Techtonica Early Access Impressions – Industrial Underground Takes A While To Setup

The premise of Techtonica is simple: build an automated factory, but underground. This is the latest of the booming automation factory builder games, and this one is closer to Satisfactory in that it is played in the first-person.

The Early Access release (or Game Preview if you’re playing on Xbox or the Microsoft Store version on PC) shows a lot of promise that this can be a sinkhole where you easily lose hours upon hours just tidying up production lines. But as it is right now, the early game structure is already feeling like a mess of spaghetti conveyor belts, in a game where you can’t make messy conveyor belts.

You start the game with some story exposition. You’re one of the only few survivors in some underground caves of the planet Calyx and with the help of a companion cube, you’ll need to open up access to more underground facilities, mostly abandoned or gone, by repairing them. And to repair them, you have to construct factories to manufacture the many items that are directly, and indirectly needed to achieve your goals.

The premise is satisfactory, though unlike Satisfactory there’s no hint of satire or parody here, the story is as straight-laced as you can be for a factory builder.

A few minutes in and you’ll be introduced to a tutorial area, introducing you to the basics of building a production line. The game really opens up when you reach sector Victor, which gives you a massive area to explore and build.

Roomy Underground

For a game about being inside a cave, I did sometimes forget about it. The first big area feels roomy, and there’s a lot of good use of bioluminescence to make the area all bright and colourful. The areas where you do some exploration do feel adequately cramped and ominous.

There’s no combat here, at least not in this release, but doing a bit of spelunking away from the safe space that is your factories do feel a bit spooky at first. Especially when you got turned up upside down and can’t remember which way to go back home. The views of these wonders that you can accidentally bump into: giant, colourful flora, amazing waterfalls, even a whirlpool, are majestic.

Freedom But Not Freed To Automate

The big issue I find about Techtonica in its current state right now is how aimless it can be. For a sandbox factory builder Techtonica should allow players to be free and do their thing however they want. But the way the objectives and the tech tree works is so all over the place that it’s hard for me to set an achievable goal without having to deal with the nuisance of not having an automated factory.

The main objectives are fine. It’s the secondary objectives that are so weirdly laid out. For one most of them have too long descriptions that takes up precious HUD space away. The other is that some of them aren’t really objectives. “Go scan items and then unlock it in the research tree” is not helpful, as you still need to stumble on the objects when exploring and the stuff could be anywhere.

The other kind of objectives, where it says “produce items on an Assembler” or even worse, “discover an unknown tech” just doesn’t want make me want to do the objectives. The rewards for completing it is substanatial, though. It will pinpoint an area of interest on the map, which may allow you to unlock new research items. Or have you stumble into a door that requires more material to unlock. Or both.

Most of the objectives require some sort of automation, but it will take a few tech tree tiers, and time, to really unlock all the stuff needed to have full automation on the assembly line.

I try to automate some of the systems but every time I try I feel like the task is either too overwhelming to do right now, or the tech that it requires still requires unlocking. Or worse, I need to reconfigure the whole production line to really get it working how I wanted it to, start from scratch.

The first bothersome thing is the way research works. At first, you can craft the purple research blobs by hand in your inventory and plop it somewhere. You need to plop a large, physical ball of research to have it added to the amount of research points you can spend to unlock the tech tree.

The game nudged me in the right direction by telling me there was a way to automate it. But to do that, I need to unlock a tech that requires about 80+ purple blobs, when most early-game tech is unlocked at around 25. So of course I ignored it for a bit as it seems that number is a bit too high to reach for now.

And since you need to plop the purple blobs manually, and these things take physical space, I ended up with a tower of ominous purple orbs stacked so high it has stairs going around it as I stack them higher and higher to preserve precious ground space. It was silly, but that’s silly fun. That’s fine.

When I eventually got around to actually building the platform to automate the placement of research points- the Core Platform- it was shocking to see how massive of a space it takes. So now I need to make even bigger floors. And apparently, you need to feed it with research blobs from an inserter so I need to figure out how to make assembly lines after hours of hand-crafting items because the game never forces you to start building assembly machines.

Getting Cranky

And during all of this, putting that platform alone consumes a lot of power. The early game power generator is a crank generator, where from time to time, someone has to go crank that, Soulja Boy (YOUUUUUU). There is a way to automate this, but you need to pass at least one more tier in the Victor sector to unlock the water mill that thankfully automates the cranking (so you can be less cranky having to go crank that Soulja Boy (YOUUUUU) over and over again).

But, setting up the water mill is finicky, as it needs to be at a specific height or it cannot reach the water so it’s likely that your current setup of crank generators won’t connect to the water mill and so you have to disassemble those and work around it again. And if that means you have to make the floors lower, then guess what, electricity flows on the same floor but not over stairs, so anything you build way above the water level can’t make use of the water mill-connected crank generator until you unlock the right tech in the next tier so no, you can’t automate your factory yet.

It’s totally okay to make players discover that whatever their first line of machines looks like is utter rubbish. I get that. But a lot of Techtonica is leaving me directionless and then made me discover that there is a specific direction that the developers intended the players have to go. Factory builders are endless problem-solving games. Yet in the early game here, every problem I want to solve, like making the factory have a sustainable source of fuel that can power the mining drills endlessly, or having an assembly line that can run infinitely with just enough power, just meant undoing a lot of progress, or having to progress beyond this point before it becomes solvable.

Not Satisfactory Yet, But There’s Fun To Be Had

I come from the perspective of having put 100+ hours into Satisfactory, so this might skew my thoughts a bit because Techtonica isn’t trying to be another Satisfactory. It doesn’t flow in that same way at all. And in that aspect I love it.

Inserters must be placed between machines and storage to have them manually pick up and place items, and they only pick up one at a time and not stacking the items within a machine’s inventory so you’re not building for throughput, but to ensure there’s always something on the line for the inserters to pickup. And that led me to make conveyor belt sushi where some lines just endlessly loop, filled with materials to be picked up at the right time at any moment (with a storage box somewhere to deal with overflow). It’s not something I would have done in any other factory-building games I’ve done it here in Techtonica.

And the soundtrack is wonderful. The low synthwave beats need to kick up the volume up a notch as it can be lost when you’re in the bustle of a hustling factory, but they really set the mood for an endless night of cosy building.

I lost about 10 hours within the first two days of the game’s Early Access release, which is a good sign, there’s fun to be had. Building machines and terraforming land is pleasant, though there are weird UI niggles (The power management screen isn’t working all too well). And the conveyor belt takes a little practice to really understand how it works. The way it’s implemented right now, belts are so intuitive to build when you’re stretching to far-out locations, but become really fiddly when you’re working with tight spaces.

I’ve since added another 10 hours, pushing through the frustrating aspects of the early game. Once I’ve redone all my mining line, cleared room for a bunch of Assemblers to start manufacturing more intermediate items, build vertically by having multiple floors, all powered by a generator, hooked up some more power by dragging long wires to places far away discovered from exploring, then Techtonica finally becomes what it meant to be: an addictive, relaxing game about building automated factories.

Just don’t play for too long. There are some weird audio hitches when played at long periods. Hopefully that get sorted soon.

Closing Thoughts

I enjoyed my time with Techtonica so far, but not without complains. There’s a snag in the production line right now that with a bit of fine-tuning, I think the game can turn out to be proper fun. It needs to make clear what is doable and what isn’t, and make sure that players can figure out how to automate their factories quicker.

I don’t recommend a purchase of Techtonica yet, but if you’re on Game Pass, it’s worth checking out from there. Maybe after a few updates it’ll get there.

Played on PC. Game accessed via reviewer’s own PC Game Pass subscription.

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