Despotism3K is a roguelike strategy game about managing and growing a group of humans. Sounds familiar, right? But instead of casting you as the upstart flesh-bags, here you are the evil robot that is trying to become as powerful as possible. Being a robot, this means putting said humans on a giant hamster wheel so they can literally generate power for you, and then looking after them so they don’t die. Unless, of course, they die in a way that suits you.
There are a number of things to consider when you’re a robot overload that’s exploiting humans. First, humans get tired and, if they don’t rest, they will simply expire right then and there. You’ll have to use your giant robot arms to transfer humans in and out of containment to manage how tired they are. Second, humans also need energy in the form of food, so you’ll want to have some humans in the food generator, jumping up and down to create food (somehow) to sustain your power source (AKA people). Third, you only start with a handful of the puny flesh-bags, so you’ll want to stick a couple of them into the breeding chamber so they can, well, have a tonne of woohoo to create babies. If you have too many humans, or too little food and power, you can also throw a few humans into the bioreactor and process them into both those things. You can always breed more.
As is hopefully apparent by now, Despotism3K has a dark, but silly sense of humour. It almost always refers to humans as “puny”, it is packed to the brim with absurd jokes and references, and you can see the humans you’ve dropped in the breeding pod in various pixellated, but very identifiable positions. How much you enjoy this game hangs partially on how well you get on with this silliness, as it is omnipresent.
There are events that occur periodically where something will come along and most likely ruin your day. It can be faulty wiring, a piece of code that needs fixing, or it could be Cthulu or Satan turning up. Whatever it is, the outcome could ruin your run or augment it. My favourite was when four robotic arms attached to the corpse of Doc Ock, from Spider-Man, turned up and I convinced them to carry my humans around for me by agreeing that Peter Parker is awful. There’s always a visual effect to go along with these events – a heatwave causes the screen to pulse red, Doc Ock’s robo-arms replace yours in the game.
These are much welcome because, other than these slight variations, you’re basically staring at mostly the same screen for most of the game. It’s a good job it is funny, because the decisions you have to make are anything but clear. One asked me to use some power to try and upgrade one of my systems, so I chose the option to use the most power to hopefully get a better result, but instead got the response that I overdid it and that it would default to a backup. Your potential enjoyment of the game hangs on your patience for starting over and over again, often through no fault of your own. I’ve played an awful lot of roguelikes, but very few were as punishing as this one.
There is what amounts to a constant power tax you have to pay five times per in-game day, but it increases at such a rate that it feels almost crippling at times. Game ending situations are easy to come by, as if you run out of power or food, your humans will overthrow you immediately. There have been multiple times where I’ve died because I completed an event that cost me some power, and then the next tax took my power levels to single figure negatives. If you get lucky early on you can get a few positive things from events that set you up for a while, but if you get a negative effect, like shutting down one of your four systems for an entire in-game day, you might be better off restarting, as your ability to improve your base will have been decimated entirely by chance.
Permadeath is great when a game is randomised to an extent that can be managed by the player, but when it is so arbitrary, it’s simply frustrating. There are many events in this game where the only real way to know the best/least damaging option is to remember it from last time, and playing guessing games with 45 minutes of gameplay on the line is just annoying. The worst part is that while the game can take everything away from you in moments, but it strictly limits how quickly you can progress. There’s a maximum amount of power you can have at one time, forcing you to spend it on upgrades for your facilities that get obscenely expensive very quickly, risking a game over at every turn. You can lose all your gameplay in a second, and the restrictions mean you can’t get through all the early stages more quickly as upgrades are kept out of reach.
The end result of that is repetition. Even with the random events mixing things up, the minute-to-minute gameplay is transferring humans between cages before exhaustion kills them, and watching numbers tick up. You can’t do anything differently between runs unless you get an event that modifies something that allows you to do so. It’s not that it isn’t fun, or that it doesn’t make me laugh, it just that the repetition means it outstays its welcome.