This indie city-building effort is flawed but fascinating
I love city building games, which means the last few years have been rough. The only one that has really clicked for me in a big way recently is Kalypso's over-the-top, Cuban island-running Tropico series. One look at a trailer for Banished told me I had to check this indie run at the genre out - the resemblance to Tropico in its style seemed obvious, and the abandoned-to-nature trappings of its setting seemed equally appealing. I was in.
After several towns, hundreds of citizens and a good fifteen hours with the game, I'm finding it difficult to figure out if I'm still 'in' or not. I'm usually pretty decisive in forming my opinion on games, but Banished leaves mine feeling a little incomplete - perhaps, in truth, because the game itself also feels a bit incomplete in general.
At its heart, Banished is the ultimate realistic 'survival horror'. The survival is that of the citizens of your fledgling town, while the horror ends up being the simple ability for you to feed, clothe and keep your citizens safe.
There's a natural and realistic allegory for the real struggle of early humanity here - by providing the citizens with things they need to keep them happy, healthy and housed, you provide the very conditions which will cause them to conceive more offspring. The birth of said offspring places a heavier load upon your infrastructure - so you're then forced to scramble to grow it to prevent disaster, such as the children that have just been born starving to death before they're old enough to pitch in to help carry the load.
It's important to keep your children alive, too - while they can't work and are essentially a resource drain, they are the fishermen, the farmers, the woodcutters and other workers of tomorrow. Without them, your people might not starve today, but as older workers die of old age - something that can also be staved off at least somewhat with medicine - there will be nobody to replace them.
There's more problems beyond mere health, hunger and growth. Workers need tools. Tools wear down and break, so a key concept is ensuring your people have access to new tools. That requires a blacksmith and ample supplies for them to use, which in itself is a problem. Workers with broken tools perform worse, so it's a priority to ensure they're made. In a tool shortage, what do you do? Pull people off food production to quickly gather the supplies to produce tools, or try to risk the drop in food production from faulty tools? Either way, you risk starvation. Banished is all about those hard choices.
Banished is plate-spinning. It's stressful. The best of the genre are always that way, but something about it here leaves me wanting in spite of the rather brilliant sense of panic it instils. In some senses the game is obvious - it telegraphs things like starving citizens with a big fat icon, and likewise for those freezing to death. In others it is obtuse, and where the game most shows its indie roots - the UI could use a lot of work, and honestly feels like it fell out of a game a fair time ago.
The main problem is that Banished isn't all that good at telling you what's going wrong, even if it is good at telling you that it is. It'll tell me that I don't have enough food, but it never surfaces what kind of deficit I'd need to make up to fill the bellies of my citizens, for instance. The same is true in many areas, and what is shown is surfaced in numbers - relatively cold menus telling me, in number form, exactly how much of X and Y and Z I have.
The numbers begin to swirl and overwhelm, and to me quickly became meaningless - which in turn makes it hard to respond to. Sometimes juggling the numbers has all the joy of staring into a spreadsheet - that is to say, not very bloody much. Sometimes you're left staring at your screen, nothing to do until an imperceptible one ticks over to an equally meaningless 2, in order to assign that additional 1 to an 8 to make it a 9. This feels like a problem born from the game's humble indie roots - a bigger studio would've caught this.
In spite of all that, the impetus I feel to keep trying to creating towns to survive and grow for as long as I can manage doesn't fade. I have fun, even if at the end I'm frustrated and cursing. Eventually you reach a point where it becomes not about the survival of the town, but growth. It'd take a disaster to wipe your work out entirely, but you can still easily see vast swathes of your population die - so to keep them breathing, you have to work for it. It's a satisfying evolution, and the main one that drives the game.
More so than my issues with its UI design, my main problem with Banished comes in its complete lack of any progression. Every building, unit and item is unlocked from the word go, should you choose to use it. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but when coupled with the complete void of scenarios, goals or missions, the game starts to feel incredibly empty. Even the tutorial is scant. It's entirely sandbox, nothing more. When all is said and done, there isn't even a score to mark your achievements at the end. It just ends - and only ends when you fail. There is no win-state.
And thus we come back to my statement about my incomplete opinion - because Banished itself just feels rather incomplete. Without a scenario to speak of, it feels more like something that might be put out to early access buyers or Kickstarter backers to prove the game is underway rather than a final release - but then one also has to take its budget price tag into consideration, and that gives me thought for pause - this is a cheap little sandbox game. And yes - despite my frustrations, I probably had the price tag's worth of fun from it.
If you put the lack of missions aside as a consequence of the budget price tag, Banished is still a flawed game. There’s brilliant concepts and a core that shines, but a troublesome interface and a general lack of breadth of content is clearly an issue. With all that noted, there’s still something strangely and subversively compelling about it in the end. Knowing and feeling all I do, I still want to go back and play some more - and that is likely telling.