Spacebase Startopia marks the return of an IP that will be familiar to sci-fi strategy fans, and is the first time that it’s available on consoles as well. It’s out now for PlayStation and Xbox as well as PCs, with a Nintendo Switch version to follow.
The original Startopia was developed by Mucky Foot, which came from a Bullfrog background – a studio responsible for games like Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital – quality games that laid some of the groundwork for Startopia. That launched way back in 2001 though, and the IP was only somewhat recently picked up by Kalypso – who has Realmforge Studios work on the game. If you’re unfamiliar with the studio – they are the developers behind the Dungeons series, which in turn was inspired by Dungeon Keeper – the circle is complete.
Speaking of circles – Spacebase Startopia retains the original game’s circular spaceship design, and longtime fans will instantly recognize the visual style. When playing through the campaign and its ten missions you’ll notice plenty of other nods to the original game as well, but there’s some new stuff to enjoy as well. A lot of the game, at least in the single player campaign, is narrative-driven, and you’ll be shown the ropes during a few tutorial missions as well.
We found these to be quite essential, because the UI can be less than intuitive and appear cluttered to the uninitiated. We tested on a PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, and the general feel of the user interface was that it felt quite PC-centric in how it used menus with a ton of information and choices stored in some of them. While Frontier’s games generally translate quite well to the console experience, those interested in the management sim dynamics in Spacebase Startopia will likely struggle on consoles – we can imagine the handheld mode for the Switch to be especially troublesome in this regard.
Once you’re comfortable, it’s your job to manage the base’s three decks – from the ‘Sub Deck’, which is essentially the nuts and bolts to keep everything running, to the ‘Bio Deck’, which is about everything green and nutritious. In between is the fun deck, which is more visitor-oriented and drives your incoming economy. There are also outside influences to consider as not all visitors are well-meaning and you also have competition on your hands, but after an initial sense of being overwhelmed Spacebase Startopia is easy enough to handle.
Combat is handled a little differently than it was in the original game, and borrows a little from the Dungeons titles in the direct control you now have over the units you send into battle. Although this is fun once you have the management side of things fairly well under control, the controls (at least with a gamepad) also felt a bit too finicky for its own good – especially when working in a very crowded space station.
What also didn’t help were little pathfinding bugs here and there, or units that didn’t appear to want to follow orders at all. This could be intentional because your workers are all alien bug races and who are we to understand them, but frustrations should come from challenging scenarios rather than a sense that the game is working against you. That’s not just true for combat by the way, it applies to the management side of things as well.
Perhaps more of Spacebase Startopia’s secrets will be revealed over time, and keeping everyone on board happy will start to feel more efficient and not like a matter of just piling more and more resources into your objectives. You want to feel like a shrewd spacebase manager who figures out what does and doesn’t work, but there were too many cases where our Spacebase Startopia playthrough was about sheer numbers rather than smart choices.
Luckily, while this does affect the game as a “management sim”, it doesn’t make the game less fun to play, with plenty of personality in the AI voiceovers, diverse roster of aliens and lively scenes and animations. Switching over to the next gen version on a PS5 didn’t make things look very different from the PS4 version though, and Spacebase Startopia isn’t likely to wow you with its visuals. Its cartoon-like style will make sure it ages gracefully though – which is also a testament to the original game. There’s also plenty of humor here, and it makes everything you’re doing seem far less like the ‘busywork’ it can turn into at times.
Spacebase Startopia is certainly fun to play and entertaining, but we doubt it’ll make the kind of impression that will see us wanting more 20 years from now. If you need a decent PC-style management sim on your console, this one fits the bill nicely.