What never ceases to amaze me about 4X and city builder games is how they consistently offer deep moments of introspection when reflecting on how one constructs a civilisation. Games like Frostpunk test your own morality surrounding a destitute workforce that is faced with almost certain extinction, whereas something like SimCity 4 provides you with every possible bit of advice and dataset imaginable to make the best decision– which is that any problem can be solved by switching it off and playing a better game.
Before We Leave positions itself as a comfy resource gatherer in the 4X/city builder space and succeeds comfortably in doing so. What it reveals about myself is that I should not, nay cannot, under any circumstance be the person to manage the global or interplanetary supply chain. Not because Before We Leave makes it confusing, rather because it makes it easy and I still managed to cock it up.
Live long and prosper, Space Shuttle Challenger…oh…
Before We Leave takes a soft approach to storytelling, placing you at the helm of your civilisation’s narrative more than telling an explicit tale. After a mysterious calamity, your ‘Peeps’ emerge from their shelter only knowing how to construct housing and farmland, and it’s your task as the disembodied leader to guide the emerging workforce to become a thriving bastion of prosperity. Overshadowing this new age of progress is the requirement to discover the nature of the apocalyptic event that got your Peeps into this quandary and prevent it from happening again.
It’s a simple yet quite foreboding premise that lures you in with a jovial, playful tone, only to then pull the rug out from underneath you when the world-devouring creature returns, like a pig to slop, to consume everything you’ve created. Imagine being the Prime Minister of Earth and your job is to rally everyone into fending off Galactus, because that’s more or less the experience of the main campaign. It’s dreadful, full of micromanaging supplies and keeping the public happy but feels gratifying to overcome the seemingly impossible. For those that can’t take the heat and need a holiday in Hawaii, there are premade scenarios that offer a more directed, less prolonged game by placing limitations with specific goals to hit. One of the best is a prequel story that gives you a large sum of finite resources with the objective being to reach the centre-most planet’s bunker with as many Peeps as possible before everything is swallowed up.
Gameplay, in both the freeform campaign and scenarios, largely revolves around gathering resources from randomly-generated islands and planets for your civilisation. One of the ways Before We Leave makes this interesting, without the need for bloody conflict, is the subtle challenge of trying to make all your cities self-sufficient so you can progress research into preventative measures for the apocalypse. Some islands, or God forbid entire planets, may be without oil, sand, or any of the many, many resources that fuel your research and industries. It’s your job to supply the far reaches of your society with these resources through a vast interconnected supply chain and if you don’t manage it all correctly like I didn’t, it will all turn to shit.
Get back to work Louise
Now, supply chain management on its face doesn’t sound thrilling, but managing and solving the small problems that can balloon into a collapse always keeps you vigilant and engaged. For instance, my entire town’s metalwork, electronic and clothing manufacturing had expanded so rapidly that I had unknowingly created a gigantic bottleneck where all resources had to travel up and down a single lift – an Ever given in the Suez Canal level of a bottleneck. This then exponentially bled out into a system-wide crisis, as that was the only city in my entire solar system that produced both electronics and clothing. My empire fell into deep unhappiness and production came to a crawl as the supply chain broke down. Who can blame them honestly? They were naked and iPhone-less.
These self-afflicted crises that crop up are both a demoralising and enjoyable part of the game. You progress to the point of instability and then find a way to keep the workers in line. Sometimes your Peeps will just not want to be happy, which is relatable, but annoying in the context of the game. It really engages you on a fight or flight level though. It’s easy to give up should a system-wide collapse occur, but it feels even better to solve the problems of society, for everyone (not just those who hoard the electronics and clothing for themselves).
Regimented resource collection and its effect on pacing are the biggest hindrances to the whole experience though. Games are long, which in and of itself isn’t a problem, but rather the way it’s presented throughout. Collecting resources is always the same affair – set up the miner then set up the refiner with maybe one more process should the commodity be more desired. It never gets more in-depth than that, so across a fifteen-hour or more journey it can grow wearisome, particularly when you’re uplifting five to seven planets at once. This shouldn’t dissuade you completely though, as solving your Peeps’ impending doom is a strong drive to see through any spell of mundanity.
Art imitates life
On a mechanical level, building your small village into a vast interplanetary empire is an engrossing and fluid affair. Structures snap easily into where you want them to be, the UI is detailed yet unobtrusive, and buildings are appropriately silhouetted so as to rarely get lost in your ever growing urban jungles. All the information you need is also clearly and cleverly communicated. One of the nicest parts is that zipping from planet to planet is instantaneous with no loading. Like I said, it adds this fluidity to the crisis solving, which is important when you’re ankle deep in a naked, no iPhone revolution. Your first towns are going to be a mangled metropolitan mess with inefficiencies and deeply depressed workers. Regardless, learning to incorporate the data provided by the game’s many overlays that show pollution effects, happiness and workflow makes building a utopia feel extremely obtainable and very satisfying when the house of cards eventually holds itself up.
Aesthetically, the game is nothing short of joyful. The toy-like look of your villagers, their homes and workplaces is adorable. The way they shuffle around at high speeds is delightful and bitter-sweet when they’re sad. There’s such an immense amount of detail everywhere you look too. Whether it’s drawing back to see the polluted clouds of industry lingering above or zooming all the way in to observe Louise go about her day loading a colony ship with potatoes, the attention to the little things is commendable. I’m also especially fond of the use of music. Happy cities will blast uplifting folk bangers from their homes while unhappy ones will be dead silent, with only the clangs and bashes of alienated labour to fill your earholes. The juxtaposition is quite powerful to say the least.
Creating a grand interplanetary civilisation is one thing, but managing the needs and supplies of the subjects is tough work. Before We Leave makes logistics an easy, streamlined process through an intuitive UI and readability across its design. The fun lays in ironing out the kinks in your immense system and achieving a sustainable economy, all to overcome impending doom. While there is some underlying mundanity, the overwhelming joy and optimism the game extrudes from the player cannot be understated. And hey, if you grow tired of the system, you can always sabotage it from the inside to try and teach your Peeps to live free and naked.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Balancing Monkey Games
- May 14, 2021