I love storing files for old games, particularly good ones that have been forgotten by today's ADHD-suffering industry and general gaming public. Among those files, I happen to have a lot of demos, and in a recent intrigue I've had in the works of FireFly Studios, the people behind the famous Stronghold series, I've decided to give a chance to the demo of their least-known title, Space Colony, which was ironically released after the iconic first two Stronghold titles but went under everyone's radar. And boy, am I happy to have given that chance. Very soon after playing the three demo missions that were specifically made for demonstration purposes and are not found in the full game, I bought the HD version on GOG, and now that GameFront is officially doing reviews again, I absolutely had to share my feelings on the game.
To get one thing out of the way first – since FireFly was never a large studio, they recycled and adapted the Stronghold 1 engine for this game, as their last 2D entry in their careers until way later in 2012 with the free-to-play Stronghold Kingdoms (ew). This can already tell you what perks and quirks this implies – neat 2D sprites showing lots of things happening without hiccups even in low-end computers, but also at times dodgy pathfinding and occasional visual glitches when a character is moving behind a certain object. However, this approach does end up in the positive area since it ticks off a checkbox that today's excuses for strategy games simply fail to out of ignorance – object readability. At any time, you are aware of what's going on without a flashy smoke effect obscuring half of your screen, and even if you have a really large base with a lot of objects parading on your monitor, or just need a while to understand the image you are seeing, you can pause the game at any time and take as long as you need to reassess everything and give orders while everything is seemingly frozen.
On a good day, you can just leave your colonists with a certain set of orders.
That said, one can describe Space Colony as a blend between Stronghold and The Sims, of all things. While you need to gather certain mission-specific resources and manage your space base through maintaining its internal and external facilities, cleaning it up and making sure it gets enough oxygen and power, you have to manage your staff as well. Unlike its medieval cousins, Space Colony does not have you build X hovels to get Y peasants that you can then distribute among different buildings for resource gathering. Instead, you get between 1 and 20 pre-set colonists whom you must order to do up to 2 jobs at a time. These tasks are limited by their individual skills, as some colonists are more proficient at certain tasks than others, while some colonists have very few skills by default (looking at you, Candy and Babette!), but thankfully, there are ways that you can train them to both gain and refine skills when you progress through the game. Each colonist has their own needs like cleanliness, hunger, sleep, social interactions, etc., and can be either friends (some even lovers) or enemies with each other, and their relationships can evolve in both ways as time passes on.
And herein lies the uniqueness of Space Colony. You have to balance it all on your own. Your task is to keep production going (which pays both you and your colonists in money) and go after completing your mission objectives, but also avoid getting your colonists too dissatisfied as they might eventually lose control and eventually start wrecking your base in a frenzy unless you put them in a detention facility or get them to talk to a psychiatrist robot(!!!), all the while you are also watching for possible alien incursions, so the game needs even more micromanagement than Stronghold. Space stations are a claustrophobic and dangerous place, yo.
It is not as hard or irritating as it might seem from reading that, however, as the difficulty curve in learning how to manage your base is moderate, even low if you are not new to strategy/management games. In fact, the more I remember the various base facilities, the more I feel like I’ve grown to like the way base building works. The characters have their own personalities and like different things to entertain themselves with, which adds to the game's variety. They are also excellently voiced, and I would recommend playing the English version even if the game is localized in your language, as some characters like Stig (uh, The Stig's Norwegian Biker Cousin?), Tami and Nailer really sound how they appear in the game visually. I ended up liking at least half the cast very early on, which really helped in immersion and engagement with the game. FireFly likely counted on the players liking some of these characters, so they made all their deaths temporary – if colonists die, they are taken to the mothership orbiting the planet you are on to be reanimated off-screen, and they will be present to the next mission they were supposed to appear in anyway, and in late missions you even get to reanimate your colonists in special pods so you can make use of their services in that same mission (almost) like nothing happened.
On a bad day, you get an alien incursion.
The game has no multiplayer at all, so all of its longevity lies with its singleplayer campaigns and individual missions that you can also create yourself in the in-built editor. After a prologue campaign, you can choose missions from the “peaceful” or military branches, each with 8 missions spread on a different number of planets. When you start one, you can still play the other, but only character progress from the prologue campaign will count, which would make people who care for canon in entertainment (like myself) quite cross, although it does not make a huge impact gameplay-wise as different skills are needed in different missions anyway and some are even one-off. In the “peaceful” campaign, you get to visit two planets where your economic skills will be put to the test, though I must point out how the two-part finale takes a stark tonal shift and turns into a military mission in the end (thematically, at least), tossing all those beautiful character stories to the side. The military campaign, on the other hand, is more consistent, and has you visit four planets. This campaign gives you a sense of slight fear and tension, especially when your funds go low. Hostile aliens take a lot of resources to kill off, as either they are few and sturdy, or incredibly plentiful but squishy, and you’ll thank the fact that the trading mechanic from Stronghold makes a return and is more streamlined (as it doesn’t require a special facility). However, the developers did state that they intended a contrast between tourists (who appear late in the “peaceful” campaign) entertaining themselves very near killer robots who defend your base from alien attacks as it’s just another day in the office, which is a fine idea on paper, but it could have been executed better in a game mode many players would choose in place of a full-on combat story branch.
There are also the Galaxy mode and the sandbox mode. The Galaxy mode is essentially a collection of mini-campaigns, each set on its own planet, and this is the sort of mission that the editor supports the creation of, albeit in a separate mission menu that doesn't have fancy planet previews. The sandbox mode is maybe misnamed, as it isn’t as rule-free as the name implies – you choose one of the different planets, and you get a different initial budget and crew roster for each one, but none of them have a set objective. Only one of these planets allows you to have all characters at the same time, all resources, and the highest initial budget, so only that one is a real successor to Stronghold’s free build maps.
The game’s interface shows some patchy design choices and leftovers from Stronghold in terms of organization. In Space Colony, characters move all around the base, so sometimes the bridge controls cannot be accessed as you will constantly be clicking on characters or facilities that share the same pixel, so you’ll have to scroll to your warehouse to manage certain aspects of your base like trading, viewing power/oxygen levels etc. Similarly, if you need two characters to interact, and the second is in front of a bridge console, you will have to hunt the pixel that differentiates the character from the console, otherwise the first character will complain how they can’t operate a used object, which is baffling how it was not fixed even in the supposedly patched HD edition 9 years later and maybe even the unnecessary Steam Edition nearly 3 more years after that.
With such a pretty environment, why would anyone rage at each other?
The main menu music track is an aptly quirky/edgy song that fits in with the fact that your characters come from all walks of life and your workhorses are young misfits, but the in-game soundtrack (which may have just been bugged for me, send me a message if I’m wrong) had just one looping ambiental track. The game’s directory has a collection of themes that went apparently unused in my case, but in the game’s settings menu hides a handy feature that allows you to put any MP3 on your computer in the game’s playlist. It is, however, rudimentary, and will try to scan your entire computer for MP3 files (which might take a long time), and will ignore the remainder of a folder after it finds a folder or subfolder that has a non-ASCII character in it, which is a shame, but with a bit of sweat you can get the game playing the music you wish even if you don’t like the aforementioned themes, which are neat but ultimately forgettable, which is much unlike Robert Euvino’s previous work with Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader.
Personally, I find Space Colony to be more than a sum of its parts. A game with such immense potential and (mostly) lovable characters is slightly hindered by a few technical hiccups that remain even after two re-releases, and a narrative mistake late into the “peaceful” campaign. As a management game, however, Space Colony kept me asking for more, either to optimize my base or just to hear my favourite characters (whoever hates Venus, Stig and Nikolai will be banned from the site). Will I play it after this review is posted? Sure will!
PROS: idea, characters, voice acting, base building aspect, visual style
CONS: narrative choices, multiple minor bugs and issues
8.5 / 10
Developer: FireFly Studios
Genre: strategy / management hybrid
Release year: 2003 (initial) / 2012 (HD) / 2015 (Steam Edition)
Space Colony HD is available on GOG.com for Windows and macOS, and old retail copies of the game can be brought to this version for free using an official patch. Space Colony Steam Edition is available for Windows only and brings just one additional Galaxy mode mini-campaign and support for sharing editor creations in the Steam Workshop
as if it wasn’t possible to share them otherwise.