The words ‘early access’ have a nasty stigma attached to them, and rightly so.

Have a quick browse through Steam’s store and you’ll see an over-abundance of unfinished games with indie price tags, including games that are yet to hit version 1.0 after 4 years, and games that take the proverbial piss, still absent their initially promised features yet managing to have £15 DLC packs.

After being burned by Day-Z, I swore to never touch Early Access again out of principle. As it turns out, those aren’t worth a damn and this week I shelled out the £22.99 for RimWorld. Originally released in 2013 to Kickstarter backers, it appeared on Steam Early Access in June last year. The screenshots make it look like a Prison Architect clone. The Overwhelmingly Positive (96 percent!) Steam reviews often liken it to Dwarf Fortress. Both are justified observations, and the lone developer – who goes by the name of Tynan Sylvester – stated back in 2013 that those games were his inspiration. But RimWorld is deeper and much more fun than both. The amount of gameplay and content to be drawn out of this is a testament to what Early Access could and should be.

RimWorld’s Steam page, an impressive 96% positive reviews.

Tynan is now accompanied by some others who help with sound, art and the like, and though he’s very much still the singular developer, collectively they go by Ludeon. When taking into consideration the depth, complexity and detail that RimWorld offers, it’s staggering to think that the bulk was made by one person.

RimWorld is, at heart, a survival game, but no shortage of strategy will be required if you plan to last too long. If you’ve played the aforementioned Prison Architect, you’ll feel right at home with the interface and how to get started, and if you’re familiar with Dwarf Fortress you’ll have an advantage in knowing how to survive longer. If you’ve played neither, a bit of learning and perhaps some patience will be required – but you’ll get there in no time. I crashed and burned pretty hard on my first two goes, but on the third I had it down.

Your goal is to be the overseer of a colony of crashed survivors, keeping them alive and tending to their needs until you can build a ship to leave the planet. In the meantime you’ll be subject to raids from other camps, internal squabbles, animal attacks and random weather events that have potential to be devastating – wildfires, scorching heat waves, months of winter, lightning storms to name a few.

At the start of any given game, essentially everything is randomised. The game world will generate – and thanks to a recent update it’s now a spherical map that you can eventually traverse. You’ll choose a location to start in, taking into account the climate and terrain, and a ‘storyteller’ which determines frequency of random events and affects the difficulty in turn.

Your colonists and all their gear, stats and traits will be random, so you have to work with what you’ve got. It’s up to you from there. Everyone has things they’re good at, bad at or simply won’t do at all. There’s a lengthy crafting chain and research table you’ll work through in order to build bigger and better things, but you’re constantly stalled by the needy desires of your colonists and events that can cripple your entire game.

Your colonists have a list of needs and will get grumpy if they aren’t addressed.

The AI is outstanding. Multiple things contribute to unhappiness, but all personalities are different. Some are night owls and won’t work during the day, so they’ll need to sleep in those hours. Some are animal lovers and will want to train them, others want to stay away from them. Some like being cold, others want warm clothing. It’s a constant management to ensure they stay in a good mood, because wild things will happen if they don’t. In one game, I had a smooth operation going – farmers, miners, builders, researchers and more all working in unison. A total of eight colonists. That is, until I got raided and one of mine, Rowan, got killed in the battle. As it turned out, she was the husband of Steroid, who couldn’t take the struggle anymore and had a mental breakdown. Thanks to his ‘Violent’ trait, he went on a rampage and killed all of my tamed animals, which upset Natalya – their trainer. The ensuing fight between the two lost me two more colonists and my supply storage building, as well as one guy losing an eye, permanently slowing his work rate.

In another, a volcanic ash cloud caused my winter to last three times longer than usual, hampering my ability to grow food and requiring me to make more warm clothing than I had the materials for. Eventually the food dried up, and two colonists died of malnutrition.

Things can spiral out of control very quickly.

These things can happen at any time, but in the time between these events (and during) you’ll be gathering wood, steel, components, food and other vital materials for advancing your colony. After a short time you’ll have weapon crafting benches, a tailoring station, stone-cutting tools and the ability to improve healthcare, decoration and quality of life. If you so desire, you could make a drugs bench and start producing a myriad of narcotics which you can then trade with other camps for high profit, or get your colonists addicted to with extremely unpredictable results. It’s entirely up to you what you make them do, but any choices you make will have consequences.

The speed at which a game can be over varies massively – you might be stuck for a good long while because you have nobody who can perform adequate research – maiming your ability to learn the tech required to leave the planet. Your particular square of the global map might contain little to no steel or electrical components, forcing you to travel to new areas and set up new camps. It’s all of these variables that make RimWorld absolutely fascinating and endlessly replayable – and again, it’s still only in alpha. Even if you wipe out, it’s possible to wait it out and see if a lone wanderer decides to shack up in your abandoned ruins and continue the game.

In a world where ultra-realistic graphics and Hollywood calibre voice acting are things gamers desire the most, it’s an achievement in itself that a game like RimWorld could be just as deep and immersive as any AAA game that released fully in 2016. Your colonists aren’t motion-captured and voiced by the likes of Troy Baker or Kit Harington. There’s no narration by Sean Bean. They are small, coloured blobs with smaller, skin-coloured blobs on top to represent their heads. All communication from them is done inside information windows and tabs. Their relationships are grown and destroyed right in front of you and documented in a tab, and when they die their graves tell a story of their lives.

Your colonists interactions display in a window. It’s up to you to keep track of them.

You become dependant on certain colonists that do your important jobs, and when they do kick the bucket it’s a genuine gut punch – more so than what most games managed to cook up last year.

In terms of how the game itself plays, there can’t be enough praise heaped on to it when you take into consideration it’s Early Access. It’s 100% playable with little to no bugs, but there are a few rooms for tweaks in later versions.

For example, as of now your colonists that perform gathering skills like woodcutting, mining and farming will not haul their goods back to base. That’s a problem, because it means you will end up with scattered resources all over the map that the game won’t take into consideration when you’re building because they aren’t in your supply zone. The fix is to manually tell someone to head out to bring it back – but they can only carry 75 of any given item at a time, so it often requires multiple trips.

Another problem is with food. Colonists will eat two or three meals a day, which quickly adds up. Injured colonists will eat more, and if you have prisoners from another camp, they’ll need food too. In the mid-late game, you could be losing 20-30 meals per day, which is faster than you can cook them. The result is that you’ll lose a colonist right off the bat just to cooking at all waking hours, and another to hunting or farming. Lowering the food intake slightly should make things feel a little more balanced.

Overall, though, there a very few negatives to be discussed. RimWorld functions exactly as advertised and will only continue to grow and develop throughout 2017 as Tynan and his team add improvements. The most recent update dropped in December and allowed for the ability to have multiple camps running simultaneously on different sections of the map. Hopefully later down the line that can be built upon and some form of multiplayer can be added, but that is completely up in the air.

With or without it, RimWorld is one of the highlights of 2016, and one of the only games in recent memory that has completely gripped me. If you’ve been thinking about it, had your eye on it, or are remotely interested, I encourage you to give it a go. Don’t be put off by the Early Access symbol or the relatively high price tag – you just might have more fun than you did with any £39.99 game last year.