Oxygen Not Included is Klei Entertainment’s newest game in a long line of strong titles. It keeps their signature art style, which is reminiscent of old cartoons with painted backgrounds and cell shading on anything that moves or can be interacted with. Klei hasn’t stuck to one genre for long, going from action games (Shank) to more strategic games (Mark of the Ninja and Invisible, INC.), and finally to survival games (Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included). In a strange move they seem to have kept to the same genre, but Oxygen Not Included is more like a scientific survival game when compared to the more well-known examples in the genre. As the name suggests, the availability of oxygen is limited and must be controlled, along with all the other normal survival elements.
Despite the cartoon-y look to the game, Oxygen Not Included is definitely not for younger audiences. Many systems get into more complex scientific laws and theories, something most people probably won’t be familiar with. Listing Calories as kcals is simple enough for most people, but listing the specific heat capacity (the amount of energy needed to raise 1Kg of that material 1°K) and conductivity of all states of matter (gas, liquid, solid) gives off the feeling that a much more analytic and scientific approach will be required somewhere along the line. Personally, I never ran into issues of heat or random electrocutions, but I was never able to get too terribly far into the game as a whole. Oxygen Not Included takes the, “You don’t win, you just do a little better each time,” adage way too far. Assuming you play on the survival difficulty like I did, you’ll quickly run into issues of oxygen, whether it be in the wrong spot (oxygen does rise, after all) or there simply not being enough of it. After restarting and focusing more on that, issues of food arise. The game’s tutorials are severely lacking, so you’ll never know that Microbe Mushers are essential for early game calories. After restarting again and getting a little bit farther once more, oxygen issues come once again after algae becomes less available and your supply is all used up. You can’t rely on water for oxygen either, unless you have a place to put all the hydrogen you’d create along with the oxygen if you use electrolysis. While you don’t need water to drink, you do need it for things like showers and lavatories, and giant pools are used up faster than you’d think. Trying to dig to new sources of resources you need is also inadvisable, since this just opens up more areas where gases will filter into. Even if you use airlocks to keep your precious oxygen in your colony, the technology that gives you oxygen tanks for your duplicants is far down the tech tree.
My experience with Oxygen Not Included was rather cyclical. Solving each issue I came across opened up more issues that became less and less solvable and ultimately resulted in starvation and/or oxygen deprivation. Along with this issue is the problem of how little control you have over your duplicants. Unlike in RimWorld where you can force people to do certain jobs you want done with a few clicks, Oxygen Not Included gives you a strange, multi-tiered priority system. Each job has its own priority, and each duplicant has their own sets of priorities. Thus, if you set a digging job to priority 9 (the highest), your duplicants will go to that digging job first above all others. However, duplicants will only do digging jobs of any kind if they don’t have anything else that’s a higher priority to them specifically. This can make it difficult to keep track of who’s doing what and general upkeep. For example, duplicants never seemed to want to empty the bottles of polluted water made by my algae terrariums, and I had no way of forcing them to do these jobs even when the polluted water was polluting my air. Also, when a duplicant gets stuck somewhere while digging and cannot jump down, I had no way of forcing my other duplicants to build them a ladder to safety. The difficulty curve, while possibly attractive to certain folks, would likely turn most people off from the game. Oxygen Not Included definitely struck me as the type of game that requires a precise strategy for success, which takes away the ability to have some fun with the game. If you are forced to go the same route each new game or suffocate, then that really digs into the replayability of a survival game.
The sound and art are both well done; each duplicant giving facial expressions that really emphasize their current state. Those plunging toilets will give a blank death stare to nothing in particular as they do what must be done and their cheeks puff out while holding their breath, etc. The swirls of different gasses give you a very pretty and noticeable way to tell how the oxygen situation is without even going into the gas overlay. Duplicants never actually speak but more so make sounds like they’re sims. Each noise is very unique in its tone, giving the player non visual cues as to when someone is upset or happy.
Still in Early Access, Oxygen Not Included looks promising but needs a ton of work done on it. The tech tree is very heavily geared towards the end game and has little by way of incremental buffs. How a player is supposed to create a stable level of oxygen, water, and food (like in the movie The Martian) is beyond me after six hours of game play, so don’t expect a relaxing colony creator game out of Oxygen Not Included. The game also feels like it was meant to be played in 3x speed, since the in game and real time speeds of actions are most reasonable at that speed. Still, it shows promise and Klei has a very good track record, so the last thing I’d say is that supporting Klei on their newest game would be a mistake.