Full disclosure: as a Star Trek fan, I would give this game 10/10 for the title pun alone.
Spacebase DF9’s 2,580 “mostly negative” Steam reviews (at the time of writing) are probably more a testament to Steam’s ubiquity as a content delivery platform than to the game’s own (very real) problems. And it does have problems, to be sure, but depending on your outlook and how much you pay for it, they’re not insurmountable.
Its gameplay appears at first glance to be something along the lines of the legendary Dwarf Fortress, Mucky Foot’s 2001 classic Startopia, or Firefly Studios’ 2003 Space Colony, but its flaws – the result of a suddenly-abandoned development process – make it play more like a Roguelike. Your rather nebulous goal is to re-populate the galaxy by building space stations, staffing them with an ever-increasing supply of wandering space travellers and keeping them happy and safe from weird diseases, bloodthirsty pirates and each other. Material for building comes from mining asteroids or disassembling passing wrecks and derelicts, and your rooms and corridors are built and then assigned different uses – residential, life support, various social, scientific and utilitarian functions, etc. There’s a strong people-management aspect too, as each new arrival at your base can be assigned to one of eight different duties, each of which will make them feel varying degrees of satisfaction or frustration, and each of which they’re rated for according to a 1-5 star system. In all respects, the UI is super-friendly and makes juggling your people as easy as possible. Which is great, because you can eventually build gigantic structures with literally dozens and dozens and dozens of crewmembers. Crucially though, you have almost zero direct control over your people. About the only thing you can do yourself is order them to report to the infirmary if they’re injured, and even then it may take them a while to limp their way over.
The different types of rooms are nicely colour-coded, which really helps when you zoom out on a big base.
At first, as you learn the ropes, each new game plays hard and fast. Death comes as a result of being ill-prepared to research a disease cure, or not having sufficient defences against a surprise Raider attack, or for any one of dozens of interestingly unfortunate and unforeseeable reasons (usually often as funny as they are frustrating). But the actual process of building and decorating your space stations is so much fun that the urge to immediately try again keeps you clicking, again and again, learning more and more each time, developing and abandoning new ideas and strategies as you go. Spacebase DF 9 is very much one of those Civilization/Elder Scrolls-type games that suck the hours out of your life without you realising. Be prepared for some really late nights if you decide to have ‘just one quick go’ before bedtime.
Adding to this feeling is the game’s own save system, which by default consists of toggle-able silent autosaves and a single Save and Quit menu option. Like a psychopathic lover, Spacebase DF9 doesn’t want you to be anywhere other than inside it, grinding away at full speed. Played like this, the feeling is very much of a Roguelike’s ‘one life, one death’ trip, all of which helps mitigate the pain of being screwed by one of the game’s terrible bugs or imbalances.
Yes, they are quite terrible, unfortunately. But in the twenty+ hours I’ve played it so far, the problems have been all about imbalance and lack of tweaking, rather than outright bugs. One of the worst of these is with the guns on enemy ships. Once you’ve been boarded by Raiders, their ship’s guns remain ‘hostile’ even after you’ve killed or captured the invaders (sometimes they can be reformed and will join your crew to start a new life), or claimed their ship as your own. Only by eventually disassembling enough of the enemy ship will you be able to cut off power to the gun, making it safe. But getting to the bloody thing can be a real game-breaker – these defensive turrets have great range and cut through people in spacesuits like a lightsabre through yogurt. It’s at times like these that the lack of direct control over your spacemen becomes a real tooth-grinder, and you can end up with piles and piles of floating corpses made up of the Builders who foolishly crossed in front of the guns to get behind them (in space, the AI paths in direct lines from point-to-point), as well as the Doctors who went to retrieve their corpses.