Early Access Review: Rimworld

RimWorld is a colony-builder simulation game developed and developed by Ludeon Studios and available under the Steam Early Access program. I really struggle with this review because I want to like this game a lot more than I actually did, but I'm put in mind of a criticism once made by Yahtzee Crowshaw, because it resounds especially clear for RimWorld, so let me restate it in this proper context: RimWorld is a game of petty niggles, which while individually are minor, start accumulating until you are wearing them all like a hat.  While there's hope for this game still, since it is in early access and therefore could still see attention, as is right now, there's just too many things that detract from the experience and frustrated me that equate to me not being able to recommend it for anyone but those that have a high tolerance for "difficulty" that comes from a clunky and obtuse interface that doesn't well-expose it's underlying system.  It only took a few times of trying to tell settlers not to do literally self-harming activities that no one in their right mind would do before I decided I was just done for now with RimWorld.  So, with that seemingly-damning indictment, lets temper things with this: this is a game with a lot of promise, but it has too many sharp rough edges.  If it manages to smooth them out through the early access period, I could see it doing well.  Let's unpack what problems I had, shall we?

The game doesn't tutorialize very well

So, getting my Steam key I now have for the game sorted and downloading the newest version of the game after having left it for quite some time indeed after the preview, I was essentially going in fresh, since so much had changed it may as well be a new game.  This presented my first real difficulty - the game doesn't really tutorialize at all.  The tutorial system that exists in the game is more a "suggestion of what to do next" thing, and the interface is left mostly for you to figure out yourself. Thankfully, it's intuitive enough and presents a similar sort of design to those familiar with Prison Architect - from which the game lifts its visual style as well - that it didn't take much fuss to figure out, though it is not as well organized as Prison Architect's and some items took fussing through many different item categories to find certain things.  To give a specific example, the research table is in the "Production" tab, so when I was looking for a "multi-analyzer" which is a required component for high-end research, and thus associated with said, I went looking in said tab, only to not find it, and this went my clicking expedition through all the other categories until I found it in the "misc" category.

The problem is that these suggestions don't replace properly explaining the game to you, and most of the core mechanics go entirely unexplained.  For example, in building different things, such as walls or doors, you can right-click to select different materials, but it never tells you this - and as such I can only imagine many people who don't stumble head-first into that mechanic entirely by accident will find themselves frustrated quite quickly by trying to grab metal for everything, since it can be fairly scare especially if the procgen is unkind, and that is the material most things default to being made out of unless you change them.

There's all manner of example of this through the gameplay.  How to get complex parts, how the research tree at the research bench works, what you need to do to be able to communicate with other tribes, how to combat effectively, it's all kind of glossed over.  Perhaps the system it does have to automatically suggest things simply decided I didn't need to know how to do these things, but the interface especially could have used some explaining, or if not explaining, and probably more ideally, refined.

Clicking around in the interface is pretty clunky

And that leads neatly into one of my biggest bugbears with Rimworld: while it's obviously sort of aping Prison Architect's interface, it is nowhere near as elegant.  To do many common tasks takes quite a few clicks.  Just to construct something, you have to click architect, then click the category it is in (or several categories if you can't find it, such as in my prior example), then click where the item is. Thankfully things like walls and floots let you click and drag, but it's pretty cumbersome.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

More than anything, I found the amount of clicks to get any significant task done somewhat clunky, when it wasn't downright infuriating.  You get thrown into situations frequently where immediate responses are needed or you suffer significant drawbacks and while you can (thankfully) pause the game and still issue commands, it certainly doesn't help anyone who tries to avoid that shortcut (and those that regard it as "cheating") that just to, for instance, click the individual guy, then scroll all the way over to what needs attention, and then right click it for the proper context-sensitive action.  Really in general, you just need far too many clicks to get anything done.  The art style may borrow heavily from Prison Architect, but it seems like RimWorld's user interface design could stand to borrow more from it.

AI behaviour is erratic
and the tools provided to override it are ineffective

Of course, the bigger bugbear with those emergency events is that you cannot, in any way, shape, or form, rely upon the AI settlers to react to things in anywhere near a sane fashion.  Eccentric AI is something of a staple of these games, both Prison Architect and DwarfFortress have what could be called at best quirky AI, but where those games they can be relied upon to at least not be blatantly self-harming, the colonists in RimWorld really cannot.  And that is at the root of so many frustrations, I dare to say.

The problem that RimWorld's AI introduces can be distilled in a single word: micro-management.  Even the inane dorfs of DwarfFortress pale in comparison in the amount of baby-sitting you will have to do to get anywhere in RimWorld.  And this is both because the game's AI is about as sharp as a sack of potatoes, and because the tools you have to override it are not very effective.  Whereas in the Sims you can turn off "free will" and override the Sims' artificial intelligence quite effectively, they is no real similar mechanism in RimWorld.  You do have a means to "prioritize" a task, but even that is clunky.  It will only prioritize a single thing, for one - so for example if you want to prioritize cleaning a whole room, you will have to do it individually for each and every pile of dirt, blood splotch, or splat of vomit on the floor.  Each and every single one.  Secondly, that just "prioritizes" it, there is still no guarantee they will actually carry out that task.  Does it take them more than a couple seconds to travel to the prioritized task?  Well, you're probably just shit out of luck then, because the AI will decided something else is more important, completely discarding that prioritized tasks.  

You can count on the colonists to perform the simple tasks they decide they want to, but anything else is an exercise in cat-herding and it is really deeply unpleasant when the shit starts to fly and you're trying not to get them to do silly things.  One person I corresponded with about these issues related a story where their colonists kept getting incapacitated running after each in flaming building.  All you can really do is laugh at that point, because if you don't laugh, you'll cry, or end up pulling out your hair.  And without an easy "reset" tool like how you can just re-embark with a new group to the same area and start over again, as you can in DwarfFortress, you can be left losing a lot of time and effort building.

This ends up with so many scenarios where it feels like you're fighting with your colonists to get them to not do the stupid things.  Common problems I had were trying to get colonists to harvest plants literally 5 tiles away instead of cannibalizing the corpse of some pirate they shot (which will give huge mood penalties and probably sickness).  There's just so many instances I ran into of clearly self-harming behaviour that have no good reason for happening that I could spend the whole review relating them.

Rimworld's core building is a compelling time-sink

Now that I've whinged myself inside out like some sort of youtube personality, lets get to the core gameplay, and honestly, this is what leaves me so frustrated: the core colony builder that's underneath the clunky interface and poor AI is compelling and a huge time-sink.  I don't think I've caught my getting as absorbed in a builder game since Cities: Skylines some time ago.

Construction is straight-forward enough, if somewhat hampered by the aforementioned dodgy interface, you construct rooms and floors and then use sort of zone tool to designate various areas like storerooms, growing fields, and so forth.  You don't manually designate individual rooms unlike Prison Architect, but it's fairly natural: want a bedroom?  Then just put a bed and a door on it, and it's now a bedroom!  This could perhaps use some tutorializing but is nonetheless quite intuitive and the building itself is quite natural and flows well.

The thing the game does really well in this regard is momentum: it keeps things going at a decent pace; at least when the AI isn't busy being Thicky McPonceypants.  Things progress at a good clip without feeling over-whelming and the game does a good job of introducing events at a fair frequency without just fucking you; there's nothing that feels like it was a situation I just couldn't've escaped from if I was good at it, or if the game stopped fighting me in terms of interface and colonist AI.

Indeed that really is the core of that irritation: I could easily lose so much time in this game if only the problems that exist didn't.  RimWorld does something that not many other games don't really do, and many that do don't do well: it tells a story.  You have these three colonists in the default scenario that have escaped onto this remote 'rim world' and you have to do your best to survive, despite their various idiosyncrasies and issues.  And this would be a compelling and absorbing thing if only it wasn't evoking anything but empathy with the AI.

RimWorld is one of those games I dread writing a review for, because I really want to like it a lot more than I ultimately did.  There is a compelling and intricately-detailed colony builder in the vein of a science fiction adaptation of DwarfFortress just struggling to break out of its limitations here, but it feels like it doesn't quite do that, at least not yet.  A lack of proper tutorializing and random events that can severely handicap and even even abruptly a scenario that's going well otherwise, without any easy option to restart such as DwarfFortress' embarkment mechanic, lead to many a rage-quit.  While it's true to say that the appeal in the difficult city-builders such as DwarfFortress, Banished, and so forth, is in being able to scrape by when things go wrong, there's a feeling that I could not escape that even doing things 100% correct, there's going to be times the game just pushes my shit in, and without an easy way to get back into the action, that unfortunately means I could only recommend it in its current state to those fans of this