Published: 20 March 2015
Editor's note: Maiyannah's copy of this game was provided free of charge as a gift by a reader.
Spacebase DF-9 is a base-building game developed and published by Double Fine Productions. I have always had a soft spot for builder games, and even some of the ones rough-around-the-edges so to speak have sucked quite a lot of my time away, but I have to confess, Spacebase DF-9 probably holds the questionable distinction of being the first builder sort of game that I have just not enjoyed all. It feels as generally lifeless as the space it is set upon, empty and sparse. This is a game that very much suffers from "rushed to release" syndrome, given that it was Early Access and had the plug pulled on it, and serves as something of an indictment of the Early Access system.
Spacebase DF-9 looks very pretty, but feels lifeless
A game that obviously focuses on style over substance, Spacebase DF-9 seems to have sunk most of what development it did receive on the art direction; but, to be fair, the art direction is quite stellar. The game looks good, is well animated, and has all matter of (inconsequential) style flourishes in the information about various colonists and the items you can place in the environment. The UI is clean and well-presented, when it isn't bugging out (more on that later) and the station while not very varied in the tile-set.
The sound design is the main part of the direction that really contributes to the aforementioned lifeless feeling of the game. The game has very little going for it in that regard, no little "simlish" chatter like the Sims, and not even many beeps or boops either. The musical score is great, but comprised of very few tracks that get repetitive quickly, and the game often forgets its there as much as you do, leaving you in sullen silence for extended periods.
The base-building aspect is not very complicated or deep
So, your task in Spacebase DF-9 is ostensibly to build a base where you are repopulating the galaxy, using "matter" material mined from asteroids to create rooms which you then zone into different types of room (Generator room for power, Life support room for air, Residence for living quarters), etc. Essentially, only an Airlock (to get in and out),a Refinery to convert mined asteroids into matter, a Life Support Room for air, and a Generator room for power are at all essential, most other rooms are superfluous to at least some degree. (You'll want to place a food replicator item somewhere in there, but it's an item, not a room) Morale is the unspoken other resource to consider, but there's little you can do to directly influence it, especially since you can build all the morale boosting rooms like Residences, Bars, Fitness training rooms, etc you like, but you can't make your colonists actually use them. And there's literally nothing beyond that except a research lab that allows you to research passive small bonuses for other rooms or your colonists. And all of these facilities can be as abundant as trolls in a YouTube comments section, the AI often still won't make use of them how you want, which brings us to Spacebase DF-9's Achilles heel, it's hugest problem.
Colonist AI is dumb as a sack of hammers
DF-9 evokes the kind of god game that Dungeon Keeper was in it's basic design: building your domain up without direct control over the behaviour of your colonists, and occasionally dumping them on a bunch of invaders to deal with it. The AI in Spacebase DF-9 however, makes Dungeon Keeper's look good, and while you could at least modify your inhabitant's behaviour in DK by rewarding them with gold, slapping them, or dropping them in certain places, to get things done. DF-9 has no such ability, and you are basically relying upon a thick as concrete AI to get done what you mean.
Surely May you're exaggerating, I can hear you think to yourself, but only a little if I am - many a base I built had to be abandoned after the initial colonists were literally too stupid to get into the base when it is done, and asphyxiated to death because the limited suit oxygen they have ran out. They are also constant going hungry standing right by a bar or food replicator, getting upset when there are plenty of morale rooms nearby to relieve stress, and the one time they will decide to use a morale room will be when they're all supposed to be on security duty to deal with the raiders re-purposing your base into swiss cheese.
Now, the game's morale system is supposed to play into their behaviour and offer a deep mechanic, but again, due to the AI that often completely refuses to do what you want it to, its refusal to use the tools readily-available to deal with their problems, and the like, the mechanic mostly sinks the game all the further.
That's the main frustration in the game, but it's not the only one.
The game is riddled with plenty of bugs,
albeit not (usually) game-breaking ones
I haven't had a game session that hasn't bugged in some small way. While the bugs are usually not crashes (though I certainly had some of those, that seemed related to having multiple monitors), they are quite annoying. Whether it be walls that don't properly seal oxygen, the AI refusing to build a door for the room they sealed themselves into, or the occasional crash or interface bug that locks up the game, I was always dealing with something that made what little enthusiasm I had for the game just drain away. I am generally a patient woman with bugginess in indie games, but a game of this budget coming from the developer that it is coming from, there is no excuse.
And that's what it comes down to - the elephant in the room.
There is no reason a game from this developer,
with the budget it had thrown at it, should be this buggy, and incomplete
Yeah, it's a hell of an elephant in the room. Double Fine Productions has developed quite a bad reputation for over-promised and under-completed games, and it was all the buzz when this game was first announced to be leaving early access, because there was a laundry list of promised features that would never come to completion. And if you read that link, perhaps you will not be surprised to find that most of my complaints if not all of them would be addressed by features they promised in that further development page.
That's really the crux of the matter - Spacebase DF-9 is a bad game, which isn't any fun for me, but it didn't have to be a bad game.