Newcomer indie studio Malicious Games have produced an extremely ambitious but, at present, flawed 4X game which takes elements of the classic Civ and modern sci-fi games and tries to blend it together in a new universe and IP. Some parts of it work, others, less so.
Set after a massive catastrophe had overrun the old galaxy, the six playable races set out their eponymous arks to a new galaxy. Starting out in an “ark-ship” loaded with people, resources, and a few military units to protect them and explore, you’d dumped onto a randomly selected world and the game begins.
Xenia’s Ark is set on three different, zoomable levels. The lowest level sees the game at planet level, complete with hexes maps and a nicely rotable map of the planet you are on. Here’s where the gameplay feels the closest to classic Civ with hexes, resources, cities, and units moving around the map.
You’ll even find “ancient hive cities” that double for the ancient wisdom that will unlock little bonuses. There are no barbarians but you’ll likely run into local monsters who will attack your units. You’ll also research on three different trees at once and queue up things to build and use “engineers” to modify map hexes to make them more efficient and add to your growing economy.
There’s a chance you could be alone in the new world but chances are there will be a native civilization there, referred to by the game as a “Xenians”. These guys are generally happy to go about their business without hugely interacting with you and you can always try to conquer them if that’s your bag. I believe it is possible to find a diplomatic solution for your neighbors but in my playthrough, I didn’t figure out how to do that.
Now, I mentioned earlier that Xenia’s Ark has two other zoom levels. There’s an “orbital” view which gives you a view of the space in your star system. Your “explorer” units can go launch into orbit and look around space to see what is up there. There are more worlds to discover and even objects that can be picked up, as well as dangers like blackholes and belts of lethal radiation.
Finally, there is the galactic view, showing the entire galaxy linked together with hyperplanes. Eventually, after a good number of turns, you’ll be expected to have expanded out from your initial world and star-system to have a galaxy-spanning civilization.
The tools at your disposal to achieve this mission range from military units (mechs on the ground, space-ships in the air) to leaders who can govern cities, improve units, or spy on the enemy. You can also make use of diplomacy, though the AI makes some rather strange decisions and doesn’t make a reliable friend or predictable enemy.
The game has a huge amount of granularity as you can adapt your units from various frames and give them specific weapons, armour, and engines to suit various conflicts and roles. This gives you the tools for almost any situation but the games base units are very weak and you’ll need to unlock a fair bit of technology before your units can stand up to even the most bog-standard local monsters!
The game has a huge number of resources to juggle, more than just the usual credits and food and you’ll need to balance them and make sure that you are getting the right blend of ores, food, energy, and keeping your credits and influence high too. It can be a lot to take in and it’s very easy to end up short of a resource with no clear way to fix the problem.
The game’s pace is actually quite slow and it takes a good number of terms of Xenia’s Ark before you’ll be in a position of power on one planet, let alone more than one. You’ll unlock new technology fairly quickly at lower levels but, in classic 4X style, it’ll start to slow down after a while.
Now, all this sounds like a number of other games you’ve played but there are some problems with Xenia’s Ark that make this journey much harder than it need be, and not in a good way. Xenia’s Ark is an indie game and its graphics are nothing special, looking several generations out of date but functional in and of themselves. The globe model for worlds is actually quite easy to use and you can rotate the planet quite nicely. The zoom system can lead to some slowdowns as you play, even on a solid-state hard drive.
The game’s music is very mild and really isn’t worth having on and I switched it off fairly quickly and the sound effects are utilitarian but fine. The game’s initial introduction video is actually quite nice and has really good narration but there’s no other voice-over work in the game.
The biggest problem with the game is the UI which is, putting it gently, very weak. Muddled, crammed with tiny icons that are generally rendered in white on black and have very small text which is, at times, nearly unreadable. Menus also stay on screen sometimes when you’re done with them and the game just feels badly unpolished.
The UI makes the game very difficult to get into, coupled with weak AI and a very rudimentary tutorial, the initial curve of the game is not very good, and whilst there are tool-tips and a wiki, the game does not make it easy to figure out what to do or why and this doesn’t feel deliberate. The dev team has acknowledged some of the issues with the game and appear to be trying to fix thing as they go along.
However, it seems that Malicious have tried to run before they can walk which is a real shame. There’s lots and lots to like about Xenia’s Ark and it reminds me, on its planetary scale, of Alpha Centauri which I’ve always felt is a hugely underrated game. However, the game just cannot live up to its huge scope.
Beyond the issues with the game’s UI and graphics, the game also falls victim to its own intricate and granular design as your empire expands. Running one planet with multiple cities and engineers can take a while but imagine a vast galaxy-spanning Empire with a dozen planets with cities on each one. This would be a nightmare for a player to manage and the granularity of the game would quickly become tiresome and challenge even the most masterful of micro-managers. In effect, Xenia’s Ark wants you to be able to play multiple games of Civ at the same time as part of a wider game and that’s a challenge that very few players will be able to take too easily.
The game has a lot of heart, inventive new races, and ambition but as it stands, Xenia’s Ark is just a frustrating game to play and you may well find yourself either bouncing off its initial steep learning curve or getting frustrated by the game muddled UI and design decisions. The game’s tutorial also needs to be expanded as, at present, the game does the absolute minimum to help a new player learn the game.