Five hours into playing The Spacials: Galactology I was full of ennui. I needed more colonists to produce the next tech layer’s toys, and I could afford to hire them thanks to the massive reward given for completing one of the game’s difficult timed quests. But holy shit, the revulsion to building and decorating their bedrooms was palpable.
Galactology has an annoying habit of making the mundane mundaner and turning what are normally the best game moments into mild irritants. Meeting an alien faction, gaining new colonists, leveling up – these are all usually the fun bits in games. In Galactology you’ll actively avoid these joys. Leveling up from the 2nd to 3rd tier brings a list of additional accommodation requirements, both in roominess and attractiveness. To achieve the correct level of Martha Stewartness your tough security officer who signed up for pioneer duty on a hostile planet simply must have, lest they rampage and walk around the base breaking equipment (unless you just click and send them somewhere else), is very expensive and money is generally tight. So you don’t level him up and keep him a red-shirt forever.
Cute Rimworld is what this game is going for. You start a colony on a planet for reasons and must recruit, build and tech up from there. As is the norm, you don’t order little people around. Instead you create jobs and your colonists sort them out based on the priorities you set and their class restrictions.
It’s all kinda fine for a while as you go through the inadequate tutorials and figure out the mechanics. Even when the design choices get weird there’s so much to still learn that you roll with it. Planets produce only a single resource, and your home planet produces none. So you send a tiny crew to explore in one of the ships you start with and find a planet that produces some fruit, which seems like something you’ll need since there is absolutely nothing edible on your home planet. You build a fruit miner and refinery and leave. You repeat this on each planet in your solar system, adding aluminum and water and goo then order the ship to automatically collect everything and drop it off at your home planet.
What’s the point of all that? It works fine after you set it up, and I guess it facilitates exploration but it’s such a heavy handed, gamey way to go about it and exploration is so sterile you end up with a massive hit to ease and suspension of disbelief for a meager gain. It feels like the designers were going to make exploration a key part of the game. There are rival alien factions and biomes and strange fauna running around. There’s the tantalizing prospect of enjoying some tiny star-trek adventures as you spot promising professions like diplomat and councillor.
But it’s all paper thin. A diplomat is just a crew member who gains a bonus when using crowd control weapons. The native life either wordlessly gives you a gift or attacks. Exploration quickly devolves into a soulless search for resources. Beam down, check the single resource, if it’s something you want you kill all the wildlife on the way to the node and plant down your two buildings. If you don’t need whatever one thing the planet is offering you beam up instantly and carry on.
Stairway to Walmart
In all my travels, I have never climbed a great height and thought the resulting view was worth it. I don’t have anything against scenery, I’m just not sure what to do after 10 seconds of gazing. Galactology feels like climbing a bunch of stairs and ending up in a strip mall with a McDonalds. Confused, you walk around, do some shopping and eat a burger to extract some value from the climb. Then you climb another bunch of stairs and end up in a very similar strip mall, this time with a Burger King.
In good games of this genre, each new set of stairs brings a paradigm shifting new thing to play with. But here it’s all essentially the same. Once you climb a few tech levels and explore all the initial buildings you realize it’s a very long road to completion with only the nouns changing. There’s something wrong with the magical layer that makes us believe our pixels are real and important. I couldn’t care less about my Galactologists and I’m the sort of benevolent dictator that ensures my Rimworld pets have a comfy emu skin box next to the correct owner’s bed because I suspect they appreciate it.
Part of it is that your colonists are so inefficient, wandering around uselessly picking up single resources or manning a hotel reception desk in the offseason when no tourists will arrive. Another part is their lack of even trying to make me care, dying and interacting with each other with barely a visible consequence. The most annoying part is how demanding and unreasonable they get when promoted. I don’t like the little divas. I just want them to do their jobs better so I can sell basic rations to aliens to spin the research hamster wheel. Instead of fixing the inefficient AI, the game’s difficulty is tuned way down so even their fumbling attempts keep the colony going and death free. I guess it’s better than being frustrated all the time but it’s another drain on drama and interest.
Ok, I thought, if I can’t enjoy it as a Rimworld clone, maybe there’s joy in the tourism bit. I’m fine with a space themed Sim-hotel. Visitors aren’t an afterthought like in early Rimworld. There’s a whole set of buildings and motivations to help separate tourists from their money. So I spent the large amount of resources to build it all up and offer a fine 6-room establishment with restaurants, bars and top notch entertainment in the form of jukeboxes and pool tables.
I hated the tourists slightly more than my own colonists. They each had a goal, whether eating or recreation or studying and mindlessly partook of their one pleasure. For the vacation eaters it amounted to wandering around eating anything not locked away behind secured doors. And they paid for their meals a fraction of the rate you would get from shipping the food off-planet wholesale to the aliens. Maybe because I’m Canadian I usually feel genuine satisfaction in providing virtual tourists with the finest vacations their money can buy in games. Here I felt like the manager of one of the cheaper all-you-can-eat buffets in Vegas. Eat your stupid underpriced meal and get back to playing something that makes me a profit, like the jukebox, you unwashed alien scum.
And I needed the profit because everything is gated behind money sinks. Your high level colonists need expensive accessories but you can’t produce them, ever. You have to buy them. It’s another basic joy this game ruins – I love becoming self sufficient but here even your basic food has to be imported in.
Is it really that bad?
No, not really. It’s just superficially so similar to Rimworld that I feel the need to try to explain why it falls so short in terms of emergent gameplay, engagement and emotion. It’s just a cute game about building a low-stress colony and exploring a bunch of worlds at a cursory level. There are tons of things to build and research and you’ll keep discovering new doodads for a very long time. They don’t mislead on the Steam page, it’s stable and attractive even if cute bigheads is not my preferred style.
But it’s that feeling of wasting my time that seems to make me snarkier than usual. The deal is I grind through mechanics, push buttons and pull levers and in return the game gives me a nugget of satisfaction in the form of great storytelling or action or insight into the human condition (I’m still sorry Rimworld raider Joe Turner, I should never have stolen your kidney!). Here it’s just tofu and I got sick of it.
Should you buy it?
Not really. The final nail came when, as a reviewer, I decided to gut through and see if it’s possibly just a very long developing game that opens up only after 10 hours. Niche did that and forced me to play another 10 hours and raise its score. The last possible game changer seemed like finding non-friendly sentient aliens to see what that system is like and if it maybe adds drama in the form of danger to my colony. You need the unfriendly alien resources to continue techning up anyway.
I leveled up a strong Voyager crew, with specialists in every role, ready to put on a good showing for the aliens. To do so I had to build lavish fantasy suites for each crew member who turned psychotic if I forced them to walk on anything less than plush carpets in their rough pioneer home. To buy all those gold plated vanities I had to produce metric fucktons of low level products and ship them to various alien planets. It took a long tedious while.
Crew assembled I set off towards new star systems and hostile aliens. Upon finding them I was finally rewarded by a single majestic line demanding a massive cash gift to even talk. So off I went, producing several more fucktons of drek. Finally, eager and excited, I gave the aliens their stupid exploitive gift of 10,000 credits. The relation bar moved a depressingly small hop to the right. Still very very far from neutral and any ability to interact.
Realizing how many 10,000 gifts it would take I gave up at 11.9 hours of semi-listless, semi-relaxing play. It’s not terrible. Probably even well meaning. But there are so many games in this genre that give so much more for your effort.
The Spatials: Galactology is available from Steam
A free Steam key was used for this evaluation.