In Space, No One Can Hear You Open the Character Screen
It’s a difficult time to be an optimist about space colonization. Even as the possibility of human civilization living beyond Earth’s gravity comes closer, the reality is weighed down by the bleak situation at home. In the end, even optimists must concede that the prospects of living under a distant sun are likely impossible if we can’t solve the problems we have here on Earth — And from the look of things so far, that’s the premise of Iron Tower Studios’ in-development RPG, Colony Ship: A Post-Earth Role-Playing Game.
Though it’s still in Early Access at the time of writing, Colony Ship immediately stands out, both from other classic-style RPGs and even from Iron Tower’s debut, The Age of Decadence. That said, it carries itself with the same air of weary, decayed cynicism. I say that like it’s a bad thing, but in a medium so drunk on heroism, it’s actually refreshing.
The setting of Colony Ship is inspired by the Robert A. Heinlein story Orphans of the Stars. Published in 1941, it gave one of the first fictional depictions of the “generation ship” concept — a spacecraft constructed to take living humans through interstellar space at sublight speeds. To that end, generation ships house their population for that long, with entire generations living and dying within its hull, in the hopes that their distant descendants will arrive at their destination, hundreds or even thousands of years later.
One can already see the potential for a story in Orphans of the Stars, and by extension, Colony Ship. With so much in a human society capable of changing in the span of a single generation, the chances that a generation ship could even remember its original mission seem laughably slim. What group of people, faced with the prospect of living out their entire lives, and the lives of their children and grandchildren aboard an enclosed capsule forever on its way to somewhere else wouldn’t succumb to despair or recklessness?
That’s exactly what happened in Colony Ship. The player’s massive craft has been on its way to distant Proxima Centauri, and things have been off the rails for a long time. The society on board has mutated in ways that nobody could’ve anticipated, and after a violent mutiny, onboard life is riven by factions in an enclosed mimicry of what might happen after an Earthbound apocalypse.
Colony Ship‘s enclosed world is run by three main factions. The Protectors of the Mission are an arch-conservative organization fixated on turning back the clock to before the mutiny broke the former hierarchy. The Brotherhood of Liberty is a fractious democracy descended from the original mutineers, but cracking under the weight of democracy’s impracticalities. The Church of the Elect is a militant religious movement that sees the very journey of the ship to distant Proxima Centauri as a holy ordeal, one that only the chosen will survive.
The three factions (and several more minor ones) drive events as players begin the game in the Pit, an anarchic town belonging to no specific group. It’s here that Iron Tower’s clear love of older, more hardcore RPGs from the days of Fallout comes to the fore. Players are tasked with creating their own character, assigning detailed attributes and skills in a classical “point-buy” system. Like the games of yesteryear, it’s entirely possible to royally mess up a build and render a character unable to accomplish anything, only to then die an embarrassing death from a failed skill check.
Speaking of skill checks, they make up the majority of interesting play in Colony Ship. Old-school challenges like picking locks and dialog challenges are par for the course, and plenty of options are provided for players to work their way through. As a bit of advice for players thinking of jumping in, try not to spec too much for fighting. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but I found the turn-based combat system too fiddly and antiquated to hold my interest. Driven by action points and aim checks, I found little joy in trying to empty crude pistols at point-blank range, only to miss and eat a leaded pipe to the face.
With the combat carrying little dramatic weight, I found it more satisfying to play the opening hours as a silver-tongued rogue of sorts. I was capable of talking my way into and out of most situations, and equipped to unlock most doors I came across.
Of course, I folded like origami at the prospect of violence, but that made trying to find alternate routes more satisfying. It also exposed me to more of Colony Ship‘s well-written dialogue and descriptive text. Iron Tower was clearly trying to make an experience in the mold of older RPGs, but perhaps a few hints from newer games like Disco Elysium would help drive home the notion that such combat systems aren’t quite the draw they used to be — at least not playing the way they do in this version of the game.
At the moment Colony Ship isn’t fully complete, but what’s there is well-realized and surprisingly light on technical issues. My one major complaint was a constant skipping I noticed in the background music, which forced me to silence it. Losing the music meant that I could hear every instance where a sound effect was missing or held by some placeholder file, and much of my run felt like I was playing on mute. This is obviously a temporary Early Access issue, and I expect it to be ironed out well before full release.
Colony Ship could be a delightfully gritty RPG experience when it’s complete. Players looking for an old-school, skill-check experience should keep an eye out for its eventual launch.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Iron Tower Studios and published by Nacon. It is currently available for PC. This copy of the game is based on an Early Access preview build provided by the publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There is no multiplayer mode.
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