Review

Banished Review (PC)

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.


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Comments

By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 27, 2014
SirRoderick
See this is why, in general, I'm not a fan of scored reviews. Because based off of everything you said and a couple other similar reviews, this strikes me as a very interesting game. So I bought it, and I liked it. I had no problems with the interface, I actually liked the way it was set up. I liked the barebones sustenance based expansion. It's a stark contrast to the opulent metropolis I can build in Anno for instance.

So definitely a valuable review to me, but a great example of why I don't like number scores :P
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Feb 27, 2014
herodotus
Definitely not my cup of tea. I think I'm overdosed on the "Anno" and "Tropico" series.
Interesting read though, and perhaps future purchase when I'm more in the mood.
By kaballah (SI Veteran Newbie) on Feb 27, 2014
kaballah
Think I'm gonna go for it as well, though haven't played anything remotely like this since the legendary Settlers, might be the right time to dabble in the genre again :)
By Voqar (SI Core Veteran) on Feb 28, 2014
Voqar
I'm enjoying it (over 40 hours thus far).

I wouldn't compare it to anno or tropic since it's a little more wide open and less topical? Similar but not quite the same kind of game. You don't have quests and goals - you just develop a town (and keep your people from hardship) and you're free to do (or screw up) that as you see fit.

There's also no hokey combat. You can optionally deal with (often nasty as hell) disasters. Combat isn't necessary since there's all kinds of ways for you to screw up your town if you don't stay on top of things.

I like the UI, I think it's clean and it gives you customization options you almost never find in gaming (can show just the parts you want and move them wherever you like). The gameplay is very solid.

If you have 8 builders assigned, you see "8 builders" - you could see 8 icons for builders with an 8 in parens - the UI doesn't have that extra layer of glitz, but it's not really necessary, the data is the same, and you can play Banished with a very trim UI, have all the info you want, and have most of your screen clear to see your city.

I would argue there is some progression because while you are able to build anything from the start you'd wipe yourself out without some planning and build up - but there's flexibility such that you won't always do things exactly the same way always - and you could choose to try to do things very differently.

You also have a sort of food progression, especially if you play on hard (not much difference in the difficulties, just how many people, buildings, supplies you start with). On a hard start you can't farm until you establish trade and trade for seeds, and the act of trading for seeds/livestock/whatever kind of allows you to progress to more and more robust food production.

Trade is also unpredictable and random. You might not see a merchant selling seeds (or whatever it is you want) for years on end. Merchants kind of have types, and you can place orders if they're capable of bringing what you want, but that can still take a while. All of this means you can't count on trade and have to sustain without it sometimes.

Lastly. It's a $20 game. Not a $60 game. For an indie (one guy did it all, graphics, coding, music, marketing) it has very high production values (and dx11 support), a nice UI, excellent sound, excellent gameplay.

Yeah, number scores are tough when it comes to $60 corporate titles vs indies. I've probably been playing more indie style games lately just because the gameplay is often better and it's not just regurgitated/repetitive crap, and they're usually tight but not exactly graphical masterpieces.

Banished actually has pretty robust graphics for an indie. There's weather, seasonal effects, houses have different styles, there's nice touches as quarries get deeper or as buildings go up. Stuff like that. Lots of cool detail things you'd expect in a premium game's graphics (the developer is a former graphics engine coder so go figure ;)
By LS35A (SI Member) on Feb 28, 2014
LS35A
No missions, no campaign, no goals = no game. Kind of like Sim City Societies... no point.

I'm a big city-builder fan (really miss Impressions Games) but this kind of 'no game' does nothing for me.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 28, 2014
SirRoderick
There is very much a point, you just don't like games that don't give you direction, big difference. The point is survival no matter what.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 01, 2014
herodotus
I'm intrigued I must say, and while I have a few other titles I am saving for, come Sale time on Steam I'll most likely pick this up. As for missions, I found in "Anno 2070" they messed the game up rather than gave it a focus. Objectives were far to vague and the path to achieving them required multiple Youtube viewings. So like the idea presented here, because I am still hankering to give "SimCity" a go when it has finally settled down (I never liked the missions/challenges in the original and #4).
By MeanSerbian (SI Veteran Member) on Mar 01, 2014
MeanSerbian
As i said in my review: "Its refreshing and original, at least to me :) ". No, its not the best game of its genre, but it is good. Not to mention the fact that 1 guy alone created the game.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 01, 2014
herodotus
If it's better than "Citadels", and costing less then it's on my list. Worth catching in the Winter (or your Summer) Sales I'd say, as "Anno 2070" had me floundering by the 10th hour, much as I love the atmosphere and immersion.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Mar 02, 2014
SirRoderick
Citadels barely functioned, this works like a well machined swiss watch.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Mar 03, 2014
herodotus
Yes, while the premise of "Citadels" was appealing the implementation was dreadful - and it costs $20 more than this.