Double Fine must be a pretty cool place to work. Once a year, the studio suspends all other development for Amnesia Fortnight, an event where all Double Fine developers dream up game ideas and the best ones get made into working prototypes. Spacebase DF-9 was one of those games, created for Amnesia Fortnight 2012 by JP LeBreton. Now the game has been improved, overhauled, and released on Steam Early Access.
I'm always up for a good Double Fine game, so I jumped on Steam, paid the toll, and installed Spacebase DF-9. Internet is calling the game a sci-fi Dwarf Fortress, but I've never played Dwarf Fortress. DF fans talks about the game is the same hushed, reverent tones that Dark Souls fans talk about that title. The joy of beating a game so mind-rending is their ambrosia. I don't think I'm ready for all that action, so Spacebase DF-9 will be my kiddy pool for the deep ocean that is Dwarf Fortress.
So how did it go?
Spacebase DF-9 is a galaxy full of death. Death is the constant. So much dying. Expect to have random things happen that will kill your entire crew. The game drops you in an area of space that you choose, with three randomized astronauts. From there you have to build your space station, using materials to carve out new rooms. You can't control the astronauts directly; instead you set tasks that need to be done, assign astronauts to specific jobs, and pray that they actually get the job done. These jobs include miner, builder, security, or even bartender. I'd say it feels like you're a tiny god, but since this is sci-fi, I'll say that you're a benevolent A.I. watching over them.
Each astronaut comes with a random name, face, and set of stats. These stats predispose them to certain positions. If you have someone who's got three stars in technician, that's the guy you want to be your technician; using a two-star or lower astronaut will only end in broken equipment and death. As these astronauts do their jobs, they'll get better. Periodically, a ship will stop by your space station and offer more astronauts up, ensuring you have a steady supply of meat for the mill.
My first playthrough ended in death for all three starting astronauts. They asphyxiated in the black void of space. I set them to building a space station with a mining refinery and oxygen generators, but forgot to build an airlock for them to enter the base. They died building the airlock itself, cursing their own stupidity and the cruel hand of a cold, callous master. That first part is actually true: each astronaut has a constantly updating diary, chronicling their thoughts and experiences. The diary adds a bit of Double Fine humor to the experience.
My second playthough got my astronauts inside the base, but I accidentally killed one by opening the room he was in to the void while rejiggering it. Unfortunately, he was my lead technician, and the replacement screwed up repairing one of my oxygen generators, setting the whole thing on fire. I did not realize I needed fire extinguishers, so you can guess how that ended. Double Fine has since released a small video guide for starting out in Spacebase, which I recommend for any players that don't want to go in raw.
During my time with Spacebase DF-9, it felt like FTL. I didn't get too invested in any one round; I always expected death around the corner. Like the time space parasites attacked. Or that time two of my astronauts panicked and floated in space until they died. Or when raiders attacked my second outpost. For me, deaths in games like Spacebase and FTL don't feel punitive, whereas in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls they do. You die, you get a fresh start.
Some of the deaths seemed due to bugs, which is understandable for a game in alpha/beta. Three astronauts died floating to the edge of the map to fight an unseen foe. Security guards sometimes head out into space and never come back. Technicians seem woefully undertuned; of my 20 astronauts, more than half are technicians just for basic upkeep. Again, the game is early and Double Fine has plenty of time to work the kinks out.
Is the game currently worth the $24.99 (with a 20 percent discount if you own other Double Fine games) asking price on Steam? Not yet. I'd personally peg it at around $10, but that's based on my gut, not the realities of game development. But it's currently playable and there's a definite core of fun that Double Fine can improve upon. The developers have a list of features they plan to add to the game and their forums are up for players to suggest other changes. I look forward to seeing the team build it out into something great; I'm also in Early Access for Prison Architect and seeing that game's progress gives me great hope for Spacebase DF-9.