IXION Hands-on First Impressions
Administrator, your [IMPRESSIONS] are prepared.
You play as an administrator working for DOLOS AEC and take control of the Tiqqun as you engage in a space-exploration adventure and city-building sim with survival, strategy, and management elements.
After a horrendous incident befalls Earth and brings about its end, you and the crew aboard the Tiqqun may just be the last of humankind. Tasked with taking care of a hundred people, embark on a unique amalgamation of strategy, city building, and a narrative-driven adventure in a mix that I fell in love with far too quickly.
IXION is a mix of genres that I've always liked but never immensely loved, yet it manages to combine them in a way that feels like a no-brainer as if territory like this had been explored prior. City-building paired into a narrative-driven adventure with strategic positioning of buildings is something I would've initially assumed would be too complicated to handle appropriately. Yet, IXION manoeuvres this uncharted territory with ease. Taking care of the Tiqqun starts becoming the least of your worries the more you explore for humanity's ray of hope, but before we get into the space exploration of the gameplay, let's focus a bit on the Tiqqun management.
A Dying Facility
Shortly after IXION’s, you'll be faced with a catastrophic event that'll bring about the end of humanity. A few amount of survivors will be aboard the Tiqqun, with a handful of workers and non-workers that'll help you maintain the facility, but the event that creates the apocalypse isn't without its price — the Tiqqun's hull takes severe damage, and it'll continuously decay until it reaches zero and you get a Game Over.
This is just one of the two vital things you'll need to manage that'll lead you into a Game Over, where IXION slowly introduces new threats and problems to handle as you get deeper into its narrative. With the hull rather rapidly decaying, you need to plan for a way to get a constant influx of alloy into your ship to repair it. However, alloy is also used in most buildings, so you'll need to manage how much goes to hull repair and how much goes into buildings.
This is but one of the dozens of predicaments that IXION presents you with, and the levels at which it continues to grow are exponential and would be all too scary if the game hadn't implemented them seamlessly and ramped the difficulty at a pleasurable (albeit slightly challenging) rate. With growing complexity, you'll need to manage the hull, your alloy income, the energy that the Tiqqun has, how to get the proper resources to get more solar panels for energy, food, how to move forward on each of your quests, and do this all with limited resources in the solar system. If that sounds daunting, it's because it's meant to be. Still, despite how often I thought a new feature would break me and make IXION unplayable and far too challenging to enjoy, the implementation is forgiving and delightful, adding only an extra layer of complexity and strategy than making it an unplayable journey.
Learning how to plan ahead for IXION adds an element of realism to surviving in outer space, as the chilling and unforgiving horrors span endlessly and threaten the last of the human race. You'll have at least four jobs you have to do at the same time and far too few workers to handle, but IXION manages to make this stressful situation into something enjoyable... somehow. And that's my favourite thing about the game — despite how cumbersome the gameplay should be, Bulwark Studios managed to make it feel fun, realistic, threatening, scary, and forgiving.
The Tiqqun has six sectors, though after catastrophic events, you'll need to open each one manually, which will cost resources. Opening a new sector always felt like a new undertaking but managing to grow the Tiqqun successfully and implement a new one felt so rewarding that it was worth the risk every time. That said, the handy saving system ensured that I could jump back to a moment before I'd dared try to open a sector, but it was all too tempting to play the game like a roguelike and face the consequences of my actions, as it added a level of depth to IXION's realistic approach.
The Endless Dark
Whilst you'll face a lot of threats from within the Tiqqun, such as riots if your workers aren't pleased, a criminally continuous deficit of workers, homelessness, and hunger, you'll also need to embark on a journey in the vast expanse of outer space across several solar systems to assure humanity can survive. With the deteriorating hull, you'll need to find a permanent home for your crew, and that is the planet Remus — the original goal for the Tiqqun before all of Earth was annihilated by the apocalypse. To do this, you'll need to complete several main objectives before you can move on to the next one, but not before you explore the solar system to get resources and ensure you have sufficient materials for your next jump.
Outer space exploration is phenomenal in IXION, allowing you to send out probes to find numerous resources to mine and bring back to process into useful states. Meanwhile, you'll find several other planets and stations to explore, giving you options on what to do with each new event that you come across, though be wary, as the wrong one can lead to the death of your Science crew; the looming presence of death is felt in every aspect of the game, and IXION puts you at the helm of all of it. You'll have to choose which resources to probe for, mine, collect, and then process to ensure the Tiqqun survives, but you'll need to do that in addition to completing the main quest, as each solar system has but a handful of resources before you're out.
This phenomenal implementation forces you to think fast, play smart, and work hard for your goals, as the ever-dwindling resources, along with a growing depression called "Dead Earth Sickness", threaten the stability of your workers and your safety. Each choice you are presented with is nerve-wracking, as you never know what minor aspect you'll overlook that will lead to the death of a crew member or locking yourself out of all-too-valuable resources. Every choice has to be meticulously thought out, every resource smartly selected, and every bit of movement has to be planned for with batteries to ensure that blackouts don't occur.
And the best part is? IXION manages to be forgiving despite all of this. Veterans of strategy and city-building genres might be disappointed with the level of difficulty that IXION offers, but I feel that the game is challenging enough, allowing newcomers to be able to enjoy it without proving to be too much of a hassle. Each new mechanic is implemented slowly enough that you'll be able to familiarise yourself, and a handy tooltip allows you to revisit tips and see exactly what you were supposed to do at each situation, like an Administrator's manual.
A Narrative-Driven Space Adventure
To top it all off, IXION adds a narrative-driven adventure to its city-building, strategy, and exploration aspects, giving new meaning to these three genres that oftentimes feel too empty for me to enjoy. I've always loved city-building games, but their sheer open-endedness (a common trait for sandbox titles) hindered my enjoyment dramatically. The capability to enjoy a story-driven adventure gave me something else to aspire for — I wasn't just caring for hundreds (and later on, thousands) of faceless humans, I was taking care of my crew, my workers, people who'd been with me for months. The stories that unravel, the way my actions affect them, and the overall adventure felt enriched by the promise that, at the end, I'd have narrative fulfilment. IXION is a finite game, much to my dismay, but that same opportunity to end it added so much endearment to the adventure that I wouldn't have it otherwise.
Jumping into a new solar system was a daunting task, but one I welcomed because I needed to know what happened to the remnants of humanity, and I needed to know how my crew would survive at the end of the day; planet Remus was always just one step ahead, and the promise of an ending felt liberating and exciting. Each new solar system brought new gameplay challenges that felt too difficult but I, along with the crew and the P.A. aboard the Tiqqun, managed to learn new ways to manoeuvre these threats, or we'd die trying. Finding out how battles came to an end, discovering new humans (either through cryo pods or elsewise), and working towards a goal made IXION far more enjoyable than if it had been an endless space exploration without any story elements.
IXION is a massive step in the right direction for city-building, strategy titles with exploration and a narrative adventure. I entered sceptically at first, and IXION slowly dwindled at my worries, though it added new ones as I delved deeper into the game, worries which the game would promptly end soon after. I thought the game would be too challenging, pointless, or too complex at various times, and IXION proved me wrong every time. If you like any of IXION's themes, then I cannot recommend it more; far too few games replicate the stress whilst also continuing to be an enjoyable experience.