The city-builder genre is enjoying something of a renaissance. After SimCity flopped in 2013, Cities: Skylines, two years later, became the standard bearer. Recent months have seen an array of new titles in the genre gaining attention—Anno 1800, Ancient Cities, Surviving Mars, and Frostpunk being a few—each of which is trying to put a unique spin on an old formula. Mothership Entertainment’s Aven Colony is one such contender. Pitting players as the overseer of the colonial enterprise on a distant planet, the game has a few wrinkles to provide character and individuality, but also features a number of shortcomings that prevent it from being extraordinary.
As is common for games of this ilk, Aven Colony has both campaign and sandbox modes, offering distinctive playstyles that largely appeal to different users. The campaign’s storyline takes the form of a mystery. Although scientific exploration has vetted the alien planet, Aven Prime, by the time of the colonists’ arrival, questions continue to emerge from the surface, beginning with globule-spitting sandworms. As players move from tutorial levels to more complex challenges, a deeper narrative unfolds about the history of the world. Unfortunately, the developers’ efforts to inject an engaging story into the hands-off gameplay style are squandered. With revelations only occurring at the end of each mission, the narrative feels like the framing device it clearly is. Furthermore, because vast spans of time can pass between the unlocking of new story beats, the writing makes repeat mention of various facts, which is unnecessary and wearying. Despite these issues, the story is capable of holding players’ interest long after the tutorial missions are complete and the gameplay tenets are learned. Although the narrative is intriguing enough to inspire the campaign’s completion, the true bulk of the Aven Colony experience lays in the sandbox mode.
As the sometimes formidable challenges of the story missions are replaced by user-driven objectives, a deeper understanding of the game’s mechanics, quirks, and shortcomings can be achieved through experimentation. Foremost, Aven Colony is unlike SimCity and Cities: Skylines: more rigid, but also providing a level of hands-on control not found in its contemporaries. While other examples of the genre rely on zoning restrictions to guide city growth, Aven Colony uses the pioneer premise to initially constrain population sizes, in turn allowing players to place residential, industrial, or commercial buildings at will. Flexibility is traded for precision, but the design decision creates a range of issues that must be addressed, including pollution in the hermetically-sealed community; commute distance, given the vehicle-free nature of the colony; and employment levels, as residents will only work in relatively nearby jobs. Controlling these variables demands a level of attention that, at least early on, is likely to discourage use of the fast-forward option, though successful colony management, conversely, seems to become easier with expansion. However, once a comfortable equilibrium is reached, the game transforms thanks to plague spores, a corrupting threat called the Creep, and the cyclical wasting of winter.
Each of these environmental threats poses a distinct challenge that can, nevertheless, be integrated into the normal operations of the colony. The spread of the plague is easily dealt with in hospitals, but the destruction of buildings caused by the Creep is more irksome, particularly when vital infrastructure is infected. The most problematic issue by far is the winter, as the frigid months significantly reduce agricultural output and amount of electricity generated from solar sources. Maintaining the colony throughout these threats can be tricky, but only likely to result in failure from poor planning. The design ensures players never feel cheated, yet squanders the potential of a cataclysmic world event that would force a warier approach to management. In the absence of a potentially game-changing obstacle, other aspects of the production must work to engage the audience, and the presentation of Aven Colony succeeds in this respect.
By and large, Mothership Entertainment adheres to established sci-fi tropes for the design of the game’s world. Aven Prime is idyllic, with its varied climes all exhibiting an ethereal beauty simultaneously familiar and alien. However, aside from changing the availability of certain resources, the environmental diversity feels more like the result of a checklist; forests, deserts, and tundras are all present and accounted for, with the choices feeling pedestrian and uninspired. While a sense of character is more pronounced in the architectural designs, the buildings remain all sleek lines. The lack of personality extends to the colonists, who can be viewed close-up via CCTV, but appear as little more than identikit jumpsuits. Despite this pervasive blandness, Aven Colony somehow manages to retain a charming aesthetic that is a pleasure to look at, reinforced by the soothing sound.
For much of the game, audio fades into the background, yet creates a relaxed mood to reassure players that everything will be alright. The score is straightforward, mellifluous and enjoyable. Even in the depths of winter, with the colony being ravaged by food shortages, power outages, or health crises, the background music, regardless of increased tempo, has a pacifying effect. Urgency is instead signified by alarm tones and interjections from an advisor, both of which feel organic rather than intrusive. The voice acting of the colonial consultant and other characters of the story is competent, but struggles to achieve more than B-movie quality. Nevertheless, the voicework is a powerful representative of the essence of Aven Colony, capturing the ambition as well as the limitations.
One of the best things to be said about the title is that it does not feel like an indie project, despite being made by a team of four people. Instead, the game seems to aspire to be flagship of the re-emerging AA sector, marrying great ideas to innovative (though not exemplary) execution. As a new city-building simulator, Aven Colony is not going to be remembered as a standard bearer, but succeeds as an attempt to put a new spin on the genre.
Reviewed on PC