IXION (PC) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 19 December 2022 / 3,880 Views
The Sun is a main sequence star, about halfway through its main sequence lifespan. Its core is also shrinking due to hydrogen-helium fusion, causing it to slowly expand and become hotter. Over the next 2-3 billion years, the Sun will warm the Earth so much that our planet will become uninhabitable to humans. As a result, scientists have begun theorizing about how humanity could leave Earth in the far-future. IXION presents one such possibility: a giant space station run by a single person who has no clue how to delegate tasks.
If you’re not familiar, IXION is a real-time strategy/simulation/resource management title best known for some Warhammer 40K spin-offs. You play as an extremely overworked administrator who's responsible for directing basically everything on board a space station containing the last remnants of humanity, after a poorly thought-out science experiment destroyed the moon. You're asked to build houses and facilities, develop infrastructure, direct resources, and generally keep everyone alive while also managing to search for a new planet to live on.
The core essence of IXION is survival. Unlike most colony manager/simulation games that I’ve played in the past, expanding is a secondary concern to just fighting to live another day. The space aboard your station, your working population, your station’s power, the resources available to you - all finite, with limited ways of increasing them. You have to be consistently proactive in taking every opportunity available to increase your resource pool, lest you be scattered to the four space winds.
Gameplay takes place largely within two areas: inside your station (called the Tiqqun), where you manage your population and structures; and in the space surrounding your station, where you dispatch ships to extract resources and progress the story. The “indoors” gameplay revolves around giving commands to construct roads, living quarters, mess halls, working facilities, and more on a grid. There’s a limited amount of space available, and certain buildings need specific elements next to them (factories, for instance, need roads next to them to transport their products), so planning is key.
Outside the ship is where the resource gathering portion of the game comes into play. The parts for all those buildings inside the space station have to come from somewhere, which means mining asteroids and other celestial bodies near the station. You can set up docking bays inside to deploy ships to discover, mine, and carry cargo routes to and from resource points. Choosing which resources to mine based on what buildings you want, and what services you need to operate, quickly becomes an essential part of gameplay.
The crux of IXION is making smart choices and formulating plans about where to place your buildings, when to construct them, and how to get the resources for them. In the early game, trying to build something too early or expand too quickly can easily be fatal, as you can strain your facility’s ability to function properly. This big space station you’re on has the durability of a wet cracker, and the inhabitants don’t have much patience for poor working or living conditions. In the first ten or so hours, a single poor choice can set off a downward spiral of catastrophe that will ultimately doom you (usually within thirty or so minutes). Extend too far, and you can necessitate needing to overwork your population to keep everything together, which can result in mutinies or flat out destruction.
And there’s not much in the way of handholding here; the game is more than willing to let you make mistakes which won’t cause your demise immediately, but will more or less seal your fate. In that respect, I can see how IXION would be frustrating for many individuals, as evidenced by the less-than-stellar reviews out there for the game. But, personally, I love that approach. It creates a very organic environment where your decisions matter, and even minor miscalculations can haunt you for a long time. At the risk of invoking a cliche, the Tiqqun feels like a real place, with a real population that is responding to things. People respond to your decisions in mostly reasonable ways, and that time-lag for failure is necessary to really make that effect hit home.
Having said that, I do feel like IXION's exceptionally harsh level of punishment is both its greatest strength and simultaneously a source of weakness. The harsh nature of things means that there’s often incentive for you to extract every single possible resource available before moving to a new sector or undertaking a major project, which in turn can very easily slow the gameplay to a crawl. And it’s hard to find the motivation to move quicker than glacial pace when all it takes is one misguided project to bring this increasingly convoluted house of cards crashing down. IXION is quite a long game too; your first playthrough will probably clock in at 60+ hours.
The end result of all that is a title that can become utterly broken by the endgame when you’ve researched and developed enough resources to effectively let your colony run itself. Some upgrades working in tandem with each other absolutely demolish IXION's difficulty curve. I won’t spoil what these are, because I think much of the fun in strategy games comes from discovering the best strategies and implementing them for yourself, but rest assured that once you get them going, the game is effectively over bar ten or so more hours of fiddling about.
In fairness, the same is true of most, if not all strategy games. Few titles in the genre have difficulty curves that hold up particularly well against the most broken strategies available to the player, and those that do are often regarded as overwhelmingly unfriendly to newcomers. If you take the time to experiment with a variety of strategies and choose the most broken ones, you are, in effect, asking for the game to be made much easier. That said, I do think IXION deserves particular scrutiny here because of the punishing nature of the early game. It trains the player to pursue every resource possible and take advantage of every opportunity available, so asking them to suddenly not do that about two-thirds of the way through in order to preserve the difficulty curve is a tough sell. In essence, to keep IXION a satisfying challenge the entire way through, you have to play optimally (or close to it) for fifteen or so hours, before stopping and playing far more casually afterwards.
I do have a few other minor complaints as well. The process of resource sharing between sectors is one of the most unnecessarily annoying imaginable, requiring you to lower a current sector’s desired amount below a threshold before they'll export to other segments of the station. And while I’m all for adding new elements to keep the player on their toes, certain gameplay aspects altered by story progression seem almost impossible to predict, which did lead to a couple of save reloads that didn’t really feel were my fault.
That said, I don’t think the ultimate appeal of IXION is necessarily in the strategy. It lacks additional difficulties, making replayability somewhat of a non-factor, and while the early game on a first time through may be challenging, once you get into the swing of things it’s pretty easy to handle yourself. The real appeal for me lies in the experience of managing a bunch of unpredictable humans on board a giant colony and trying to keep everyone alive and happy. I was surprised just how engrossed I became in the lives of my largely faceless (and indeed personality-less) crew. At one point one of the station’s inhabitants wrote a rap song about how much they disliked a new waste recycling policy I had implemented. Another time my science team adopted a dog and it instantly improved the mood of everyone on the ship. Little touches like that go a long way towards making things feel... well, real.
Aesthetically IXION is a very pleasing title as well. The soundtrack is fantastic, and certainly a contender for the best I’ve heard this year, featuring lots of incredible melodies and spacefaring themes. The graphics aren’t exactly high res, but the art style carries the adventure, and many of the tiny portraits are fun to look at.
With all of that said, IXION is a really solid strategy, simulation, resource-management… thing. It’s difficult to really define it as a game, but at least as an experience it’s honestly one of the most engaging and engrossing I’ve played this year. Even with the last five or so hours largely consisting of repeating the same processes I had already been doing - with little change or evolution - I still found myself glued to the screen, thoroughly invested in this little world I had built. Perhaps the only home humanity ever needed was in a giant metal space tube after all, with themselves, a single overworked administrator, and a morale-boosting dog.
This review is based on a digital copy of IXION for the PC
I tried the demo a while ago and I liked it. Even in that demo you could feel what's said in the review, that the game let's you do your thing only to find, later on, that you messed it up.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of games that are more difficult than they need to be just to make them longer to beat, but I'll still give this one a go one of these days.
Thanks for the review.