Ixion review: an intricate management sim wrapped in a moving space opera

Ixion starts by asking the question “What if Homeworld was a management sim?”. It then goes on to answer that question comprehensively and convincingly. Bulwark Studios’ star-jumping epic takes the operatic, elegiac grandeur of Relic’s RTS classic, but replaces the space battles with a chewy mix of fantastical logistics.

Like Homeworld, it’s a damn classy thing. The game starts with a spectacular intro scene where a futuristic space shuttle launches from Earth, breaks through the atmosphere to dock with a giant, rotating space station like a chrome hubcap of a petrol head’s pride and joy. The cutscene transitions nicely into the play perspective, where you see the same shuttle sliding into the docking bay from the cold void outside. Welcome to Tiqqun, administrator. Your long journey starts here.

Tiqqun (pronounced “Tycoon”) is an ark for humanity, or alternatively, a colossal Muskian folly built on the belief that finding a new planet to call home is a better idea than not screwing up the atmosphere of the one we’ve spent millions of years to develop to be comfortable with (not that I have strong opinions on the subject). Anyway, Tiqqun has everything humanity needs, namely tenements, bug-burgers, and a massive engine called the “VOHLE” station, which allows the station to travel between stars in a way that I won’t pretend to understand. Naturally, when you turn the key in the ignition, something goes wrong. I don’t want to spoil it, but the result is that Tiqqun stands broken and alone in the great expanse. From here you have two basic goals. Keep your crew alive and find yourself a nice watery goldilocks planet where you can restart civilization.

In game, Ixion is split into three separate but interconnected teams. The first of these, and the one you will spend the most time in, is the interior of Tiqqun. This is where Ixion most closely resembles a standard management sim. To keep your crew alive and happy, you must build them homes, ensure a steady supply of food, and maintain “stability” by building specific buildings and adopting certain policies. Doing all of these will require you to establish production chains for various resources, such as alloys, electronics, and polymers.

All familiar things. But Ixion’s settings add a few wrinkles. The Tiqqun may be huge, but the interior is still limited. Before you know it, you’ve completely filled the first of the six sectors, and will open the bulkhead to sector two to expand your building space. Each sector is operationally independent, but most will rely on other sectors to provide them with specific resources. This means that you must manage the import and export of resources between different sectors, and establish a complex web of logistics pipelines that run like arteries throughout the station. The emphasis on spatial control works well with the game’s theme, although it’s a bit annoying that you can’t move a structure once it’s built, rather than having to dismantle it and rebuild it entirely.

From ring-marked gas giants to shattered moons to planet-sized chunks of ice, Ixion puts a lot of effort into making space tangible and dramatic

The other notable wrinkle is the crew themselves. Since you’re stranded in space, your workforce is basically limited. While you can get more workers in ways that I’ll get to, you can’t just create more of them whenever you want, as that would take about eighteen years too long. Therefore, you must be careful how you distribute your workforce, migrate workers between sectors, and ensure that you do not overload individual sectors with work, as this can lead to accidents and dissatisfaction.

Only on this level is Ixion a perfectly good administration sim. Balancing the needs of your population with the space and resources available to you makes for engaging plat-spinning, while it’s always satisfying to set up a new logistics route and watch all your automated bots pour out of the relieving warehouse. However, the depiction of life aboard the Tiqqun is somewhat sterile. Buildings have a reasonable amount of detail, but your human workers wander aimlessly along paths. It’s a far cry from the intricate, characterful animation of the Two Point series. This isn’t too much of a problem, though, because most of Ixion’s personality lies elsewhere.

The second layer is the station’s exterior, which is mechanically far simpler than the interior. All you do here is build solar panels for extra power, and a few more specific add-ons that you’ll unlock by pursuing the story. However, it is worth visiting occasionally for its glorious room views. The various star systems you visit are fully rendered in 3D, so when you move Tiqqun between planets, you get a whole new, often spectacular sci-fi backdrop to coo over. From ring-marked gas giants to shattered moons to planet-sized chunks of ice, Ixion puts a lot of effort into making space tangible and dramatic. You’ll also see your EVA workers gliding across the surface of the station while constantly patching the hull, although the exterior doesn’t seem to visualize your various ships docking at the station, which is a shame.

“Ship, you say?” Well, fellow travelers, let me introduce you to the third layer of Ixion – the planet layer! Here, your perspective zooms out to a Mass Effect-like view of the star system you’re in, allowing you to guide Tiqqun’s exploration of the system. You will launch probes to investigate signals that reveal new resources and anomalies, then send mining and cargo ships to acquire the resources, and science ships to investigate the anomalies. These will reveal nuggets of narrative that, depending on your choices, can result in new resources, a gruesome death for your science team, or the discovery of cryopods that you can retrieve and thaw aboard the Tiqqun for new workers.

The three teams are all interesting in their own way, but it’s how they fit together that Ixion really starts to impress. If a cargo ship brings a resource back to the wrong loading dock, you have to establish an entirely new logistics pipeline to get it where it needs to go. Meanwhile, external events, such as the loss of a science ship, can have a dramatic effect on crew morale, leading to unrest and even labor strikes. Moving the Tiqqun itself is always a major event, as the station can only run on battery power while moving, and travel significantly increases the strain on the hull. Therefore, you need to plan and prepare for Tiqqun maneuvers very carefully, make sure you have enough stored power to manage the trip, and possibly do it in stages, jumping from one planet to another.

Meanwhile, these micro-stories unfold against the backdrop of the larger narrative. Your progression through the various star systems is linear, each serving as a chapter in the overall story. Ixion’s sci-fi storytelling effectively captures the creepy and passively hostile nature of space. 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 be picking through the remains of other expeditions. You’ll explore moon bases ravaged by mutant spores, talk to AI that’s been left alone for countless years, and see galaxy-spanning consequences of the accident that left Tiqqun stranded in the first place.

“It’s a compelling story that gives your day-to-day management of the station a real sense of purpose”

It’s a compelling story that gives your day-to-day management of the station a real sense of purpose. However, moving from one chapter to the next can be a bit of a chore. Important story points will often require you to meet a certain set of parameters, which may mean ferrying a certain number of resources to and from Tiqqun. Unlike general resource gathering, which you can assign to as many cargo ships as you can support, these mission-specific deliveries can only be made by a single ship. This means waiting for it to load, traveling, unloading, returning and then loading again, usually several times. It’s an annoying bottleneck that really slows the latter stages of a chapter down, compounded by the fact that the game punishes you for staying in one star system for too long, with your crew essentially taking psychic damage from not having a planet to call home.

Apart from this, however, Ixion is a really good mix of management sim and sci-fi storytelling. There are many games demanding my attention right now, Darktide, The Callisto Protocol, the new God of War on the devil’s PC to name a few. But during my time with Ixion, I was never tempted to give it up for the bigger, flashier games, which is a testament to its meticulous design and its compelling narrative of humanity’s search for a new heavenly roof to sleep under.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *