Aven Colony – review

In a forward-thinking act of organisation that’s made my wife suspicious I’ve been replaced by a Pod Person, I’ve made a To-Do list for my week off work. Because nothing says ‘I value my free time’ like a To-Do list.

It ranges from the fairly important personal projects (‘write a pilot script’) to actual scheduled slacking off (‘knock off my Netflix queue’). I must confess that I’ve made the list partly to avoid the inevitable; checking out the No Man’s Sky update on PS4. You’d be amazed how long I’ve spent on this game since it launched without deciding whether it’s actually been worth my while, so probably best not to waste more time trying to find out.

So, to get my sci-fi gaming fix I’ve been playing Aven Colony, a modest city-building sim from Team 17. Early impressions give me a vibe that’s very much Tropico-in-space, so it’s fair to say I’m intrigued.

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Aven Colony gameplay

Aven Colony takes place on what’s presumably a planet called Aven, a planet of varying climates and conditions. You play the leader of the colonising forces, as you rise through the ranks to oversee ever more difficult settlement situations.

Starting with the lander module, an outpost or two and some basic utilities, you’re tasked with expanding your colony to support a larger population, which starts to be shipped in once you’ve met some of the basic targets.

It’s pretty easy to get going, and runs just like your typical city-builder, as you adjust staffing levels, mine for resources and turn them into nanites – the currency which is used to have your construction drones 3D-print your base’s next addition.

Meet your colonists’ needs for things like Air Quality and Morale, with the appropriate installation of air vents and bars, and make sure their daily commute is easy with enough interlocking tunnels between their home and their work. (This is ridiculously important to them – but if you lived in a hermetically-sealed series of tubes on some alien planet you’d probably feel the same way too; a win for realism if not game mechanics.)

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The planet has a few of its own natural defences which add some intrigue; time is divided into seasonal periods, including winters which freeze the ground and make your farms less efficient. If the food quality and quantity drops, so does colonists’ morale. On top of that there’s lightning storms, toxic gas emissions and even the odd space-plague to contend with.

And then there’s the Referendums – the 50% approval rate which you must exceed in order to stay on as the colony chief.

Step up your colony’s survival stats and you’ll grow enough to explore the rest of the planet – with ancient ruins to be uncovered and new colonists to rescue from their planetary problems.

Replay value

It’s all quite good fun and fairly immersive, but the main issue I’m having with Aven Colony is just how arbitrary it all is. Tropico 5’s far more complex system – one which still has me going back to tinker with the roads and distribution routes every now and then – offers high replay value. Here on Aven you’re presented with a set of overlays to denote happiness, air quality and commute times across the colony. Sad face? Add a park. Air quality alert? Build an air filter nearby. And that’s about it – random catastrophes aside, but even those are fixable provided you’ve got enough nanites to spare and some space to build in an affected area.

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Having the resources to fix these issues as they crop up does admittedly take some degree of careful planning – to build on the colony you need nanite generators, and to open mines for which to fuel their generation. If there’s not enough workers and enough housing evenly spread across the complex then they stay closed. Conversely, you’ll be all out of nanites if you get too construction-happy, and that leads to various power outages, random blowouts and steep drops in morale. And so to that end, there’s a fair bit of juggling required before you can start shipping in new colonists.

However, if you’re at all familiar with the city builder you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly, and disappointingly, as the story beats take their time to play out. The dreaded Referendum mechanic didn’t actually worry me at all (on Normal difficulty setting) – at this point of the game I’ve had no fear of dropping under even 70% just because I haven’t neglected any of the urgent pop-ups which…pop up to tell me there’s a problem with housing or air quality.

There’s little variety to proceedings – while the main construction objective is a staple of the city building simulation, be it a Space Program or in this case, usually an Expedition Centre, there’s usually more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. But here it’s a frustratingly endless extension of long-running tunnels, interrupted by the odd housing block and a workplace.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the story progresses – there’s alien secrets to be uncovered and some potential sabotage/espionage going on from within. And given the lo-fi indie value of the game I’m always impressed when a non-AAA title provides so much good stuff. Aven Colony provides some good game time, but it’s far from the best city builder I’ve played.

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