Have you ever been playing a game and been getting along quite nicely with everything, only to have the entire thing come crashing down around you in a series of disasters? Has toxic miasma poisoned all of your characters and made the air deadly to breathe? Have man-eating tortoises battered your favourite settler to death and devoured their body? Has a small fire ever got out of control and destroyed hours worth of game time? Where in some titles this would be a defining moment in any campaign, for RimWorld it’s just a Tuesday.
RimWorld arrives on the back of successful simulation games like Prison Architect and Banished, from which it takes a number of inspirations. Set in a universe that is part Firefly, part Dune, RimWorld takes one hard look at the legacy that games like Dwarf Fortress have left behind and thinks “yeah I can top that”. Developed by one-man team (plus freelancers) Ludeon Studios, the game focuses around survival on the eponymous Rim Worlds of a galaxy dominated by the rich, fashionable and highly dystopian Glitterworlds. You’ll arrive in crashing cargo pods, or open the game as a long-forgotten tribe, and attempt to thrive in a hostile environment.
At this stage of development there isn’t much in the way of a tutorial - RimWorld sort of lets you get on with it. Before each scenario you’ll get to choose who lands on your planet from a set of randomly generated characters. They can be anything from orphan children turned mercenary assassins to pop idols and reporters. Each background gives the characters a set of traits and bonuses to stats like shooting, melee, cooking, growing, construction and social. These intrepid colonists will become surprisingly dear to you, especially when one breaks down and sets fire to another.
At its heart RimWorld is a base builder. Once you’ve chosen the area of the planet to crash onto - as well as its biome - you’ll have to set about building shelter, crafting food, weapons, clothing and other amenities. A 15-day season system means that (unless you’re in a year-round growing zone) you’ll have to manage resources, temperature and storage to keep your colonists alive. This can become complicated when you’ve landed on the planet with no one capable of hauling goods or building rooms, but that is all part of the game’s charm.
There are a series of interlocking systems throughout the game that necessitate a successful colony and once you have the formula down you’ll find yourself laying out the plans for them from the off: a room, beds, a refrigerator, power generator… Where RimWorld shines is in how you can go about achieving that. Need food? Make your colonists cannibals and eat every attacker. Need medicine? Harvest the organs of your prisoners. Can’t be bothered to refrigerate food? Start in an icy biome.
Visually, RimWorld will remind players of Prison Architect, not least because the character models are strikingly similar in style. There are more nuanced differences, though. RimWorld renders a number of colours and textures for the different soil types, rock formations, walls, floors and flora and fauna. Most of the game’s biomes are populated by scores of alien and recognisable creatures (all of which you can attempt to tame and hunt). The maps feel well and truly lived in, and with random cargo drops, escape pods and passing traders and tribes, things rarely get stale.
Ludeon Studios states that Firefly was a major inspiration for the game and the music and sounds of the game are reflected in that. There’s a whole lot of space cowboy blues, and guitar-driven riffs scattered throughout the game - my only complaint with it being that there isn’t enough. Sound effects are sharp, though the cries of the animals can get rather grating after awhile, especially if you're trying to breed a herd of alpacas in your back garden.
To help the player define their game, RimWorld comes with three types of AI “director”. Each affects the game differently. One will give you a classic difficulty curve, ramping it up as you get to grips and improve. Another will give you a relaxed challenge and allow you to build up before sending anything challenging your way. The third (and by far my favourite) is a complete anarchist and will randomly throw events and challenges your way no matter how far along you are. On top of these AI directors are difficulty levels ranging from very easy to unbearably hard. RimWorld recommends you at least set it to “challenging” to experience it properly.
The game straddles that line between accessibility and difficulty with consummate ease. Everything can be defined by player choice. You can have a colony of gun-toting maniacs or a peaceful settlement that trades its way out of conflict. Similarly, you can strip it back so that ice-sheet megabases can be constructed or ramp up the challenge so that surviving your first week is near impossible. Despite being so deep into Early Access the game has also opened itself out to the community and there are already a number of excellent mods available for it - some of which may even be implemented into the final game.
That’s not to say the game is not without its flaws. Setting your colonists to do specific functions can be fiddly and complex, especially as they all have a set of predefined priorities. The ability to manually delineate what your settlers see as more important goes some way ot alleviating the problem but watching resources not being moved or walls being repaired when the tool-tip says three colonists idle can get frustrating. A larger end-game could also be implemented - as it is once you reach a certain size and resource build-up, players can simply strip-mine the map and run out of room and things to do.
Even at this stage of development, and as an Early Access game, RimWorld is a triumph of the simulation genre and a champion of the powers of emergent gameplay. I could have filled this entire preview with the specific stories of my colonists, so many were the stories made by berserk cannibal herbalists or fire-starting vicars. RimWorld is a game that any simulation fan must have in their collection, it’s as simple as that, as it will only get better and better.