Billed as a cute and carefree City Builder with an RTS side to it if you want, The Colonists is a deceptively deep game that I found myself losing hours late at night to. Playing as God for a 3D printed robot colony, each place you land at is going to be called home. Strangely for me, it wasn’t the city building nor the RTS battles that got their hooks into me. The Colonists is all about making an efficient world.
Out of the game, there are two ways to play. You can expand your colony against a time limit charted on your calendar for achievements or you can battle for dominance in some slightly clunky but still enjoyable RTS battles. I found the former mode the most compelling as the robots you control have no basic needs to look after. This means you can plan and master the game at your own pace.
Everything in The Colonists requires resources though – not to keep your robots alive (they just sleep if inactive) but to expand and keep your colony moving towards its goal. Everything is split into three levels of resources as most things can be upgraded twice. A level 1 timbre house makes logs for example to build level 1 buildings such as mines, houses, vegetable patches and so on. These buildings create or use resources and the fundamental ones you’ll always need are batteries to power things. Again, if you don’t have these batteries in production, the resource chain suffers and your efficiency drops.
This efficiency then will take a crash if you expand too quickly or level things up without awareness of the world and the resources around you. Level 2 houses produce level 2 batteries for example but require apple juice from the orchards you plant. Go for one upgrade without having the other ready means you’ll have buildings doing nothing. Where you place things matters too as every resource is passed between robots on roads and checkpoints. Make one route too busy and resources pile up awaiting a robot. Place them too far apart and you have a long transit time. Even the roads themselves can be upgraded to improve robot speed. A nice tech tree helps you understand what you want to improve next although it is often driven by the goal of the level such as unlocking boats to sail and uncover new islands to conquer in the fog of war style of uncovering new land as you see it in-game.
Once you’ve got a few islands running, you’ll often have resources available only in certain places so boat routes become a necessity to sort out. Later on, trains become vital too. You can tinker all of the routes, resource warehouse depots, where each battery is going and so on if you want that level of detail. This is where the really moreish aspect of The Colonists came into its own – striving for that perfectly efficient model of excellence.
The 15 level campaign mode outside of random free play mode is split in half with a chill mode or a battle mode which adds other robot factions to conquer. I found this mode a little less fun to play as the fighting options are limited to towers with upgradeable arrows. You can only place these towers at certain distances apart and their sphere of influence seemed quite random and difficult to gauge. The battle is won when the winner takes over the opponents spaceship and so it’s an aggressive efficiency race, often fighting over resource locations to get there first. The tower influence issue really hampers this though as sometimes your buildings just explode into flames but there is still HP for your defending tower left. Other times, it just hangs there waiting for something for a few minutes for no real reason.
This is why I found myself enjoying the solo mode more. I was in control. I could play around with road structures and tinker under the hood to make things speedy. I could also dedicate my time to finding and understanding what was going wrong when my efficiency tanked too. When something goes wrong, as all resources are interconnected, your colony collapses like a pack of cards. There is an advisor to help you when you hit a brick wall to spot what you may be missing to progress your robot empire, but if there is a problem in your supply chain – it is up to you to find it and fix it. Thankfully you can spot this easily by seeing which robots have gone to sleep!
I had one other very frustrating bug that reoccurred over and over that dampened my fun. Trade routes of ships seemed to bug out and not deliver the right resources to new islands. On the PS4 version I played, the game seemed to get confused when dealing with multiple ports and would randomly bug out. The only way I could sort it was by deleting my ports and building them again. This happened randomly, often, and annoyed me. It doesn’t break the game but it sets you back a good 20 minutes each time it happens. I recommend backup saves.
This blight aside, The Colonists is a cute but detailed city builder. Don’t get it for the RTS elements – they are the weakest section of the game. Get it for the satisfying feeling of having a bustling robot empire creating resources and taking over the map. Ah, to be a robot God for the day.
Review code provided by publisher for console version but I already owned the PC version.
A few bugs aside, The Colonists is a relaxing dive into tweaking efficiency and making city-building fun and chill.
The option to play with low stakes at your own pace or in battle with higher stakes.
Lots of levels of complexity that you can choose to dive into or not - your experience is yours.
Balanced in a way that drops new challenges and things to do.
Bugs - especially with trade routes on boats - cause you to cancel work and redo it.
The rules of battle feel very woolly and undefined.
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