Arts ellie’s gaming corner

First impressions of February’s space/simulation-themed indie video game releases

Three indie early-access titles centered on space simulation tackle interstellar challenges like running a starship, a space agency, and an entire extraterrestrial colony — but at least it’s not music theory.

Kerbal Space Program 2
Intercept Games
(Private Division)
Feb 24, 2023

The Last Starship
Introversion Software
Feb 15, 2023

Plan B: Terraform
Gaddy Games
Feb 15, 2023

Space is cold, dark, and empty. So, that’s exactly where we’ll go!

Space is often touched on in video games, as its inherently limitless nature makes it a prime field for emergent and experimental genres. This incomprehensible vastness is a double-edged sword, as it provides the potential for everything. From the basic and nomic to the inconceivably cosmic, creators have unbounded freedom in shaping their world (or more aptly, universe) from the virtual void. Accordingly, this amount of creative control awarded to those bold enough to traverse the bounds of the cosmos can lead to a game edging too close to the event horizon, with the excessive pumping of incompatible content into an over-saturated title driving it to spiral into the black hole of games that attempted too much.

However, some creators can manage the vast emptiness of the cosmos and weave from it a coherent story to tell. In the most recent lineup of prospective space-venturers and pioneers, three entries stand out: Kerbal Space Program 2, The Last Starship, and Plan B: Terraform. These three indie construction sim/management titles came to early access in February and have already made headways.


Kerbal Space Program 2: A shameless CPU killer with all bark, no bite

It feels almost unfair to list Kerbal Space Program 2 alongside The Last Starship and Plan B: Terraform, given its massive AAA-esque popularity. The franchise began as an aspiring space flight simulation game back in 2011 created by a relatively unknown Mexico-based studio. It has since been picked up by Take-Two Interactive’s indie development and publishing labels Intercept Games and Private Division. Kerbal Space Program and its 2023 sequel are about the eponymous “Kerbal Space Program” on the fictional two-mooned planet Kerbin, with gameplay centered around assisting the planet’s Kerbal inhabitants in developing and managing a space agency for interplanetary and extrasolar exploration.

The original Kerbal’s claim to fame came from the interest it has garnered from the scientific community in organizations such as NASA, ESA, and SpaceX, allowing it to join the ranks of those games like Plague Inc. and catch the attention of real-world organizations for the realism of the systems they simulate.

The second installment to the franchise seeks to play on Kerbal Space Program’s strengths, seeking to expand the series’ playerbase by simplifying and streamlining many aspects of gameplay — including attempting to level out the game’s undoubtedly steep learning curve, by the sheer nature of rocket science, through expanded training and in-game guides — and doubling down on its scope with extraterrestrial colonization and new star systems ripe for exploration. Mechanics-wise, the sequel also hopes to introduce multiplayer and improved spacecraft construction systems.

However, most of these upgrades are absent in Kerbal Space Program 2’s current state with its Sandbox mode being the only playable option. Kerbal 2’s Feb. 24th early access launch differentiates itself from its predecessor in a few subtle ways. Its control settings, interfaces, and construction options are significantly streamlined yet not dumbed-down, boosting the quality of life afforded to its players. The second installment to the franchise has a more graphically immersive landscape with mountains, forests whose trees are rendered by the leaf, and a day-night cycle that presents the player with gorgeous atmospheric gradients. Kerbal 2 also features an expanded in-game training program to lower its barrier to entry (or reentry).

Disappointingly, Kerbal 2 — like the first game — relies on the same Unity-based patched two-body approximations to model its orbital mechanics instead of attempting to optimize n-body techniques, preventing it from supporting complex phenomena like Lagrange points and tidal forces (which, as a relativity-obsessed person, makes me quite sad). There do seem to be some limited n-body based models, such as in the binary system of Rask and Rusk, which does somewhat highlight Kerbal 2’s computational maturity and competence. Still, with the sequel’s post-early access roadmap looking to introduce many flight features not present in the original game, players can expect a host of new astrophysics to play with in the months to come.

The main momentum-killers for the much-awaited sequel, then, come in the form of unreasonable technical requirements and flagrant performance issues.

The game has inordinately high expectations for the hardware specifications of its players’ PCs . It feels almost laughable for this self-proclaimed indie title to have more extreme “recommended” specifications than notorious CPU-killing games like Elden Ring and Cyberpunk 2077. Relating these requirements to the sequel’s own stated mission, it’s almost counterintuitive to its supposed focus on improving accessibility as it simultaneously gatekeeps access via hardware limitations.

Even with this, many players whose specs sit passably between the minimum and recommended system requirements will find themselves frustrated by the game’s numerous performance issues. Graphical rendering is very unstable, and controls are shaky. Insufficient input validation becomes frustrating when one unintentionally soft-locks and subsequently crashes the game due to some very minor disruptions to intended control sequences. Random performance dips and stutters are to be expected: it’s as if the game itself doesn’t want to run, and I feel like I’m playing a game of Russian roulette every time it’s on startup.

At its current state, Kerbal Space Program 2 feels like nothing more than a tampered-with tune-up of its predecessor, flaunting modernized graphics and interface options at the cost of already-unreliable performance features and promising too many post-launch gameplay elements that make the game’s current release almost feel like a slight.


The Last Starship: A unique base-building exploration game multiclassing into too many genres

The Last Starship is Introversion Software’s self-described “most ambitious project” yet, heavily inspired by the mechanics of another of their construction sim titles — Prison Architect. TLS is a top-down space exploration game that meshes construction sim and survival with naval combat mechanics, featuring a procedurally generated cosmos and a player-determined gameplay experience.

The game revolves around the adventures of a spacefaring mercenary-ish crew taking on various contracts in a gig economy. The player has free reign to customize their ship to their desired specifications to suit the style of gameplay they are most attuned to. Gameplay mechanics available during its early access release are very inspired by previous spaceship sims like FTL: Faster Than Light, but TLS’s developers promise a wealth of features that will make it stand out from past entries in the genre.

TLS’s crown jewel is its starship-building system, though even that is at the moment not quite up to par with Prison Architect’s complex construction features. It has only the barest fuel/energy-consuming systems for the engineering deck of every ship’s two-deck design (the habitation deck, where crew and passengers live, is currently not customizable).

When preparing for one’s misadventures in the cosmos, the player must keep track of various resource indicators to ensure their ship’s and crew’s survival, such as available food, water, and fuel, as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. For now, this survival check feels like an unnecessary addendum to the game as its surface-level system interactivity renders it much less than essential to actual gameplay. (It’s like asking a D&D party to make daily skill checks with chef’s tools/cook’s utensils.)

The different contracts a crew can take on feature various elements that enrich the universe the player immerses themselves in — when mining out an asteroid or directing a multi-ship fleet in a space battle, the visual detail that comes with any operation and the level of micromanagement necessary to fulfill any task makes the player just that much more responsible for their crew’s welfare in real time.

While contracts are a fun way to introduce a source of income to fund a ship’s expenditures and upgrades, they are currently quite lacking: in the only available game mode, where the player is on an endless race against an ever-expanding black hole (dubbed the “void collapse anomaly”), some contracts may task the crew to “collect science data”, which feels too vague and handwavy to be properly immersive. (A real line from such a contract is as follows: “If you can gather enough science data for us, we think there's a good chance we can design a way to counteract the anomaly.”) Frankly, the teeth-grinding game-science featured in TLS as a whole is just unattractive.

I’m also hesitant about TLS’s lack of proper settings (indie or not, graphics-tweaking and rebinding keys are not features to miss out on), inconsistent graphics (the game’s effects are pretty, but the PNG backgrounds become somewhat stale after a while), and lack of a tutorial or other explanatory guide.  The developers have commented on the latter and noted that their priorities lie elsewhere — though it doesn’t mitigate the fact that any beginning player would be immediately lost by the multitude of non-obvious features the game presents.

The ultimate concern with TLS regards the progression of the game itself as it pushes past early access toward a full launch. If it tries to be a roguelike colony game like Oxygen Not Included, which it seems to lean into based on its food/water/oxygen mechanics, what will the endgame look like — a self-reliant portable colony? If it tries to be an epic space exploration game like Elite Dangerous, how does it plan to translate Elite’s immersive first-person mechanics to its own cartoonish top-down design? How much of construction sims like Factorio is it attempting to recreate? Lastly, if the game is attempting to model itself after titles like FTL: Faster Than Light, what does it bring to the table?

The most important element this game needs to leverage to survive in the final frontier is emergent gameplay, to allow its playerbase to define their own rules and ways of playing the game. Bits of this have already come to life with its playerbase’s already-intensive engagement in community-produced ship creations through the Steam Workshop, though there is the very clear potential for much more.

The developers have discussed current plans to introduce many different game modes for TLS, which is significant in mitigating the gameplay loop’s inherent grindy feeling. To make its “procedurally generated universe” truly worth it and fulfill the developers’ “play for an infinite number of hours” vision, TLS has to expand its scope enough to adequately reward the unique paths that players may choose in their adventure.


Plan B: Terraform: An aggressively relaxing colony sim with a frustratingly unclear direction

Plan B: Terraform is one of those rare slow-burner gems that perfectly blend colony sim and casual gameplay, embodying a unique genre-mash aptly described as a “build and chill.” While this type of colony sim is normally defined by increasingly overwhelming progression as resource gains and expenditures skyrocket from early-game to end-game, Plan B sets itself apart in its deliberate chillness and simplicity.

The game centers on the terraforming of an uninhabited planet through gradual extraction of its various natural resources, to make the planet habitable via unrestricted global warming. Mechanically, it’s very straightforward — the player is tasked with mining out natural resource deposits and using them to build up full extraterrestrial colonies from the three beginning lander modules, with step-by-step intermediary objectives necessary for unlocking more complex equipment that also serve as the game’s “tutorial.”

Plan B has an atmospherically relaxing mix of easy-on-the-eyes polygonal visuals and a hopeful orchestral soundtrack, leading to an ironic realization midway through the game as the player notes that this feel-good colony sim is about draining a planet of its natural resources and littering factories all over its surface. Its landscape evolves along with gameplay progression, with the planet’s initially barren environment flourishing into a lush green oasis through the power of global warming.

When playing the game, though, it’s immediately noticeable how Plan B’s aggressively relaxing aesthetic conflicts with its chosen genre. Despite the greater degrees of freedom awarded by its hexagonal board, the overly simple construction mechanics stifle the level of easy assembly-line playstyle heralded in other colony sims that prize upscaling. Controls are overly simple to the point of being convoluted, and the amount of hardcore optimization many players would be used to in these types of games is virtually unachievable.

The game’s management mechanics are dumbed down and overcomplicated in all the wrong ways. Unnecessarily complicated raw and manufactured resources, from sulfur and aluminum ore to reinforced concrete and polymer bars, seem to be differentiated solely for the sake of making the game feel more expansive, despite its bulky and barely-usable production system.

Plan B’s progression feels very arbitrary and constrained by a set of extremely specific tasks (i.e. “build 5 factories and place them on the ground”) up to the end-game necessary to unlock new equipment. This arbitrariness can take away the player’s agency by introducing a linear progression to a type of game that is meant for player-led exploration of the interactions between different parts of the system and the specific combinations that trigger progression. Conversely, the lack of guidance in actually achieving these random objectives makes the game feel alien at times (there is a great distinction between player-led yet game-guided gameplay and randomly probing for progression) and leaves the player feeling confused about the game’s intended learning curve.

Assuming the game’s unidentified “uninhabited planet” is Mars, Plan B’s game-science holds up surprisingly well when compared with results from real-world research. (This assumption isn’t too ludicrous: the in-game planet and the fourth planet from our Sun have many similar geological properties, including mineral composition and ice cap presence.) Contemporary research on Martian material suggests sulfur and oxide aggregate as viable concrete ingredients, consistent with the game’s use of sulfur for concrete production and the prominence of such mineral deposits in both worlds. Oxygen production would be reasonably achieved via carbon dioxide dissociation (with modern methodologies based around electrolysis or non-equilibrium plasmas), represented in-game by its “atmospheric extractors” and the resulting carbon and di-oxygen products.

Overall, though, playing Plan B just feels tedious and un-optimized for the style of game it attempts to embody. While I appreciate the game’s science-accurate technologies and cute aesthetic, I feel slighted by its clunky construction mechanics and the confusing aspects of its progression system. Plan B could be good eventually, and it’s definitely worth checking out for those interested in a more relaxed construction sim environment — but for those well-versed with the more hardcore titles from the genre, the game is sorely lacking.


As a genre, “space” often encourages creators to do everything: they attempt to scale up enough to compete with the scale of their setting, but they ultimately and inevitably fall flat. While Kerbal Space Program 2, The Last Starship, and Plan B: Terraform do not perfectly manage the vastness of space, they are able to develop coherent narratives on breaking past earthly bounds, surviving the deep nothingness, and reforming civilization in the clutches of the unknown.

These three titles have their ups and downs and, for all the flaws they currently hold, are actively being worked on and updated with many planned content launches in the months to come.

Are they all worth it for a play-and-forget experience? Not quite — they’re all visibly unfinished games, and their hefty price tags aren’t particularly justifiable at this stage in their development process. But for the invested player, these price tags represent the unlimited potential that comes with an early access release and the promise of a deeper expanse of content to await.

Kerbal Space Program 2 is available on PC on early access for $49.99. The Last Starship is available on PC on early access for $29.99. Regular updates from Introversion Software regarding The Last Starship can be found here: Plan B: Terraform is available on PC on early access for $9.99. Notice: this review was written using PC game codes provided to The Tech by each game’s publisher.