Survival games are often hard but usually only because you can die so easily and resources are so hard to come by. Those aren’t the primary problems here though and instead everything feels like one giant, randomly-generated engineering puzzle. One that is significantly easier the more versed you are in the various sciences, from chemistry to computing.

If you don’t know anything about those things though don’t worry, as you’ll learn by experience, if not from instruction, and even if you never do finish that rocketship you’ll still have plenty of fun almost saving everyone.

Oxygen Not Included

In Short: Funny, clever, and extremely complex mix of management simulator and survival game that manages to make abject failure almost as entertaining as success.

Pros: Clever use of scientifically accurate concepts with a sandbox style approach that rewards experimentation and lateral thinking. Fun visuals and a huge range of options and solutions.

Cons: Extremely difficult and with very little in-game help, which makes some late game concepts hard to understand without outside help. Colonists have too little personality.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PC
Price: £18.99
Publisher: Klei
Developer: Klei
Release Date: 30th July 2019
Age Rating: N/A

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