Review – Rimworld

Did someone say Dwarf Fortress? But quicker? More efficient? Easier on the eyes? Feeling more coherent and finished?

Ah yes, the world of colony management. From the days of Spore‘s weird pseudo-RTS colony mode, to the incredibly interesting BanishedOxygen Not Included, even something like Prison Architect— it seems like colony management has really exploded of late, especially on the more indie side of things. Of course, you can’t really say how much of it would exist without Dwarf Fortress, which feels like the godfather of too-deep one-more-hour colony management simulators.

But the caveat is that Dwarf Fortress has drawbacks. I’ll be the first to admit that, as of this writing, I have put maybe an hour in Dwarf Fortress in the past ten years– but before that? Even putting 3-4 hours a day into it, I constantly had to google if something was possible, how to do it, etc. It has its drawbacks, but Bay 12 Games has always been uncompromising in their vision, for better or worse. With Rimworld, though? It seems they took the ‘idea’ of Dwarf Fortress, but made it into a completely coherent game. They saw what people enjoyed about the game, and what wasn’t popular, and chose to focus on the things that worked, the things that people… well, cared about. That’s not to say that Dwarf Fortress’s adventure mode isn’t an absolute marvel of technology – because it is – but it’s not what most people went to Dwarf Fortress for.

So what did they go to Dwarf Fortress for? Managing a colony of assholes with their own personalities, constantly being pushed to their limits, dealing with strange events and rare enemies– and that’s exactly what Rimworld gives you.

I’m going to try and avoid comparisons between Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld from here on out, for the sake of this review not taking quite as long, but the one thing I’ll say is: You start out just about the same way. You have almost nothing for resources, very little in the way of defending yourself, and no shelter. Get to work! One day you might have a chance to escape this rimworld you’ve crash-landed on, and get back to something resembling civilization.

So, the game is as complicated or simple as you want it to be. It’s as difficult or simple as you want it to be. As an aside, I didn’t play the game before the 1.0 patch, and for reasons that will be obvious later, haven’t played much of the 1.1 patch. With that in mind, Rimworld has three adorably-detailed AI ‘storytellers’, which determine how the game handles events and things that happen to you and your colony. This is separate from the actual difficulty settings, which are the mathematical scaling options. With the storytellers, you get these three characterized options for the experience you want in the game: Cassanda, Phoebe, and Randy. Cassandra Classic is simple: It’s built so that things happen, you get time to breathe, and things happen again. Sometimes for a big crescendo, the AI will decide you need multiple things to happen, but then give you a big break afterwards. The ‘default’ narrative. Then there’s Phoebe Chillax, which is a more laid-back story. You get thrown a battle or encounter every now and then, but there’s generally a decent break between anything happening. It’s great for getting your bearings in the game, but even on harder difficulties it comes across as more boring than anything else. Then there’s Randy Random. This is the definition of ‘fair’. Things happen at random, you can be given nothing but garbage thrown at you for a year straight, or have a massive, incredibly powerful enemy raid you on your first night. More often than not, it creates the most drama and gives a sense of intensity that the others don’t immediately have. Knowing which storyteller you have can give you a meta decision in how you play the game, too. For example, if you’ve got Cassandra, and you just finished a big battle, you know you’ve got time to heal up before re-arming your traps and the like. With Randy, you stay on the edge of your seat, waiting for him to throw a nuclear winter at you.

So with the options, the exact experience of Rimworld is very much up to the player. It’s not a linear, singular-decided campaign story like Mega Man. It doesn’t even have an immediate, non-sandbox campaign for unlocking things like other management games such as Jurassic World: Evolution. So in reviewing any given experience, it’ll be different than anyone else’s– and that’s a good thing. It really does help the game stick out and be able to cater to just about anyone.

All of this is all well and good from an information dump perspective, but what do you actually do in the game? Mostly, try to survive. You’re going to be creating a compound of some sort to defend, research more technology, recruit people, create farms, hunt and tame animals– all in the name of escape. The end goal is to build a ship so that you may escape this dangerous hell that you’ve lived on. You’re going to be spending years perfecting the colony, researching things, fighting off enemies, trading with friends– again, all in the name of eventual escape back to proper civilization. Each of your pawns (colonists felt too generic, I suppose?) has a modicum of skills and personality traits that affect things they can and can’t do. A pyromaniac won’t fight fires, a misogynist will be predisposed to hate women, a night owl hates being awake during the day– you see where this is going. This means that not only are you managing your colonists against outside forces, but against each other, as well. Disagreements can lead to fights, someone might be jealous of another pawn’s room being nicer, throw a few insults– boom, fistfight and one of them is in the hospital for two days!

But… it never feels unfair. Almost. Outside of a couple of specific events, you never feel like the game is pulling its punches, but also that Rimworld isn’t cheating. Sure, a solar flare is going to knock out your power for a little while, and if you’ve got a freezer full of human corpses freshly-hunted game, it might be a worry that it’ll start to rot, but you know it’s going to pass very soon. From what I gather, they never last more than a day, which is manageable, if annoying. It forces you to not get complacent in your automation, which is an interesting thing to throw at players in a game that so heavily encourages it. There are, though, a couple of events that feel almost designed to force you to change your play style completely, or are tailor-made to ruin someone who focuses too much on one thing. Again, though, it feels fair to see punishment if you don’t have backup plans– after all, that’s life on the rim: Unfair and cruel.

Eventually, you’ll lose some of your starting pawns, gain a bunch more pawns, still be heartbroken about the guy who was passionate about absolutely everything, but get over it. Now, you’ve got this settlement you’ve had for five years, your men are armed with sniper rifles, assault rifles, miniguns, body armor– your pawns are ready for war. And you get a notification that the nearby hostile tribal-technology faction is attacking. You’ve dealt with attacks before from them, you set up a gate for them to enter from– it’s a slaughter in the truest sense. And as horrifying as it is narratively that this tribe you couldn’t be bothered to make allies with is dying without so much as reaching your doorstep, it’s also satisfying. From the first fight you had with them, a scuffle with a couple of their scouts, to now having access to mortars, automated turrets, and enough firepower to make the United States armed forces blush– that progression feels great. It’s the core of what makes the game, really. The progression is fairly constant once you’ve established yourself. The general flow of a game is something like this:

Land -> Set up base -> Survive and recruit -> Research -> Gain supplies -> Defend -> Repeat 4-6 at least 10 more times -> Escape

So you can see that early on, the game does feel a bit slow. It’s at its most dangerous, especially if you’re playing with Randy, but once you’ve got a decent amount of people, there’s a sense of constant progression that is second to none in any management, survival, or RTS game. Of course, it comes with one incredible caveat: Failure is an expectation. Not in the Dark Souls sense of ‘failure will help you proceed’, but that more often than not, you will fail. Throughout your first playthrough, you’ll be learning the mechanics, and that will cause failure, but then the decisions are all your own. You can’t blame the harsh world for your mistakes. Maybe you relied too much on farming, and a volcanic winter occurs, causing all manner of negative effects, not the least of which being your farms slowing to a crawl, forcing the butcher of your farm animals. In the end, though, the failure is fun, because it makes the success that much sweeter. You get near the end of your time on this desolate, miserable planet, only to look back at the graves of those you lost along the way. Failure comes in all forms on the rim.

What it comes down to more than anything is, of course, if I would recommend the game. And the answer, of course, is yes. Unless you absolutely cannot stand games that require a modicum of management, there’s going to be something here for you. For the laid-back players who enjoy a simpler experience, dial down the difficulty, call up Phoebe, and build the village of your dreams. If you want an unforgiving experience with no room for error, forcing you to perfect a tower defense-like design while still being raided, hoping that you’ll have enough of the resources you desperately need– well, you can get that out of it, too. For me, I wanted a game I could play that sat somewhere roughly in the middle, that told me interesting stories through emergent gameplay, and that’s what I got from the game. My first colony that survived until the later parts of the game was led during its roughest time by an old woman in her 80s who was an incredible shot, tamed an elephant on her first try, and with that elephant, she hunted other elephants. She died of a heart attack after killing two elephants at once and not making it home. She was a complete badass, and saved that colony for a long, long time.

5/5

I’m putting this down here because it’s not factoring into the review or score, but I would be remiss not to talk about the modding community and capabilities of Rimworld, for at least a little bit. I haven’t looked deeply into it, but from what I gather, modding the game is incredibly simple, as far as modding goes. There are mods that add all sorts of additional content without any immediate mechanical changes– things like additional animals, furniture, wall types, fences, etc. Those are incredible in their own right, given the absurd number that you can use without any compatibility issues or instability from the game itself, but there are mods that change the way the game works, and that’s incredible. The most outstanding of the things mods have achieved is the coveted multiplayer support. With mod support of its own, of course. But the most surprising part is that the multiplayer mod supports Steamworks for joining games. In all my years playing games on Steam, modding games– I’ve never seen anything like this before. The fact that a decent amount of mods work with it as well (provided all parties have them in the same load order) is just icing on the cake. The one caveat to the multiplayer mod is that it doesn’t work on the 1.1 update, so I haven’t experienced that as much as I would’ve liked. But either way, the mods are incredible and just the cherry on the icing on this incredible, delicious, varied cake.

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