Video games allow me to inhabit exciting roles that I'm denied by the natural order of humdrum existence.
In the case of Aven Colony, the promise is to run a colony on an alien planet. Frankly, unfettered power and exotic discoveries sound like my kind of a gig.
But it turns out that even the coolest-sounding jobs in the universe can wind up feeling like a long day at the office. Aven Colony is that oft-experienced example of a game that aspires to set me free, but manages to be curiously constricting.
This SimCity-in-space offers up a fistful of planetary environments waiting to be touched by the hand of humanity. As colony commander, my job is to set down buildings that are designed to exploit local resources.
I build mines, generators, farms, factories, air fans, immigration portals and water pumps. All this is strung together by a network of tunnels which work just like roads.
With essential resources rolling in, I turn my attention to defending my growing flock. I build scrubber drones to clean up alien bugs. Hospitals are erected to guard against weird plagues. I place gun turrets to shoot down giant hailstones. Police stations arise to keep the restless mob in check.
In time, my people demand comforts and entertainments. As a benevolent leader, I create chemical plants to manufacture recreational drugs. I offer up retail hubs, pubs and parks.
Eventually, my colony thrums along, and so I turn my focus onto larger objectives like military missions, ranging out to destroy alien spores and such.
In order to achieve this harmony, I must pay a near constant vigil over a series of gauges and overlays that monitor the colony's vital signs. This is the nature of city building games, but in the case of Aven Colony, stats and barometers seem to be the entire point of the exercise.
My main focus is not so much to create a new world of wonder, as to avert an everlasting parade of impending tragedies. And so I'm constantly tweaking my various supply nodes in order to avoid shortages, or a glut that will overwhelm my storage capabilities.
It doesn't take much for things to go awry, and when they do, the results tend to be catastrophic. On many occasions, I realize too late that a decline in a key resource cannot be arrested in time to save my colony. Or I find myself in a gyre of failing systems that make recovery literally impossible.
The difference between plenty and want feels razor thin. Aven Colony does have a warning system, but it includes so much unimportant guff that the signal-to-noise ratio is overwhelming.
In later parts of the game, a different concern arises. I have so many resources that I hardly know what to do with them, and so the sense of any peril is gone.
This makes for a game that doesn't quite locate the margin between challenge and creativity, that spends its energies on drab busy work.
My cities lack variety. The problems they throw up aren't based on my creative choices or personality, but on the dull beat of statistics born of the designer's will.
An intense data-based user interface offers many useful overlays. But it errs by slamming me with constantly repetitive pop-ups and narrative interruptions that get in the way of comfortable rhythm.
These come in the form of a tedious litany of natural events — storms and plagues — that soon become a serious source of irritation, especially once I have systems in place to handle them effectively. On the 20th occasion that my boss barked at me about a current alien plague infestation — issues that I had already entirely eradicated — I was yelling at the screen.
These vexations don't normally spoil games for me, but in this case, they are too numerous to forgive.
City building games are all about information, flow and organization. Their presentation ought to fully reflect these values. Aven Colony's alien planets are drawn in a standard sci-fi style of odd shapes and neon colors, but these terrains don't feel especially exotic. For most of the maps, I might just as well be in an extreme Earth environment, like a desert, a jungle or an icecap. There is little topographical variety to challenge my problem-solving desires, almost no sense of wonder and exploration.
Frustratingly, even many of the exotic plants and mineral deposits on display are mere decoration. I can grow a small selection of alien crops, but am also able to grow barley, rice and corn. It's hardly mind-bending exoticism.
These planets are mostly bereft of life-forms, and those that occasionally show themselves offer up only the slightest interactions. It gives the world a sense of sterility.
Combat feels like an afterthought, an unnecessary management mini-game that mostly serves to extend the game's lengthy campaign.
Trade is not so much about balancing surplus and shortages, as clicking on a small menu of options that rarely fit the urgent needs of the colony.
A thin story overlies the campaign which has almost nothing interesting to say about galactic colonization, but which does manage to supply a small cast of braying, douchey characters, who seem like they were transported from bad '90s games.
I spent the equivalent of a working week playing Aven Colony and it was hard labor. This is a game of relentless concentration and chore-work, with only the briefest flashes of magic and relief, offering almost nothing new to the city building, or resource management genres.
Aven Colony was reviewed using a pre-release Steam download key provided by the developer. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.