I learned about Ixion back during Steam’s Summer Demofest, an event which I have come to look forward to as it introduces me to all kinds of upcoming games that aren’t your typical “front page” candidates. I love city-builders, and while most of them follow the same reliable tracks of building in the wilderness, Ixion offers something new: space!
There is an actual narrative backing your gameplay in Ixion: the Earth is, of course, dying, and in what is probably the third best option anywhere, anytime this kind of crisis looms in popular media, humanity has opted to Nope out and seek habitable planets elsewhere. You are the director of a precursor flight aboard the station, tasked with taking the ship to a viable candidate planet along with a bunch of proto-colonists who will be paving the way for the actual colony ships later on. As such, the game opens with a tutorial in the form of last-minute tasks that you have to complete before you can get the show on the road.
The Tiqqun — which is actually pronounced “Tycoon” — is shaped as a rotating drum, and your building space reflects this extremely well. There are 6 sectors within the ship, but you start with only the first unlocked. As with most city-builders, you have to start by setting up stockpiles, because as you arrive on the Tiqqun, the build-floor is littered with piles of unsorted raw materials such as polymer, food, and other building materials. The initial gotcha is that you’ll need to lay down “roads” that your workers can travel to collect those unkempt piles in order to deliver them to designated storage depots. Each depot can only take one type of resource, and only 100 units per at that, so there will be multiple depots holding the same resource throughout the sector.
Once you have the depots sorted, you can start fitting in buildings. The hardest part about Ixion is finding room for everything the story wants you to build, when it asks you to build it. One strategy is to front-load depots and collect every resource on the floor, laying down and removing roads as needed (they are free to build), and then you have a completely empty space in which to work. The other strategy — the one I chose, of course — is to Tetris your buildings in between raw materials, and then get angry when there’s too much empty space but not enough to fit even the smallest building.
The game starts you off with demands for worker housing, then food distribution and production, then external access via EVA docks which must be placed at the bottom of the sector, so they have access to outside space. These buildings get bigger and bigger as time goes on, so the game is particularly unkind to a non-methodical layout, and there is no way to move a building. The only way to rework a layout is to deconstruct buildings (you recoup the resources) and build them somewhere else if you need the space they occupy.
There are two other interfaces that are important to your management of the Tiqqun. The first is the external view of the ship itself. You can upgrade the outside, and that’s important because the only way to power the buildings you’re constructing is through solar power, which is collected by the panels on the exterior hull. As time goes on and more power is needed, more panels can be added at increasing resource cost to build.
The third interface is the star system interface. Ixion’s story takes place (as far as I currently know) within a solar system, and it’s going to be important to explore the environs. There are four types of external craft that can be constructed: a science ship for exploration, a cargo ship for collecting resources, a mining ship for…you know…and a probe for discovery. Managing these is a bit confusing, as they all operate a bit differently. The science ship can be sent directly to a location by dragging a lead to its destination. The cargo ship and the mining ships go places based on what you tell them to do. For example, if there’s a food cargo icon on the system map, checking the box for food collection on the cargo ship will automatically send the ship to that location. It’ll just make rounds and collect all food that it knows about. Same with the mining ship, which will harvest ore sources that you tell it to collect as they show up on the system map. This interface is also where a lot of the story plays out. Often times you’ll need to send the science shuttle to different locations, wait while it explores, and then deal with the popup story panels. Some of these panels have choices that need to be made, and others are just informative.
As the need to expand continues, new buildings can be researched once a lab has been placed and enough “research” resource has been accumulated. The further out from the center you go, the more expensive it is to research.
As the first sector fills up, it will be imperative to start working with other sectors. Initially, these sectors are locked, and resources need to be used to unlock them. Once open, they function more or less as an independent map. It’s necessary to start sector 2 as you did with sector 1 — workshop, housing, food, storage — but once you have two sectors available, the game changes because it’s not in the ship’s best interest to just copy and paste the responsibilities of the first sector on other sectors. There are bonuses to be had if a sector “specializes” in a job (food production, or manufacturing or something else). In order to get sectors working, there has to be “trade” set up between them, so that surplus from one sector can be used in other sectors. This also applies to workers, who can be redistributed throughout the ship. Managing these levels is tough, especially at the point in the story when doing so becomes available, because that’s effectively where the shit has hit the fan.
I won’t spoil it for you, but I don’t think it’s overreaching when I say that the journey of the Tiqqun doesn’t exactly go as planned. All too soon, you’ll be scrambling for new resources while trying to make what you have work harder. And speaking of working harder, the population can quickly become stressed out when there are too many jobs and too few people to do them, leading to accidents, breakdowns, and destruction both inside the ship and out. All the while you’re trying to figure out what had happened when the station engaged its jump drive — and what has happened to Earth.
On the minus side, I am worried about the replayability specifically because the game is story based. There’s no freeplay, so starting over and playing through is going to walk the same path and have the same requirements every time. For me, treading the same boards is one of my least favorite aspects of many single-player games. I think it’s made worse for me in this game, because during the tutorial you learn about the DOLOS Corporation, a multi-national outfit whose scion is painfully modeled after every single douchey tech-bro with a God-complex. His board of yes-men and -women all want to talk to you about how important your job is, complete with overwrought yet veiled threats that are just bad, even for a comic-book villain. And the name of the station — Tiqqun — has been painful for me to see because it doesn’t phonetically translate in my head, and although I had originally had a line in this post about how this tortured spelling was the “Ashleigh” of space-ship names (I got it in, though! ZING!), I learned that “Tiqqun” is a “French collective of authors and activists formed in 1999”, which completely explains the pompous, self-important airs that the NPCs exude in their conversations with you; Seriously eyeroll inducing stuff.
I really like Ixion’s Tetris-like feel, or at least I did early on when buildings were small and everyone on board was excited to be making history. Once things went sideways and the workers started to panic, when resources got scarce, and the story beats demanded the addition of more buildings, more jobs, and more sectors, things started to get really stressful. Unlike a lot of city builders, I am starting to view Ixion as a rogue-like, because I can totally see myself completely blowing this playthrough in part because of poor placement planning on my part, and an overwhelming desire to keep all plates spinning at top speed at all times when maybe letting one or two fall would actually contribute to the long-term health of the entire endeavor. The thing is, I actually want to know what the hell is going on with the story. I have a pretty good idea, at least at a very high concept level, but the exploration mechanic kind of metes out narrative threads and this, coupled with the plodding speed at which resource gathering happens, what might be considered painfully slow in other city builders comes off as excruciatingly suspenseful in Ixion. I just don’t know if I’ll make it far enough before the ship and all hands implode.