While I keep changing my mind about how much I personally enjoy Dyson Sphere Program, there’s one thing I can say without hesitation: this is a bloody impressive piece of work. Despite being new into early access, it’s got a honkingly broad feature set already, and the sort of wildly ambitious premise you’d sneer away as a pipe dream, if it wasn’t implemented already.
That premise? To create an interstellar industrial empire, on a scale where you can capture entire stars and put them to work, like those poor dinosaurs which the Flintstones would imprison in their kitchen appliances. But great galactic oaks from little acorns grow, and this preposterous work begins with a single mech, walking about on a spherical 3D planet.
My first impression was this: here is the big bloke off of Total Annihilation, and he has invaded a game of Spore, in order to bully some idiot worms (I guess Planetary Annihilation would have been the most apt comparison at that moment, but I’d never really played it much, so Total Annihilation vs Spore it was).
True to TA form, I made my mech geezer stomp about, disintegrating rocks and trees with his hands, and building mines and stuff with the accumulated matter. Then, the game started to coax me towards conveyor belts, and the production of arbitrary cubes which acted as research points, and it hit me immediately: this was a Factorio-’em-up.
Well, that’s glib of me. It’s a bit dated now to say that a factory game must automatically be like Factorio. But only because Factorio has been successful enough to spawn a whole subgenre of factory games which ape it to a greater or lesser extent. DSP borrows broadly from several – most notably Daddy F himself, but also generally-agreed-upon runner up of the genre Satisfactory, and the more divergent Astroneer.
There are more esoteric influences that are still clear – the semi-automated trade routes of the Anno Series, for example, and of course Total/Planetary Annihilation, with the big robot geezer. Hell, Spore’s not even that silly of a comparison, given the way your progression in the game sees your industrial operation smoothly increase through orders of magnitude in scale, from planetary, to interplanetary, to interstellar.
My point is, if you get the gist of Factorio, you’ve already got the gist of DSP. And if you like the idea of all the other games mentioned being given the chance to play together and have babies, the odds are this will appeal. It’s by no means a derivative grab bag of plundered mechanics, mind – and even if it was, there’s enough originality going on with the sheer audacity of DSP’s scope to earn it a pass for a certain amount of yoinking.
But no: in fairness to developers Youthcat Studio (for real, I love that name), their game makes quite a few innovations of its own on top of the things that it borrows, and combines the strengths of many of its inspirations. The stacking, multi-layered conveyor belt systems, for example, are both intuitive to use, and far less of a nightmare than Factorio’s 2D spaghetti hell. Or at least, they’re a different, slightly more fun kind of nightmare.
It’s equally fair to say that Youthcat have made a few unnovations, too. The inability to rebind keys, for example, is a bit of a weird one, as is the frustrating one-way system imposed on rotating building footprints. If I’m being honest, the entire UI was riddled with small irritations for me, and I’d be glad to see it overhauled. But hey – these are exactly the sort of issues I tend to expect going into an early access release, and so it’s hard to be that down on them.
Looking ahead at more fundamental issues, I suppose I felt that DSP’s tech tree felt a little dry, overall. Clearly, I felt heavily motivated to get to the megascale, interstellar late game stuff, but this was not an immediate motivation. For a new player especially, DSP keeps you planetbound for an almost frustratingly long time. And while you’re waiting to emerge from the chrysalis of your initial gravity well and take flight as a majestic space butterfly, things can start to feel a little rote. The tech tree begins to feel like a series of boxes to tick off, and – perhaps because I’m a little burned out on Factorio recently – the creation of manufacturing lines for research-cube-things took on the air of a chore sooner than I wanted it to.
But it is probably worth stressing again: I am a bit burned out on Factorio right now. Because this game takes so many cues from it in terms of pacing and central systems, it’s no wonder if my judgement of it was coloured by a little bit of spillover. If you are hungry for factory fun at present, and want it on a level that lets you play with the stars themselves as fuel, I’d struggle to think of a reason you shouldn’t try this game.