Can Before We Leave change my complicated relationship with city building games? The Finger Guns review.
City building and 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) games are, for me, like David Lynch films and TV programmes – fascinating but largely impenetrable. The story is the same with every single one I have ever played. I start them with great intentions and, within half an hour, I am left scratching my head as I realise I have forgotten everything the tutorials have taught me and my lack of multi-tasking ability forces me to abandon them.
So, when I first heard about Before We Leave – developed by Balancing Monkey Games and published by industry veterans Team17 – about a year ago, I was intrigued by its premise of being a more chill (the game is non-violent, making it more of a 3X game than a 4X) and more streamlined experience.
Before We Leave’s story is a simple one. You play as a deity, tasked with resurrecting a civilisation that was largely wiped out many years ago, with its remaining inhabitants forced underground. Now, with conditions largely habitable again, it’s your job to help them rebuild, reach out and repopulate not only your starting area, but areas beyond your shores and – eventually – your planet’s atmosphere.
Every game starts with you in charge of a small area consisting of just about everything you need to build an efficient and sustainable little town, as well as gather the resources required to explore and colonise the rest of the planet.
This initial spell of the game has a very satisfying loop – build roads, attach homes to roads, put inhabitants to work in wood mills, quarries, vegetable patches etc, research new technology, build new technology, discover new areas, do it all again.
That first hour of every new game is very enjoyable, as the sense of discovery and expansion is really palpable. There’s even a little mystery to it all, as the ‘fog of war’ that is synonymous with the genre obscures your view just enough to make you want to strike out and find something new. Even this part is very satisfying – once you have unlocked the vessel that allows you to traverse the planet’s hexagonal seas, there’s great enjoyment to be had from clicking on an undiscovered area and watching that fog melt away to reveal its secrets. So much so that I would often stay at sea and make my way around landmasses, just to fill in as many of the blanks as possible.
This whole experience is aided by the fact that it all operates at a reasonably brisk pace, which creates a nice sense of forward momentum, although you can of course choose to pause proceedings to regain your bearings or delve a little more deeply into things.
It also helps that the whole thing is just very nice to look at. Much like the likes of Minecraft and Valheim in particular have done in the past, Before We Leave marries some relatively basic geometry with some excellent lighting effects to create something that’s very aesthetically pleasing. By really leaning into the hexagonal grid design of the gameplay, it’s a unique and bold look. Most importantly, it never becomes overwhelming – even when an area becomes densely populated and full of buildings, you can still comfortably make out what’s going on.
So far, so good, and it really did seem in the early stages like the game to finally scratch that creationist itch. Unfortunately, after those initial stages, my issue with these types of games raised its ugly head again. And, look, I accept that this is just as much down to the way my brain is wired as it is to Before We Leave’s gameplay mechanics. But the fact is that, as soon as the game introduces more than one area to keep an eye on, it becomes a more complex game.
You can see some of that complexity in the game’s research tree, which is pretty substantial in size and creates a lot of choice to be considered. However, where I really started to struggle was when the game required me to establish trading and shipping routes between areas. It’s not really the game’s fault, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t have liked a mode in which I can build up an island, make it self-sustaining, and then essentially be done with it, allowing me to move onto the next area and start the process over again. As it is, I often found myself getting a couple of hours in and getting quite dizzy from it all.
All in all, Before We Leave is definitely a step in the right direction for games of this type, if – like me – the sheer wealth of options can be overwhelming. It’s competently made, aesthetically pleasing and has some satisfying gameplay loops. There’s a lot to enjoy here and a ton of depth for those who want to seek it out. It’s just not quite the chill time I was hoping for.
Before We Leave is as close as I’ve ever come to sticking with a city builder and, for that, it deserves enormous credit. The non-violent nature of the gameplay is also to be commended. However, it’s all still just a little too dizzying for me and, if you also struggle with the level of micro-management this type of game fosters, then this likely won’t be quite streamlined enough to change your mind.
Before We Leave is available on PC through Steam (review platform) and the Epic Games Store.
Developer: Balancing Monkey Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this preview, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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