Civilisation-building games are often a stressful affair. As a population grows in size and becomes more sophisticated, their needs snowball into a veritable avalanche of resources to maintain. Outside threats add to the pressure, with enemy colonies circling the borders or a bad spat of weather wiping out fields of crops. Before We Leave, refreshingly, takes a different approach. One can play at their own pace, slowly growing in power to eventually explore further into the universe. However, the buggy artificial intelligence and path finding within the alpha build of the game means few players will be leaving the stratosphere at present.
One cannot be too hard on the humans for being unintelligent: they have, after all, spent generations underground, with the prospect of rebuilding civilisation a daunting task for those who struggle to construct a potato field. As the people acclimatise to life above the surface, they slowly improve their growing empire via research and repairing old devices left behind by an ancient, more advanced race. With enough experience, the fledgling civilisation can launch into the stars, ever searching for greater knowledge.
Many qualities of a city builder have been streamlined in Before We Leave. Like any game in the genre, the goal is to collect resources so they can be processed into something more useful, but the game deals with a much smaller pool of materials than one might expect. Stone, wood, iron, water, and potatoes are plenty to get the civilisation up and running. More complicated options appear later, like iron to make tools and different types of food to improve mood, but generally the people have simple needs. Explorers obtain knowledge to be spent at the library, where technological progress can be researched. Each island and planet has new technologies for the player to uncover, encouraging exploration without punishing those who want to take their time.
When everything works, Before We Leave is a relaxing experience. The citizens zip back and forth, automatically attending to empty stations. Well-organised menus allow the player to see collected materials at a glance, and whether each mine or field is in use. Humans cannot die, and no rival civilisations exist, so in theory the game has no fail state.
In practise, however, the unpredictable nature of the title’s artificial intelligence can easily lock the game in a stalemate. I restarted the game over three times, and each time the second island was my downfall in a unique way. In the first attempt I ran out of tools, and had no way to produce the resource on the second island. The ship turns into a house upon arriving ashore, meaning I could not sail back to the first colony to stock up. Building a new ship requires tools, therefore that run could progress no further.
Second time round, the humans refused to leave their houses on the new island because they were too hungry. Placing potato fields next to the houses did nothing to coax them out. The population that remained on the first island were also eternally thirsty, regardless of how many wells were placed.
On the third and final attempt, poor pathfinding caused yet another unwinnable situation. The explorer units need to examine rubbish piles to gain knowledge, but they could not find the rubbish, despite the explorer hut sitting five squares away from the pile in a straight line. No amount of reorganising buildings or pathways could guide them to the site. Without explorers no research can be done, so I was stuck once again.
These constant roadblocks were disappointing, because the game is lovely when things go right. The constant increase of scale is handled really well, and I was genuinely curious to see what was further out into the universe. Many of the issues would be resolved with direct control of the humans, but such a choice would be counter to the streamlined approach of the game. Perhaps more detailed communication as to why the units are not co-operating would be useful, as it would make it easier to tell if one has encountered a genuine bug or if these particular humans are just really thirsty.
A lot of thought has gone into the visual design of Before We Leave, sporting a gorgeous, yet functional, aesthetic. The user interface is clean and intuitive, with everything controllable with just the mouse. The world has a toy-like, tactile feel to it, with detailed little hexagons that fall into place with a satisfying clunk as the player sails across the map. Chilled out soft guitar and pan pipes set the mood—a peaceful world ripe for exploration.
Before We Leave is full of potential. In a genre that often takes pride in punishing the player, it is refreshing to see developer Balancing Monkey Games take a laid-back approach. At present, however, the utter lack of cooperation from the game’s human inhabitants adds too much frustration to what should be a relaxing experience. Once the game is fully ready to launch, however, its take on a peaceful universe will be a unique perspective to look forward to.