Planetbase Review - Colonies Surviving Catastrophies

Published: February 27, 2016 9:00 AM /

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I'm a bit of a fan of the YouTuber Many A True Nerd. When I saw him play Planetbase (developed and published by Madruga Works), it shot to the top of my Steam wishlist immediately. I'm a sucker for games where you try to build towns, cities, colonies, whatever. The amount of time I have in games like Terraria, Cities: Skylinesand Banished is a testament to this fact.

Planetbase is a game where you lead a team of humans and robots in an attempt to colonize another planet. You begin the game with a predetermined crew composition and a landing pod full of resources. If you build carefully with luck on your side, you'll create a thriving colony on another world.

If only it were that easy.

A basic colony can produce resources and meet the needs of the colonists, but expansion will require more complex infrastructure.
A basic colony can produce resources and meet the needs of the colonists, but expansion will require more complex infrastructure.

The beginning of a game will typically follow the same pattern. You're going to need to build an Oxygen Generator so your colony has breathable air. An Oxygen Generator needs water to create oxygen so you'll need to build a Water Extractor as well. Neither of these buildings will work without power, so of course you'll need to build either a Solar Panel or a Wind Turbine. Power needs to be stored somewhere, so a Power Collector is needed to store it when the sun's not out or the wind isn't blowing. And lastly, you'll need to actually be able to enter your pressurized facility which will require an Airlock.

This should be a relatively straightforward process, but Planetbase is a game rife with catastrophe that is especially unforgiving in its early stages. A meteor might impact your only Power Collector just as the sun goes down and everyone suffocates before morning. Perhaps you decided to build an ambitious structure before getting the very basics settled. Whether by a stroke of bad luck or a poor decision, you have the greatest risk of rapid failure at the beginning of the game.

After you have a bit of power being generated (and, if you're smart, stored in a Power Collector) and a colony with breathable air, the next thing on the list is a water fountain. You already have a Water Extractor so it's only a matter of building one of the many rooms that can support a Drinking Fountain. The Canteen is a good choice since your first colonists are going to be getting hungry pretty soon so you may as well have that covered. (Colonists can and will eat meals on the floor but they won't be happy about it.)

This is a good place to talk about some of the things that frustrated me about Planetbase. I want to make it clear that I really enjoyed this game - I played it for quite a bit longer than I strictly needed to because I was having such a great time. However, there's a tiny little thing here or there that annoyed or inconvenienced me. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of these relatively minor problems.

Planetbase Anti Meteor LaserFor example, every game begins with a ship full of colonists being sent to another planet. This is a huge undertaking in terms of time, money, and manpower. NASA (and the equivalent agencies of other nations) do not mess around with safety. Everything has a backup, and then the backup has a backup of its own. Margins of error are widened where possible. You don't take 8 hours worth of oxygen on an 8 hour spacewalk, you take much more than that just in case because space is unabashedly unforgiving. Whoever runs the colonization program in Planetbase doesn't seem to care as much.

I said earlier that Planetbase is especially unforgiving in the beginning. This is because you are, in effect, trying to beat out the clock on several hazards that are guaranteed to be coming your way. First, your colonists only have enough oxygen for about a day. No, they can't go back onto the lander for more. They brought enough for 24 hours per person and that's it. There is very little margin for error here. NASA would refer to this as a "big no-no".

If you manage to get all of your colonists indoors before they suffocate, your next task is to get them some water. Sure, the Colony Ship you take down to the planet has food stored aboard to get your started, but for some insane reason it's wholly lacking in any potable water. New players will lose a few (if not all) of their colonists to suffocation. Once they understand that hurdle and can get over it, the next most likely thing they will lose people to is dehydration. Despite the fact that humans can survive around three days without water, the colonists in Planetbase unfortunately aren't as hardy.

Aside from a woefully under-equipped Colony Ship, the colonists themselves are a bit lacking in survival instincts. I don't know about you, but if the power went out overnight and the breathable air was running out I'd be hightailing it to the nearest space suit. Another 24 hours of oxygen might be just enough time to survive. You could move all of your colonists outside to buy them a little bit of time, but the fact that they don't do this automatically when they're having difficulty breathing seems like a frustrating oversight.

If you can get past these initial hurdles, your next goal will be to get self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency in Planetbase requires a few things. You're going to need to have your Biologists get to growing food in a Bio-Dome. You'll need a Mine to gather Ore, and a Processing Plant to turn Ore and Starch into Metal and Bioplastic, respectively.

Once you're producing food and the two main resources in the game, the only real necessity remaining is a Factory so you can produce Spares. Spares are needed to maintain the power-gathering structures in Planetbase. As time goes on, they get less and less efficient until they finally break down. Engineers will automatically take Spares to repair your Wind Turbines and Solar Panels, but you only have so many.

A good early game alternative to setting up this infrastructure is to build a Landing Pad. Aside from allowing you to grow your population through new colonists, a Landing Pad allows you to make deals with Traders. Even the most efficient and well-stocked colony will probably find it faster to purchase goods in bulk from a Trader as opposed to letting the colony produce them from scratch.

Landing Pads (and the higher-tier Starports) can net you access to Traders who can shore up critical supply shortages as well as allow you to acquire new colonists.
Landing Pads (and the higher-tier Starports) can net you access to Traders who can shore up critical supply shortages as well as allow you to acquire new colonists.

Of course, there are several threats to deal with in the game beyond basic survival needs. There are currently three separate planets you can play on in Planetbase and each has its own challenge. For example, the Class M is categorized as the most difficult planet. One of the challenges of a Class M planet is that there is no wind whatsoever. You are going to be wholly dependent on solar power and storing enough power throughout the night to make it to the following day.

Meteors are also a threat. They miss most of the time, but if they hit something, your best case scenario is that it hits a non-critical unoccupied building. If a meteor impacts a structure or connection with people inside of it, those people are killed instantly. You can build Telescopes and Anti-Meteor Lasers to neutralize this threat, but the resource and manpower costs makes this a mid-game strategy at best.

As the prestige of your colony increases, you will also face the threat of hostile visitors. Your Landing Pads can accept new colonists, Traders, or Visitors. Visitors are simply tourists who will visit your facility, eat a meal or two, and then pay some Coins on the way out the door. You can completely close your Landing Pad down and refuse all ships, but if you have it open in any fashion you run the risk of hostile invaders coming in and shooting everyone in sight for some unknown reason. The motivation is never explained, but there's plenty of possibilities considering the relative harshness of space.

As you play through Planetbase, you'll reach certain "milestones" on each planet. The "medium difficulty" Class F ice planet requires that you reach 5 milestones on the easiest Class D planet (which is Mars in everything but name). The "hard difficulty" Class M planet requires 10 milestones. The milestones are sufficiently challenging that a new and inexperienced player won't be able to reach them without having a decent grasp of the game's mechanics, and it serves as a smart and fair gating system for the later planets. The other planets offer more than variety with their increased challenge, and a new player who makes the jump straight to the most difficult planet might find themselves overwhelmed. This was a smart decision by the developer that doesn't feel artificial or unfair at all.

The game's sounds have a great "sci-fi" feel to them, and the music is perfect for this kind of game. It's better than absolute silence, but the music is never distracting or overbearing. It rightly adds flavor to the experience.

The graphics are simple but lovely. You won't need a high-end card to run Planetbase, but it doesn't look terrible either. It has a consistent art style and no real noticeable artistic failings like misaligned textures or low-quality models. The animations and effects are smooth and compliment the art style nicely.

The game does its overall job of simulating what it would be like to run a colony pretty well. I feel that a number of issues persist that prevent what is a good game from being a great game.

Firstly, the game has a few UI issues. You can't name save files, you simply have "Save 98", "Save 99", and so on. This isn't a showstopper, but it's mildly frustrating. Thankfully, the save files have thumbnails so you can at least have some idea of what you're trying to load. Save files also don't remember if you were at Yellow Alert (colonists stay indoors, useful for sandstorms or solar flares) or Red Alert (the same as Yellow Alert, and colonists are also ready for combat). If you save during a disaster, turn on Yellow Alert, and then load it later the game won't be in Yellow Alert anymore. You may find one of your colonists stupidly ignoring the space weather forecast and getting fatally irradiated by a solar flare.

Good power infrastructure is critical to your colony's survival.
Good power infrastructure is critical to your colony's survival.

You can't turn off mouse edge scrolling whatsoever. I understand that some people like this method of moving around the screen, but I'm not fond of it at all and would very much like the ability to turn it off. You can't access Settings within the game at all, you have to exit your current game and tinker with these things at the main menu.

You can't skip the introductory "Colony Ship lands on the planet and everyone files out of it" cutscene that starts every new game. Unskippable cutscenes are right up there with unskippable movie previews on a Blu-Ray. Nobody likes them.

Aside from these technical bits, there's also minor micromanagement issues. In a game that's all about running a colony and providing for your colonists it's absolutely critical that micromanagement is smooth and easy, and Planetbase fails in some overall tiny but nonetheless frustrating ways.

Once a resource is put into a workstation, you can't pull it back out without demolishing the station. It's frustrating that you can't just reallocate a resource that isn't being used towards something that you need. In a similar vein, you can't really take Meals out of the Meal Maker in the Canteen. I'd much prefer the ability to convert all of my food into prepared meals (as they're better overall) and then put those in storage, but there's not really a way to do this without repeatedly demolishing the Meal Maker. Alternatively, you can buy prepared meals from a Trader in bulk. The meals are especially a problem because the only way to practically store Meals is to simply have an awful lot of Meal Makers.

Worker management is another issue that I feel could do with a bit of improvement. There are five types of colonists in Planetbase: Biologists, Engineers, Workers, Medics, and Guards. Certain things can only be done by certain classes of Colonist, but that's about as far as prioritization goes. You can't specifically fine tune who is working where.

For example, I would ideally like one Engineer on "repair" duty to maintain the power generating structures, one Engineer making Spares, and two Engineers focusing on construction of new facilities. Unfortunately, I can't make these distinctions. All I can do is assign work and hope that they get to it in the right order. There's an awful lot of inefficiency and slowdowns that result as a lack of this system. You'll find that your power situation gets critical because a Solar Panel was destroyed and all of your Engineers are on the other side of the colony.

Although there is currently a structure limit in the game, you can still build quite large colonies in Planetbase.
Although there is currently a structure limit in the game, you can still build quite large colonies in Planetbase.

There's also the problem that colonists in Planetbase will absolutely not do anything outside of their jobs. A Medic will never try to go outside and repair a broken Wind Turbine. If all of your colony's Engineers and Constructor Bots are dead, there's absolutely nothing you can do to rectify this situation other than to acquire new Engineers via the Landing Pad. If you haven't built one yet, you may as well just start over because you will never be able to get new colonists and everyone will eventually die out. I feel this particular issue can be solved by allowing colonists to do other jobs but at a severely reduced rate. A Biologist repairing a Solar Panel at twenty percent efficiency is much preferable to a colony that gets wiped out because your last Engineer happened to get obliterated by an unlucky meteor strike.

Lastly, my biggest issue of any was the waiting. Planetbase allows you to go up to 4x speed, but even then it can be a chore to build up the resources necessary for some of the more complex structures such as the largest Solar Panels. I feel the game might benefit from a greater speed setting if possible. However, I also have to wonder if the reason it takes so long for resources to be produced is because of the aforementioned inefficiencies of the AI.

Despite all these minor issues, Planetbase still works very well as a game. These tiny problems all add up and make what would otherwise be an amazing experience simply a good experience. All credit to the developer, a fair few problems are being addressed in an upcoming patch. Structure and population limits are being removed, a new planet type is being added, colonist AI is getting a few improvements, and more.

The tiny issues I have with Planetbase are all relatively easy to fix in the grand scheme of things, and I do hope the developer takes them into consideration in future patches. I've seen far too many game developers who are content to put their product out into the wild and never touch it again, and the commitment of Madruga Works to continue to improve Planetbase is commendable.

I enjoyed Planetbase despite the few minor nitpicks I had to deal with, and I'll definitely be playing it more when the new planet drops in the March 2016 patch. I played it for 45 hours, and I feel that it's a great value if you enjoy civilization-building games. 

TechRaptor was given Planetbase for review. It was reviewed on PC. You can acquire it on the developer's website, the Humble Store, and Steam.

What do you think of Planetbase? Is this indeed the foremost Matt Damon on Mars simulator on the market? What other colony building games do you enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!

Review Summary


Planetbase has a handful of minor flaws, but the overall presentation is excellent despite these tiny problems. A fun game for people who like building and managing communities.

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