“Don’t be fooled by the relaxing facade, this game is fiendishly difficult. Hugely rewarding when you get the hang of it.”
Released: February 18th, 2014
Developer: Shining Rock Software
Publisher: Shining Rock Software
Reviewed on PC
When I first sat down to play Banished I was expecting a nice, gentle, relaxing city builder. What I got was a brutal village-butchering sandbox.
And it’s bloody brilliant.
At its core, Banished is a survival game cleverly disguised as a city builder. The usual trappings of the strategy genre are present, such as resource gathering and economy management, but what sets this apart from everything else is how it makes you view your villagers. They’re not just workers for you to delegate tasks to, they are your primary resource.
This makes for some fascinating, if occasionally disturbing scenarios once you get so far into the game.
Don’t worry, I’ll get to the disturbing bit in a little while…
Each game starts the same. You have a randomly generated map to work on and a small group of villagers at your command. Your objective is to turn this handful of people into a thriving community. That may sound simple in theory, the reality, however, is anything but.
There is a fairly steep learning curve here. I would strongly advise any newcomer to persevere with the tutorials which, while lengthy, are intuitive and very helpful. After completing the tutorials, it’s still a good idea to start on an easy difficulty. Even on the easiest setting, Banished can be punishing.
The act of micromanaging your workforce is made easier by an excellent user interface. It can be as cluttered or as minimal as you like. Each window that you choose to have open can be positioned anywhere on the screen. Granted, in order to effectively manage your village there are some windows that you’ll need to have open pretty much all of the time, but it’s always nice to be given the option.
The difficulty level chosen at the start will determine how many villagers and resources you have and how many, if any, homes your village will begin with. Gathering food and resources will be your first task. You will have to send everyone out to cut down trees, hunt and gather food and mine for building materials.
From there you will spend your resources on building homes and workplaces for your people. All manner of professions will need to be occupied. You’ll need tailors for clothes, blacksmiths for tools and farmers/hunters/gatherers for food, but this list only expands as you get further into the game.
The whole game is a delicate balancing act. For example, one effective way of collecting food is to build a gatherer’s hut near mature trees. However, mature trees are routinely chopped down by your foresters. Food and wood are equally important, but harvesting both resources in the same area will have a negative effect on your economy. So which do you choose?
You can build schools to educate your populace. This will provide you with a more efficient workforce, but you’ll have to wait longer for labourers to become available. Again it boils down to choice, do you want to wait for an industrious workforce or are you content with a crude but immediately available one?
The game is full of these little dilemmas; tough decisions that you constantly have to make that could dramatically impact the stability of your village. It’s like spinning plates, once you get one spinning nicely, another starts to falter. It’s a balance that is immensely rewarding if you can maintain it, but can be infuriatingly difficult to do so.
Make no mistake, everybody will die eventually. This is a harsh truth that Banished regularly hammers home. Your villagers can and will die in a variety of different ways. Not enough food? They’ll starve. Not enough firewood? They’ll freeze to death. Childbirth complications, workplace accidents, diseases and even old age can significantly shrink your population.
The only way to combat the crushing finality of death is to maintain a constant supply of children in your village. When they reach a certain age they will be eligible to fill in the gaps in your workforce. Until then, however, they are a burden on your resources. So much so that it’s not uncommon to feel relieved when a notification pops up informing you of a child’s untimely death. It’s hard to lament the loss of a future worker when the immediate result is a reduced strain on your already meagre food supply.
I told you it was disturbing.
Seasons play an important part in your planning. If you haven’t adequately prepared during the warmer seasons, you will pay the price when the punishing winter comes. By the end of autumn, your village will be enveloped in a white blanket of frost and snow. If your storage barns and homes aren’t full with firewood and food, then don’t be surprised if you have a few more gravestones in the cemetery by the time the snow thaws.
With careful management and slow, deliberate expansion, you’ll find that Banished becomes less about survival and more of a management sim. For fans of the genre, this gradual slip into a familiar rhythm is a welcome change. For others, however, it can lead to a loss of interest as the fight for survival gives way to a more humdrum game of resource management. If you enjoy other city building games then this could be considered your reward for keeping your village alive through the first few winters. If not, you may find yourself tinkering with the climate and difficulty settings and starting afresh.
There’s no technology tree here. Not being able to upgrade buildings or research more efficient technologies can be seen as a detriment, but I felt that not including them opened the game up from the start. You immediately have access to everything and are free to build whatever you like, provided you have the necessary resources available.
Visually, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Banished. The buildings and the scenery look pleasant enough, and watching your villagers go about their business has a certain charm to it, but there’s nothing here that stands out. It’s neither bland nor exciting, but it’s certainly serviceable.
To get the most out of Banished you’ll need to invest a good chunk of time and effort into it. The daunting task of overcoming Mother Nature, of dragging your precious villagers through harsh winters and having them barely scrape by is where the game is at its best. It can drown you in micromanagement misery if you let it, but if you take the time to learn its mechanics it can be a very rewarding experience.