The Nintendo Switch isn’t the ideal place for complicated management sims. Whilst its portable nature and potential handheld functionality make it seem like the genre is a perfect fit, the amount of processing power involved in these games can prove a little too much for the system to handle.
Spacebase Startopia peaked my interest as it looked different to the usual management sim, but does it belong on the console?
Many thanks to Kalypso Media for the review code.
Despite being dormant for 20 years, Startopia is back with a new management simulation game. For those who never played the original (and that includes myself), the premise is that the universe has been at war for many years following a cultural misunderstanding. With that now cleared up, the different species now need something else to do – which is where you come in. The Startopia project aims to provide these creatures with a giant space donut where they can spend time together and socialise. As the commander of Spacebase Startopia (codenamed Command-R), you will need to work with the station AI in order to create and manage the station. Over three decks, you’ll need to accommodate for their general needs, entertainment, and desire for nature: all to try and keep everyone as satisfied as possible.
The story is presented through beautiful comic book-style cutscenes that pop up occasionally throughout the campaign, with filler text outlining your current mission objective during the (surprisingly brief) loading time for each level. It’s all very charming and full of humour and pop culture references. Whilst there is some kind of plot that develops over the ten mission campaign, it’s mostly there to provide some sense of progression as you gradually learn the ropes and become a competent space donut manager. That being said, even though the majority of the storytelling is minimal, the campaign ends in a satisfying way that makes sense in the overall game universe.
As a management sim, it can naturally be intimidating for newcomers – especially considering this breaks from the norm with its strangely named rooms and alien guests. Just what is a Berth? What do Fuzzies do? Which creatures do I need to hire for the Space Disco? There’s certainly a lot to unpack in the game, but you get used to it all surprisingly quickly.
The game does have a Tutorial of sorts which will help you with some of the basics, but it also leaves you with more questions than answers. These answers will click with you early on in the campaign, as the early half acts like more of a hands-on extension to the tutorial; however, you’ll find that you’ll learn by doing. Exploring what you have from the while things are restricted certainly helps clear things up.
The first thing you’ll need to learn is that the energy metre at the top of the screen does not track your ships power, but rather acts as the game’s currency. You’ll use it to buy and sell things, and you’ll earn more from things like tourism, recycling, and even doing some dodgy deals for a quick buck (or volt, I suppose). Researching new buildings will also grant you with a huge lump sum, meaning that you’ll rarely be left waiting too long for funds to arrive – which is a good thing as there’s no way to speed up the gameplay.
HAPPINESS IS A WARM GRESULURIAN
Success ultimately lies in keeping everyone as happy as possible: if people are happy, you’ll gain points that you can use to research new buildings / visitors quicker. Those new buildings will allow you to attract more guests and keep those happier, netting you even more upgrade points to use for more stuff. It’s an engaging gameplay loop, that rarely proves stressful. Starting out, you’ll want to build up the essentials for your guests, from the habituation area (the aforementioned Berth) to medical and recycling facilities. You’ll also need a cargo hold to store all the resources gained from harvested plants.
These plants must be grown on the Bio Deck with the help of the Dryad creatures. It’s likely you’ll overlook this area at first because the game does a terrible job at explaining how it works. Don’t be put off though, as it’s relatively straightforward. Pushing the two bumper buttons will allow you to terraform the deck with different terrain. Each terrain will sprout flowers that provide a certain resource (don’t worry, it tells you what it produces in the terraforming menu). As such, you need to make sure that you are producing everything you need. It can be hard to balance it at first, but if you see that you are producing an abundance of medicine, you can always alter it to focus on a different resource. Dryads deal with harvesting, so you only really need to interfere if you want to speed things up a little. Getting your bio deck managed well early will make things easier later on as the factory will use these resources to upgrade and manufacture structures using little energy, and the security station will use it to create your own Gundam!
With the basics in place, you can then start expanding your base and including entertainment on the fun deck to prevent your visitors from getting bored. Early missions limit what you can do, but they also help you get familiarised with a certain aspect of the game. By the time you get to the later missions, you should have a fairly good understanding on how to set up a successful base. Things spice up a little later on, as VAL, the ships AI, will offer you upgrades that can be a help or a hindrance. Combined with Space Pirate attacks, fanatics, ships containing plague-riddled patients, and many more, there’s certainly lots to keep you busy. Thankfully you can slow things down if you start feeling overwhelmed by the micromanagement.
Here are some tips to help you along your way:
PAY ATTENTION TO STAFFDon’t skimp on employees. Remember, they need a break. Hire more staff than you need to ensure important facilities (like the hospital and security station) have the workers they need.
FUZZIESYour Fuzzy robot staff are equally, if not more, important than normal employees. They deal with a lot of stuff, so build or buy more of them so you have less to worry about.
PERKSPerks can be a help, or a hindrance. Make sure you carefully consider your options before choosing. Sometimes something negative can help you reach your objective faster.
It’s not all smooth sailing, however. Whilst framerate is generally solid, there are momentary dips now and then, and some of the menus can be a little slow: the visitor / staff list in particular is very slow to navigate. None of this will prove to be problematic, until you get to some of the later missions when things start to get more hectic. The ninth missions is where things start going majorly wrong: facing off against two AI commanders occupying the same space station proves a little bit too much for the game to handle, and the game starts to feel like a slideshow at times – with things grinding to a halt every now and then. Considering the level is a bit of a difficulty spike anyway, these performance issues only serve to make it harder and even more infuriating. Thankfully things take a step back for the final mission, making thing far less stressful for the hardware and the player.
These major performance issues tend to only occur when facing off against multiple AI commanders, so you may want to bear that in mind when you dip into the Free Play mode. As you’d expect from the name, you’re able to build your Spacebase freely without fear of limits and even compete against up to three AI opponents should you so wish. There are various win conditions to choose from, from financial and technological victories, to just plain slaughtering the opposition. The latter may sound like a lot of fun, but in reality the combat in the game just isn’t very good. You have security drones and mechs at your disposal, and to initiate combat you’ll need to bring up the B.U.T. interface; however, this only really amounts to selecting your units and telling them what to attack. The minimality of it is fine for dealing with hostile bugs or pirate invasions, but not enough to make it enjoyable when the game is pretending that t’s an RTS. The game should have stayed firmly in the management simulator camp, rather than straying into a genre where it flounders. That being said, there are only a couple of levels with rival commanders so it’s quite easy to avoid the RTS side of things for the most part.
Spacebase Startopia isn’t going to win over anyone who isn’t a fan of the genre. Controls can be a little clunky at times, and the RTS side of things are frustratingly unfun; however, for those who want a light natured management sim that stands out from the normal city or theme park builder, you may just find what you are looking for here. With a little initial patience, you should be able to get a hang of things quickly and find plenty to keep you entertained for countless hours.