There’s nothing quite like the spacefaring epic. Science fiction as a genre is practically built around the concept, and the number of stories – whether they’re games, books or on the big screen – of people taking to the stars is well and truly beyond counting. It’s also a premise whose lifespan is decidedly finite; what happens when the science fiction becomes science fact, and taking a ship to the next planet over is no more unusual than going to the shops? Thankfully for the sci-fi genre, that’s a long way off yet, and in the meantime, we have games like Genesis Alpha One to entertain us and our wanderlust urges.
The stage is quickly set with a snappy opening cutscene: life on Earth is no longer sustainable, so expedition vessels have set out into space in the hopes of establishing a new homeworld for humanity. To that end, you’re expected to juggle ship-building, resource management and, in the event that you encounter hostile alien life, firearms-based combat. To its credit, Genesis Alpha One juggles these disparate elements with impressive finesse.
When you first start your voyage, you’ll be asked to pick which corporation you work for – this affects your starting technology and resources – before you’re tasked with the actual construction of your ship. A few core components, like a greenhouse to provide oxygen, are required before you can get going; as you explore new planets and space debris, newly discovered technologies allow you to upgrade existing modules and add new ones, providing additional functionality to your ship. Actually putting the pieces together is simple and effortless. A top-down grid shows your existing layout, complete with clearly marked locations for expansion.
Easy as it is, though, the system can be deceptively challenging. Your ship might start off small, but it expands with surprising speed as you discover new technologies and amass resources. As tasks pile atop one another, you will inevitably decide to bring in more crew members. Consequently, more crew quarters must be added so everyone has a place to live. Once you’ve done that, you may need to invest in an additional greenhouse – and they are huge – so that all life aboard the vessel can be sustained. Planning ahead is key: if you find yourself in a crisis situation and don’t know your ship’s corridors like the back of your hand, it could well be game over.
The means of expanding your crew is an intriguing one. Rather than bumping into prospective candidates during your space travels, you use a variety of clone samples and alien DNA, which is acquired through combat with hostile species, to create new teammates – and not just humans. There are several alien races you can enlist through the cloning process, and each has particular strengths: one might be more intelligent than the rest, whilst another will be immune to a particular type of damage. Gathering enough genetic materials can be quite a grind, even with more common species, but the concept itself is certainly refreshing.
Genesis Alpha One provides you with several ways to gather resources for your ship. Whether you need plants for your biomass or minerals to construct new facilities and weapons, you’ve got three options: hoovering up nearby debris with your tractor beam, sending your crew to planets’ surfaces or, perhaps riskiest of all, making the journey down yourself. Each carries with it the danger of an encounter with enemies; they’ll sneak aboard through your tractor beam or harvester, and there’s no shortage of aliens if you do the gathering down on the planets yourself. On their own turf, they spawn seemingly infinitely and beeline straight for you, but their basic AI is fairly easily thwarted: if they don’t have a projectile attack, climbing atop any sort of rock renders them completely harmless.
While you’re exploring the vast expanses of space, you’ll be inundated with threats from the get-go. From toxic hazards to alien raiding parties – I ventured into a critical-danger area early in one game and was totally wiped out by one of these – there’s no shortage of danger in Genesis Alpha One. The game subscribes to the die-and-try-again model of fun. Chances are, you will die – a lot. If your player-controlled captain is killed, another crewmate takes over. Lose them all and it’s game over. On the upside, acquired technologies and abilities can be carried over, so you start each new game just a little stronger and more knowledgeable than the last.
As you traverse your ship, you’re surrounded by fairly drab, uniform colors. Perhaps, for some, that’ll be part of the appeal; there’s certainly nothing new about a little austere uniformity in the sci-fi genre. I was hoping for a little more color, though. The pulsing lights of the tractor beam and the verdant flora of your greenery stand out amongst the game’s rather colorless visuals, with certain other places, planet surfaces, in particular, looking bland and uninteresting, with the same few plants and rock outcroppings copy-pasted across the explorable zone.
If there’s one area in which the game really stumbles, it’s its difficulty curve. In my very first game, everywhere outside of my immediate low-danger starting area was full of enemies and hazards that I had absolutely no means of dealing with. Threats that do manage to board your ship can be almost impossible to fend off, whether they’re egg-laying nuisances or roving bandits armed with firearms of their own. To compound the issue, it isn’t just the enemies that have disappointing AI: your own crew can be frustratingly incapable of keeping themselves alive, adding undue stress and worry to encounters that should be, while arduous, part of the fun.
Although combat can jump between baffling easy to outright merciless, it’s not a big enough problem to disrupt how well Genesis Alpha One balances its many parts. Building your ship is simple yet flexible enough to appeal to both players who want to get it done ASAP and those who want to meticulously design their vessel; collecting resources, while grindy and tedious on occasion, can scratch that “Just one more go” itch; and traversing the game’s procedurally generated galactic map, uncovering new threats and locations alike as you go, is always a thrilling game of win or lose.
Despite its occasional shortcomings, Genesis Alpha One is a reminder of why the danger and mystery of space are so compelling – and it’s a genuinely challenging game to boot.