The term “casual gaming” often comes with negative connotations. Mostly it’s used as a pejorative to belittle a particular game for having a low skill ceiling, or one that doesn’t offer as much in-depth content as another game might. While both of these might be correct in some cases, I don’t think they cover the entire spectrum. A “casual” game can be one with a comforting, gentle atmosphere; a game that doesn’t demand split-second timing and backbreaking consequence while still being able to offer deep gameplay experiences. Astroneer from System Era Softworks is that kind of casual game.
Astroneer starts with you, an intrepid astronaut lost on an unknown world. Your escape pod opens and you must venture out into the uncharted planet in order to build a base and survive in the harsh elements. Your primary objective is to build a research station using your terrain tool, a geological modifier not too dissimilar from the one found in No Man’s Sky, and finding various resources to build up your tech tree.
Astroneer’s planets do not have naturally occurring oxygen however so the player must build oxygen tethers. This is one of the slickest features of Astroneer as lines of oxygen tethers act as your breadcrumb trail so you don’t get lost. As you place tethers down, you are essentially making your own roads for your expeditions out into the further reaches of the planet. Venturing too far away from a single tether for too long will kill you and you’ll have to start back at your base and find your corpse in order to recover all the items you had on your person.
But these small dangers don’t really hinder the overall chill feel of playing. There aren’t traditional video game enemies to fight; you won’t run into hostile ships in space. It’s just you and a whole bunch of land to live off of. There are some plants and stationary environmental hazards that you will want to avoid, but uprooting them with the terrain gun usually gets the job done.
After you’ve collected a bunch of resources from caves and head back to your base, it’s time to start building and researching. Astroneer has a very modular building system that involves you snapping items together. Your Oxygenator that provides O2 and power to your tethers and your printers of various sizes produce various items you’ll need to build ships or vehicles. You can also build digging equipment like Drills to dig to the center of your planet where…something might await your arrival. While all the possibilities of what you can make are exciting, the location tracking of snapping items together can be very finicky. You’ll often find yourself slowly tilting the analog stick or mouse into the one position the game will recognize as the correct one to attach two items and banging your head against a wall until that happens.
Much like No Man’s Sky, Astroneer’s worlds have an air of mystique about them. There are unnatural phenomena and remains to find from an unknown race just waiting for the player to find. Unfortunately for some players, the worlds are procedurally generated so you won’t find anything in the same places your friends did.
Getting Lost in The Sauce
One of Astroneer’s biggest strengths is also one of its biggest hindrances. At no point does the game tell you exactly what you should be doing and when. By reading this review, you are already way more equipped to understand the game than I was when I started. The tutorial does a decent job of telling you how to get a base up and running. You will learn how to create oxygen tethers to survive and move throughout the world. But to what end? Eventually, the player can come across abandoned launch pads or create one of their own from the catalog, from there extrapolating that they must construct a ship. But again, why?
Astroneer may turn a lot of players off with its lack of objective markers, quest journals, and the like; but oddly enough it made me want to play the game more. I was fascinated by how large the planet was that I inhabited and all the strange and unusual things I was encountering below the surface of the planet. As I got deeper and deeper, the weirder the resources and life forms were that I was seeing. I had to know what exactly was at the center. Admittedly though this would have been nice to know exactly what was waiting for under the surface and that there were other planets for me to visit.
Despite its lack of clarity, Astroneer feels easy to recommend. It’s an almost therapeutic experience that won’t frustrate you with gameplay or AI that feels unfair. After having a few bad rounds of Apex Legends that left me frustrated and turning off the Xbox in a fit, I booted up this game and within minutes I felt peace. For me, there are very few games that capture the satisfying feelings that Astroneer brought out of me. It didn’t feel like a mindless experience. There was plenty for me to do, often things that I was doing repeatedly, but I never felt irritated by any of the game’s tasks.
There’s a certain daunting zen feeling of playing Astroneer. It’s an easy game to relax to, listen to podcasts over, and generally unwind from the day with as you suck up resources from the tranquil planets. But much like the planets themselves, there is a colossal world inside and outside to explore and find that makes the game deceivingly deep. There are some issues with imprecise controls and item placement. Certain items might take you a whole evening of play to find the ingredients for, surviving on some of the game’s later planets may be way tougher. But the game never really feels too difficult. Kick back with a beer, put on a Beach House record, and just drink in what the Astroneer is.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC(Reviewed), Xbox One; Publisher: System Era Softworks; Developer: System Era Softworks; Players: 1-4; Released: February 6, 2019; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy of Astroneer given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.