Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Mothership Entertainment
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
My love of sci-fi mingles with my enjoyment of ruining people’s lives through ineffectual planning and general stupidity in Aven Colony, which takes the joys of constructing a city and then throws a thin science fiction theme at it in the vague hopes it’ll stick. Coming from a small team of just five people I wanted to be very clear about my feelings before we even jump in; it’s a good game, and such a small team should be damn proud to have built it from the ground up. They’ve got a bloody good future ahead of them.
At its core Aven is a very safe city-building/management game where you’ll be juggling your people’s desires for a short commute to work with having enough farms to feed them all, power to keep everything running, a constant water supply and even policing to ensure crime is kept to a minimum. You’ll grow your colony by putting down immigration centres so that new people can move into housing and begin staffing structures while you expand to new areas where fertile soil let greenhouses grow crops or where you can obtain iron or even gold, the latter being useful for trading off-world using the rather limited trading options.
If you were seeking the depth of something like Cities Skylines but in space then this isn’t it. For example, just building the tunnels needed for people to get around will also supply water, electricity and air, so all you need to worry about is keeping the oxygen quality reasonable via filters. Likewise, since there’s no roads and traffic to consider you don’t have to panic about layout too much, although your people do appreciate direct tunnel routes and don’t like having to pass through other buildings to get to their jobs. Strangely despite the amazing technology available to you there is absolutely no personal or public transport, and your people are lazy jerks who complain bitterly if they have to work more than a few feet or through another building to get to their jobs. There are no options for crafting a beautiful colony, either, as the game favors a snap-together square system.
Another example of how this is a simpler game are your people: as immigrants who come to a whole new world filled with complex tasks they require absolutely no education, and each person is capable of doing any given job. They’ll automatically assign themselves to mines, research centres They won’t have children, either, so schools and higher education for little humans scurrying about is a no go, either. Compared to something like Cities Skylines where you actively have to balance the classes of people it’s a much simpler, straightforward system. You can opt to zoom in on them and select each individual to check out their needs, but this also reveals that they’re all basically the same age, more akin to clones of each other than anything else. In other games keeping the people happy and improving their lives in turn improves the colony or city as they become better educated, more experienced or lead fuller lives, but here there’s none of that, instead you’re jump isn’t to better their existence but rather keep it okay so that they’ll continue to work. That’s it.
In fact, morale is one of the many features the game has that never feel as important as it should. Other than their apparent inability to walk more than a few minutes to work without whining the inhabitants of your space metropolis are a fairly easy bunch to please. Should their morale dip low enough they’ll go on strike in the tunnels or just flat-out leave, but provided you occasionally remember to slap down a bar or a VR center or something and don’t let the air-quality get too bad then they seem content, which renders the idea of winning yearly referendums to stay in power moot. Even when building a large colony they were happy enough with basic amenities and food, although occasionally they randomly became unhappy with the food and began protesting. Talk about mood swings.
There’s not much of an economy or production chain, either. You can farm some alien crops that can be turned into a variety of foods and other edibles, some of which even alter morale, by doing the appropriate research and then building a mill and chemical plant, but it almost feels pointless when the entire population is happy enough with basic food types. Other than that you can spend Nanites, the game’s currency that you convert from mined iron, to create consumer goods for your retail centres, although they can function perfectly well without them, selling….uh, stuff? There even drugs to help make the population more compliant. Since Nanites are used to pay for everything there are no taxation systems at play, either, nor do you need to chase after a variety of resources with which to build.
Control over your colony via policies, laws or anything of the sort is also very, very limited. There are some basic choices you can make like banning people emigrating or issuing a policy that uses stored battery power to boost the filtration system or even declaring forced overtime, but ultimately you have no real say in regards to laws or the more detailed day-to-day running of the colony.
Still, there are a few interesting ideas thrown into the mix like how farms will produce zero food during winter while greenhouses will get their production cut in half. Likewise, solar panels put out a lot less once frost starts setting in, although things like geothermal plants and the large zorium reactors are safe. If you don’t pay attention starvation or power shortages can strike when the bad weather starts to roll in. Turns out Ned Stark was right: winter is coming. Like, all the damn time.
You also need to contend with some other stuff such as ice shard storms that can damage buildings, lighting strikes that can take out tunnels or hit other parts of your colony unless you build conductive towers and even alien spores that can potentially infect buildings unless you shoot’em down first, although even if they make it down to your city you can construct scrubber drones to sort it out. You can even build an expedition center that gives you access to a basic overhead map where you can order a ship to investigate anomalies, save stranded folk or just pick up resources.
It’s a bit of a shame, then that the sci-fi theme feels somewhat throw away. There’s little in the way of exciting plant or animal life, and bar harvesting a few alien crops and building air filters you’ll mostly just be constructing housing, plopping down farms, building sci-fi mills and doing a host of other pretty typical things. What science fiction is there feels generic, the standard silvery designs we’ve seen or read about hundreds of times. It could easily be mistaken for Earth with a lick of paint and the occasional giant space-worm or alien fungus.
Which isn’t to say the game is visually bad. Indeed for a five-person team I think Aven Colony actually looks pretty good at times. When you zoom in there isn’t a whole lot going on, but zoomed out your thriving city can look quite good. Even the sound is reasonable, provided you don’t count the questionable voice acting. And performance is generally strong with my rig more than surpassing 60FPS at 1440p settings, although I did note that the game seems to love pushing the GPU to 100% so provided you’ve got enough raw power I suggest sticking on v-sync just to regulate it.
As for the campaign, it’s a fairly standard nine-mission affair. The developers try to throw a few curveballs like an icy planet where viable soil for crops is hard to come by, forcing you to rely heavily on trading while you get everything off the ground, but for the most part missions feel very similar to eachotherh. Again, some of that comes back to the basic gameplay mechanics – without the complexity Aven Colony can begin to feel repetitive quickly. It’s lacking some sense of challenge, too, as what you have to to do succeed is obvious and it takes real inattention to bring a colony to the brink of disaster. Sure, early in the game you might get a tad overwhelmed by juggling things like food, storage space and power, but once you’ve got a scenario or too under your space-belt things become easy since you take the same general plan and just modify a bit or two. Later on the game I actually found the only problem to be having to constantly expand my storage space as I had too much food, water and resources. Even keeping the general population happy isn’t that much of a struggle as they’ll be happy enough provided you don’t choke them all to death or starve them. Just build the occasional VR centre or something and they’ll go along with whatever crazy plans you may have.
There’s a vague story that attempts to tie the missions together, but it’s instantly forgettable stuff that features several characters whose names you will probably forget about two seconds after hearing them.
A guiding hand in the form of missions help ensure that even if you are a bumbling fool you’ll still likely manage to muddle through. These optional missions pop up on the side of the screen asking you to construct things like water pumps or increase your population count and then award you bonus food or resources for completing them. It’s a neat way to prod the player in the right direction during the first scenario, but after that they become tedious and repetitive. There’s only so many times you can be told to build another air filter or expand your population before you want to find whoever is sending these missions and feed them to one of those giant worm thingies that pop up in the campaign.
You can toss out these missions in the sandbox mode, though, as well as altering the starting resources, morale and even disabling referendums.
Still, at least there is a sense of tension and forward-momentum that this genre is usually lacking. Maybe you need more power, but to get that you need nanites (the game’s currency) and to get those you’ll iron to convert, and to get that you need to expand outwards to a nearby patch of iron which means you’ll also need to build a new construction drone station, and then some housing for people since they won’t travel that far. Oh, and you’ll need people. And that means more food. And entertainment. And air filters. And….damn it. You pretty much always need something in Aven, and that can give it a much faster pace than we normally see in the genre, plus the threat of winter is very real in the early game if you don’t pay enough attention. Plus, while things like ice-shard storms and alien spores aren’t truly devastating they do help keep you on your toes. It doesn’t take long before you’ve got a large colony filled people. And yet despite the quick pace it’s still a relaxed game, that lack of complexity and major micromanagement meaning you never get caught up dealing with a glorified spreadsheet. That’s what you’re doing, of course, but don’t tell yourself that. Aven Colony hides its spreadsheet heart better than most.
Thus far I’ve had a pretty negative tone about Aven Colony, so let’s swap gears because while its lack of depth is easily its biggest flaw it’s also a strength as it’s a more welcoming game than many other examples of the genre. Playing some of the more complex games, even including the fairly light Tropico series, can show up strange pacing problems where you bounce madly from frantically checking hundreds of overlays and bits of data to find the one tiny problem which has somehow brought everything to a grinding halt, to spending huge swathes of time staring at the screen, waiting for your city to grow. Aven doesn’t really have that problem since you can always be doing something. Other than occasionally having to wait around for iron to be converted into Nanites so you can afford to build something there isn’t much downtime, and discovering what’s gone wrong doesn’t involve having to dig through amazingly detailed reams of statistics. It’s usually something obvious and fixable.
You can also ramp up the difficulty if you want more challenge. There’s still a lot of balance problems, but I’d honestly recommend that if you’ve played this style of game then jump straight into the harder setting. You’ll appreciate having to worker a bit harder to build a thriving colony.
There are smaller features missing from the game that indicate the small 5-person development team, such as how you can’t set production limits so farms and water pumps and other things will continue to churn out produce, filling your warehouses to the rafters with stuff you don’t need. Veteran gamers might also be annoyed by how farms automatically dictate where they plant fields, which can mean losing out on ground that could be used for something else.
And then there are a lot of issues to talk about surrounding the A.I., warnings and other things. I’ve experienced numerous warnings telling me people were unhappy with the crime rate despite it being listed as zero. I’ve had crowds of people rioting over 85% air quality, too, and as mentioned previously there have been times when the inhabitants of my city suddenly became annoyed with a lack of food variety. It’s pretty clear a lot of balancing needs to be done, especially in terms of commuting distance.
Aven Colony is a solid game from a small development team with a passion who have laboured long and hard to create it. If you find yourself bored with the endless micro-management of some of the other city-builders or struggle with the sheer amount of information that they throw at your face then Aven Colony might just be for you, as it has the satisfaction of watching your creation grow but with a simpler set of mechanics. For me it struggled past the ten-hour mark to hold my attention as I felt I’d seen and experienced everything it had to offer, but those ten hours were a lot of fun.