Ixion Review: A complicated management sim wrapped in a rousing space opera

Ixion begins by asking “What if Homeworld was a management sim?”. This question is then answered comprehensively and convincingly. Bulwark Studios’ star-hopping epic inherits the operatic, elegiac grandeur of Relic’s classic RTS, but replaces the space battles with a gooey mix of stellar logistics.

Also, like Homeworld, it’s a damn stylish thing. The game begins with a spectacular intro cutscene, in which a futuristic space shuttle launches from Earth, breaches the atmosphere and docks with a gigantic, spinning space station that looks like a chromed hubcap from a petrolhead’s pride. The cutscene seamlessly transitions into the game perspective, where you see the same shuttle gliding out of the cold void outside and into the docking bay. Welcome to Tiqqun, admin. Your long journey starts here.

The Tiqqun (pronounced “tycoon”) is an ark for humanity, or alternatively a colossal Muskian folly based on the belief that finding a new planet to call home is a better idea than the atmosphere of the planet we have not too shitty spent millions of years evolving to make a living from it (not that I have strong opinions on the subject). Anyway, the Tiqqun has everything mankind needs, namely tenements, bug burgers, and a massive engine called the “VOHLE” drive that allows the station to travel between the stars in ways I don’t pretend to understand . Of course, when you turn the ignition key, something goes wrong. I won’t spoil what, but the net result is that Tiqqun is left broken and alone in the great expanse. From here you have two basic goals. Keep your crew alive and find a nice watery Goldilocks planet to restart civilization on.

In the game, Ixion is split into three separate but interconnected tiers. The first of these, and the one where you will spend most of your time, is the interior of the Tiqqun. This is where Ixion most closely resembles a standard management simulation. To keep your crew alive and happy, you must build them houses, ensure a constant supply of food, and maintain “stability” by constructing specific buildings and enacting specific policies. In order to do all this, you need to build production chains for different resources such as alloys, electronics, and polymers.

All familiar things. But Ixion’s settings add a few wrinkles. The Tiqqun may be huge, but its interior is still limited. Before you know it, you’ll have completely filled the first of its six sectors and will be breaking open the bulkhead to Sector Two to expand your build space. Each sector is operationally independent, but most will rely on other sectors to provide them with specific resources. This means managing the import and export of resources between different sectors and building a complex network of logistics pipelines that run like arteries throughout the station. The emphasis on spatial management fits the game’s theme well, although it’s a bit annoying that you can’t move a structure once built, instead having to dismantle it and rebuild it from scratch.

From ringed gas giants to shattered moons to planet-sized slivers of ice, Ixion goes to great lengths to make outer space tangible and dramatic

The other notable wrinkle is the crew themselves. Being stranded in space, your manpower is limited at first. Although you can acquire more workers in a way I’ll detail later, you can’t just create more of them whenever you want, as that would take about eighteen years too long. As such, you must be careful how you distribute your workforce, migrate workers between sectors, and make sure you don’t overload individual sectors with work as this can lead to accidents and dissatisfaction.

At this level alone, Ixion is a perfectly decent management sim. It’s always satisfying to balance the needs of your populace with the space and resources available as you set up a new logistics route and watch all your automated robots pour out of the relieving supply. The depiction of life aboard the Tiqqun is somewhat sterile, however. Buildings show a fair amount of detail, but your human workers wander aimlessly along the paths. It’s a far cry from the intricate, characterful animations of the Two Point series. This isn’t too much of a problem, however, as most of Ixion’s personality lies elsewhere.

The second layer is the station’s exterior, which is mechanically much simpler than the interior. All you do here is build solar panels for extra energy and a few more specific additions that you unlock as you progress through the story. However, it is worth visiting occasionally for its magnificent space views. The various star systems you visit are rendered in full 3D. So moving the tiqqun between planets gives you a whole new, often spectacular, sci-fi setting to coo. From ringed gas giants to shattered moons to planet-sized slivers of ice, Ixion goes to great lengths to make outer space tangible and dramatic. You’ll also see your EVA workers darting across the station’s surface while constantly patching up the hull, although the outside view doesn’t seem to visualize your various ships docking with the station, which is a shame.

“Ships you say?” Now, fellow traveller, let me introduce you to the third layer of Ixion – the planetary layer! Here, your perspective zooms in on a Mass Effect-style overview of the star system you’re in and lets you control Tiqqun’s exploration of the system. You will launch probes to study signals that will reveal new resources and anomalies, then dispatch mining and cargo ships to gather the resources and science ships to study the anomalies. These will reveal fragments of the narrative that, depending on your choices, could lead to new resources, a horrific death for your science team, or the discovery of cryopods that you can salvage and thaw aboard the Tiqqun to recruit new workers.

The three layers are all interesting in their own way, but it’s in the way they relate to one another that Ixion really begins to impress. When a cargo ship returns a resource to the wrong loading dock, you’ll need to set up an entirely new logistics pipeline to get it to where it’s needed. Meanwhile, external events, such as the loss of a research vessel, can have a dramatic impact on crew morale, leading to unrest and even workers’ strikes. Moving the Tiqqun itself is always a big event, as the station can only run on battery power while underway, and traveling adds significant stress to the hull. As such, you must plan and prepare Tiqqun maneuvers very carefully to ensure you have stored up enough energy to make the journey, possibly hopping from one planet to another in stages.

Meanwhile, these micro-stories play out against the backdrop of the larger narrative. Your progression through the various star systems is linear, with each functioning as a chapter in the overall story. Ixion’s sci-fi storytelling effectively captures the eerie and passively hostile nature of outer space. The Tiqqun isn’t humanity’s only manifestation of its escape from Earth, either, and as you hop from star to star your science teams will sift through the remains of other expeditions. You’ll explore lunar bases ravaged by mutant spores, converse with AIs left alone for untold years, and witness the galaxy-spanning aftermath of the accident that stranded the Tiqqun in the first place.

“It’s an engaging story that brings real meaning to your day-to-day management of the station.”

It’s an engaging story that will add real meaning to your day-to-day management of the station. However, moving from one chapter to the next can be a bit of a hassle. Key story points often require you to meet a specific set of parameters, which can mean hauling a certain number of resources to and from the Tiqqun. Unlike general resource gathering, for which you can assign as many cargo ships as you can support, these mission-specific deliveries can only be performed by a single ship. That means waiting for it to load, drive, unload, return, and then load again, usually multiple times. It’s an annoying bottleneck that really slows down the final stages of a chapter, compounded by the fact that the game punishes you for staying too long in a star system, essentially taking psychological damage from your crew for not having one planet to call home.

Other than that, however, Ixion is a really great mix of management sim and sci-fi storytelling. There are loads of games just clamoring for my attention right now, Darktide, The Callisto Protocol, the new God of War over on the devil’s PC to name a few. But during my time at Ixion, I’ve never been tempted to dismiss it for those bigger, flashier games, which is a testament to its meticulous design and compelling story of mankind’s quest for a new heavenly roof to sleep on.

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