Developer: Bulwark Studios
Release Date: 7 December, 2022
Platform: Windows, Linux
By Chris Picone, 08 May 2023
I caught Ixion by chance - for such a good looking game, it really did a great job of flying under the radar (apparently it came out nearly half a year ago!). It's an impressive title by any standards; it looks and sounds amazing, features an engaging campaign with a grim but hopeful undercurrent, and gameplay which is clearly inspired by Frostpunk but still distinct, with their own science fiction take on the concept.
The Earth's in a bad way and humanity's exploring their options for survival. One of those includes a colony ship project utilising the VOHLE engine, a new means of interstellar travel, which is where you come in. You are the administrator of the DOLOS Aerospace Engineering Corporation's Tiqqun (pronounced Tycoon), a prototype mobile space station designed to prove the feasibility of the VOHLE engine. The idea is that, in the wake of your success, DOLOS will launch a second ship, the Protagoras, to carry a chunk of the population to a habitable exoplanet in order to ensure humanity's survival. Unfortunately, during the Tiqqun's test flight, something goes wrong. Really wrong. The Tiqqun does successfully travel through interstellar space but when you return to the solar system you discover the moon has shattered, leaving the Earth in a state of annihilation. The cause is unclear. An exploration of the ruins reveals three clues: DOLOS has been declared an enemy of humanity, the Protagoras was despatched to a potential new homeworld codenamed "Remus," and the IXION engine (a more stable version of the VOHLE) exists on Jupiter. I really don't want to spoil any more of the story than that because part of the game's appeal is the genuine wonder about what might happen around each new corner. Where is the Protagoras? Are there any other survivors? Will we find a habitable planet? And what the hell happened - was it sabotage?
The graphics are spectacular; the cutscenes are AAA-quality cinematics, the UI's both functional and attractive, and the whole game is polished to a high shine. There are three main view modes. The one you'll spend most of your time in is inside the station, where you do most of your building and managing. It looks fantastic from afar but you can even zoom right in and see your workers and mechs scooting along the roads, the mills and workshops in action, lots of nice little touches that really bring the whole thing to life. The second view mode is an external shot of your space station; it's where you can observe your hull and build additional solar panels and other external attachments like engine parts. You won't spend much time here, which is a shame because you can pan all the way around your station and check out the nearby stars and planets and it's bloody beautiful. The final view mode is a map of the solar system. It's mostly functional and starts off almost empty until you start launching probes and discovering new planets and other objects. After that it will be filled with little dots representing all the iron, carbon, silicon, and other materials you can harvest. The last visual element worth discussing are the dialogue boxes where you respond to ship & exploration events. These are accompanied by some really lovely painted stills which really add to the atmosphere and give you a sense of desperation, hope, humanity, danger, isolation...
I already commented that Ixion in many ways wears its Frostpunk inspiration on its sleeve, and I want to talk about that - but I also want to talk about the many ways in which it differs and really shines its own science fiction light on the premise. Let's dig in. Everything in Frostpunk hinged around the generator; it provided power to your buildings but also precious heat, crucial for staying alive. Coal was needed to keep the fires burning. The Tiqqun's hull fulfils this function in Ixion; your hull constantly depletes as it slowly gets battered by space debris over time; repairing the hull requires a perpetual supply of alloy. If the hull becomes too damaged, everyone on the ship dies. To make things harder, every time you want to upgrade your solar systems or engines, hull repair pauses. Also, your hull permanently deteriorates every time you VOHLE jump or unlock a new sector of your ship. The citybuilding aspect is also similar in some aspects; your building area is confined to a sector of the ship (at least at the start - you can unlock six sectors as the game progresses). This means space is very limited so you need to be really careful not to build anything you don't absolutely need, and to be as precise as possible when laying out your buildings to minimise wasted space. This can be particularly challenging as many of the buildings differ drastically in size and shape and all need to be connected by roads. Even harder if it's your first playthrough and you have no idea what buildings are going to unlock later on as you research more technology.
It won't be long before you've run out of room and looking to unlock your next sector, at which point the game significantly ramps up in complexity. Each sector is designed to be self-sufficient. You can set up transfers (a strangely complicated process) but otherwise the sectors don't share personnel or resources. It's an interesting concept that leaves you with the sensation that you're playing multiple city builders at the same time, trying to maintain and grow each sector while trying to keep them all happy while pulling out of a singular resource pool and trying to get them all to work together toward the common goal of colonisation and survival. The tech tree itself is a decent size but very linear; at the start of the game you're unlocking core buildings, then refineries for converting resources or monuments to raise stability. You can choose the order you research in but each tier only unlocks when the previous tier's finished so there's no scope for trying to experiment with quirky or synergistic builds.
Like Frostpunk, stability (and trust) is the other crucial element that must be maintained. From time to time your population will make demands of you; your ability to meet these demands will increase their trust in you, and conversely if you fail. The biggest factors that affect stability in Ixion are food production, housing, and working conditions. These can be difficult to manage because, while your population will reproduce over time, the vast bulk will come from survivors found in cryostasis and brought back to life. Many of these will be young or old - unable to work and contribute but still requiring food and shelter. If your level of trust gets too low, you're ousted from power and it's game over. Here is a major key point of difference: Frostpunk relies heavily on its policy mechanics; in Ixion, there is no equivalent system.
Another key point of difference is that a huge chunk of gameplay in Ixion revolves around exploration. You will spend a lot of time on your solar system map, shooting out probes (which work very much like the probes in Mass Effect) to locate resources and points of interest around the map. Unlike most city builders, this is where almost all of your resources come from. To collect them, send out mining ships to harvest and then cargo ships to cart it all back to the Tiqqun. You will end up with a whole fleet of ships, which is quite exciting. But the resources are raw, so you then need to set up storage points and refineries to convert them into usable materials. Of course, all of this requires buildings and manpower, which is where it all links back into the citybuilder. Your fleet also includes a science ship which visits the points of interest, becoming your eyes, ears, and hands on that space station or planet. These interactions are managed through choice & consequence dialogues. These risky but rewarding scenarios allow you to harvest rare materials, collect research points, and also serve to advance the story as your teams discover clues along the way. Eventually you will discover a black box or some coordinates or some other way to progress. You can stick around to collect more resources from the system but if you stay too long you start copping permanent stability penalties. When you're ready, you can activate your VOHLE engine, transporting you to some new solar system ready to do it all again - much bigger but probably also much more vulnerable than you were.
As difficult as Ixion can be, it's also more forgiving than Frostpunk in that the first time your hull depletes, emergency foam deploys. Likewise, the first time your trust drops to zero, you can sacrifice an agent, giving you a second chance. This is particularly important because, unlike Frostpunk, Ixion is based on a lengthy campaign rather than comparitively "short" scenarios.
Fun Factor / Replayability
Ixion is a survival city builder and, as such, is inherently challenging - and while I enjoyed the game because of it, but I couldn't help but notice that most of the negative reviews I noticed were complaints about the difficulty. The good news is, Bulwark Studios have just released (today) a hefty update that includes new difficulty options. In particular, a "journey mode" for those who just want to enjoy the building and the story for a bit less challenge, and of course a hard mode, but there's also a custom mode now, so if you can't get the challenge level right, that's on you. I absolutely loved my time with Ixion; I enjoyed building my space colony, I enjoyed exploring space, and I enjoyed the story and survival elements. The campaign's very worthwhile and quite lengthy - but it is heavily scripted and possesses very little random generation, which does substantially limit replayability, although the new hard mode at least encourages another playthrough.
If you're keen for a colony ship simulation experience, that's what's on offer here, and it does a great job of it. If you enjoyed Frostpunk and can't wait for the sequel, Ixion will certainly fill the void. If you haven't played Frostpunk, don't fret; Ixion is very much its own animal, it's intuitive to pick up and play (the learning curve isn't nearly as steep as you might expect), and it features a decent tutorial. Anyone that's a fan of the "survival" citybuilder niche will love Ixion.