Caesar III and Settlers 7 have never left the safety of my hard drive. They’ve been uninstalled once or twice, lost a few times through reformatting, but they’ve always been backed up on a spare – ready to be quickly installed once I’ve regained control of my laptop. I finished backing up Banished onto my external a few minutes ago. Should my laptop burst into flame, should I thoughtlessly reformat the wrong partition on my hard drive, or should I catch a particularly bad virus and be forced to take my laptop to a shop to have it repaired I will still have a copy of Banished to install on any nearby machine.
So what is Banished? It’s a city-building strategy game in which you take control of a small group of outcasts seeking to settle in a new land. You start off with a handful of citizens and a few supplies and the main aim is to keep them alive. Build them some homes, find a source of food, and keep them well fed and warm during the winter. Sounds simple? It’s not. Food and firewood isn’t enough; you need adults to harvest and gather the food as well as cut up the logs for firewood, at the beginning of the game you’re adults are young strapping men and women but eventually they’ll die of old age (if they’re not killed by disease, the cold, falling rocks or other accidents first).
Having enough children to replace your workforce is therefore also essential to survival and that means building more houses in which couples can cosy up together and have children, children mean more mouths to feed, which means more labourers – but more labourers means more children and that means building more houses, then a fire breaks out in the town and you’ve built all the houses close together so within ten minutes half of the population is homeless and then Winter sets in before you can build emergency accommodation and the homeless die.
That’s usually where the narrative ends, but in Banished it doesn’t finish there; the harvest next year is significantly smaller due to the smaller workforce, you pull down a large amount of houses to prevent the more over eager couples from having more children, you shift the industries around to make them more efficient but the harvest the following year is even worse. The next winter everyone is cold and hungry, orphaned children from the year previous curl up in the corner of their parents’ old home in an attempt to keep warm. You know there is no way you can come back from this, so you quit.
But I’ll be damned if you don’t come back for a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, twenty-second, fifty-third, or one-hundred and eighty-ninth try. It’s not an addictive game as such, compelling is probably a better word for it – the game challenges you, and you find yourself wanting to succeed against those challenges; whether that’s saving a small town of fifty from the affects of blight, or trying to minimise the amount of citizens lost to a fast spreading disease in a town of four-hundred the challenge is the same. To survive – to succeed – and finally to enjoy that success.
As you’ve probably realised by now, Banished is one of those city-building games which isn’t afraid to punish you for mismanagement. If you build too many houses too early you die, if you don’t have enough woodcutters to create firewood you die, if you build things too far away from residences you might die, if you build everything too close together and a fire begins you’ll die, if someone doing a job dies and there’s no free labourer to take on his/her role and you’re too distracted by everything else to re-assign a different worker to the missing slot then you might die… the list goes on.
It’s hard, sometimes it’s unfair (a fire begins, then someone catches a disease as soon as you rebuild, then a tornado hits), but you know what? Life is unfair, and you know what Banished is trying to do? Simulate the lives of those trying to survive under your guidance in a harsh environment. If you want a city-building game where you build a vast utopian metropolis, where, after a few hours of tinkering you can lean back on your chair and just watch as your perfectly realised world spins about its axis in a state of autarky then Banished is not the game for you. Banished is harsh, sometimes unfair, but incredibly rewarding.
So, enough about concept, what about the graphics? The interface? The gameplay? Sound? Campaign? In answer to the first, the graphics are good enough (I hate how games are judged by the number of polygons) but the textures are a little simple in places when you zoom right in close. The buildings, though varied, tend to be the same brown/grey colour regardless of what they are – though the addition of smoking chimneys gives you a sense of habitation and the little animations of people working are very pleasing. Farming, quarrying and foresting animations are captivating; as is the simple motion of people wandering about the city pulling carts or carrying goods – the city always feels alive, put it that way. Alive until it’s dead, of course.
The interface is one of the best things about this game. When you start a new map you have no interface, you have to go into a little options screen to open it all up. You can choose which screens you want where and they can be moved around willy-nilly. You can play Banished like an Excel spreadsheet if you want, or you can open and close different sections at your leisure. You can pin items of interest on your screen so, as you navigate about the map, it’s always there to be interacted with and I cannot emphasise enough how much of a great idea this is. It makes organising citizens so much easier! I’m one of those players that, though I like to glance infrequently at a graph showing helpful numbers, tends to feel alienated by large interfaces crunching heavy numbers, so the fact that I can switch them off quickly and simply draws me further into the game. My decisions can be mathematic, instinctive, or both thanks to the information available.
Because it’s a kind of simulation game, Banished doesn’t really have an endpoint. From what I understand you can just keep on expanding and expanding until you fill the entire map. You don’t ‘win’, though a variety of achievements can be earned for things like a high population count, or extreme happiness. The lack of an endpoint means that some gamers out there may find it hard to find much replay value once they’ve got a good grasp of the games concepts. Nevertheless, no two games will ever be the same – every new map is randomly generated and the weather/disease effects are also random, which will keep the playerbase ticking over for some time.
The game can also be quite slow at times even with the ten times speed option on, though interestingly enough this slowness often alarmed me than induced tedium. Some things can happen quite fast. You can be playing along at ten times speed, fall into a lull, and then suddenly food stocks become low, deplete, and then people start dying left right and centre. I fell in love with the pause key rather quickly…
The swaying of the trees and tapping of picks against stone is accompanied by the sounds you would normally expect. Trees fall with woody thuds, and the accompanying music is often cheery and thematically consistent with the pastoral/medieval style of the game, though the sound is one of the weaker elements in the game. Once you have a couple of quarries all you can hear afterwards is the sound of picks on rock. They’re so damn loud! The sound of the city quickly becomes lost behind these metal tappings which is a shame, because there’s a lot of depth there. Zoomin in rewards the keen listener with soft forest sounds, urchins water, the wind between the trees. Zoom out and – tap tap tap tap.
I’ve been waiting for a great city-building game since Caesar III, of course there are the Anno games (though they specialise on trade management and conquest rather than city-building), SimCity (the older games being amongst the greatest city-simulators of all time, just don’t make the mistake of buying the most recent one) and the Civ games (conquest-based), and Settlers (which no-one played due to DRM and a high level of difficulty), and Banished is everything I’ve wanted in a city-builder. There’s no guff, and more than enough complexity to keep me coming back for more. Where modern builders are moving away from intricacies into generalities; where modern gaming is being altered by ‘casualisation’ (i.e. ‘Farmville’), promoting style over content and graphics over gameplay, Banished goes the other way: Promoting careful, methodical approaches with thought-inducing game play. A fantastic game, developed by one person (yes, just one person). Go and buy it. I know we’re only in February, but GoTY, I’m telling you.
Also, brace yourselves Banished players…