Banished (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Sunday, March 2, 2014

There was a time, truly golden, when management sims were par for the course in any given release season. Be it the ever impressive Bullfrog that gave us Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper, or the “pre-shit” era ‘tycoon’ series of games, anyone interested in PC gaming in the 90’s was also likely inundated by a plethora of high quality, unique management sims. While those days are long past, there has been a certain resurgence of the genre, likely influenced by the monolithic presence of that ever morphing beast, Dwarf Fortress (hallowed be its name). Shining Rock Software (comprised of approximately one guy), makes its debut with Banished, which is a strong interpretation of the genre’s core tenets, and while it often feels less than fulfilling, it is still an overall pleasant experience.

Banished puts you in charge of a handful of people in the wilderness with few resources and few/no buildings. You must provide them with the means to gather food, build structures, keep warm and grow the village. Standing in your way is the winter, a gradually increasing population and the occasional freak tornado.

It’s immediately noticeable how easy Banished is to play from a control standpoint, especially when compared to its contemporaries such as Dwarf Fortress or even Prison Architect, which both have a fairly overwhelming array of options and menus to deal with. While Banished is certainly not lacking in graphs, maps and building categories, the menu and UI options are supremely customizable. You can move any panel around the screen for later use, and context menus, such as when clicking on specific citizens or buildings, smartly disappear when clicked away from. While individual building panels sometimes lack what I would consider crucial information (how much did this orchard produce this year etc.), generally there’s little to complain about.

Banished (4)

This lets you immediately start focusing on the heart of the game, growing your town and preventing its inhabitants from immediately starving. Gradually you build houses, expand food production from basic hunting and gathering to raising crops and livestock, produce finished goods and accept nomads and newborns into the population. Its a basic focus that completely removes the threat of military forces, monsters or internal distress which so often provide the escalating pressure and challenge of the traditional management game.

In a sense, this is a good thing, allowing you to focus completely on the economic aspects of the town. Anybody who’s watched a cadre of zombie whales crawl towards their freshly minted fortress in DF should appreciate how enjoyable it can be not to have to worry about such insanity. At the same time however, there’s a reason why that particular game’s designer calls such situations FUN, slightly sardonic though it may be. The lack of pressure robs Banished of some of its challenge, ultimately making it less satisfying than it could be.

Banished (1)

Eventually, that sense of compromised satisfaction begins to permeate each individual aspect of the game. Resource production is perhaps the first standout disappointment in this regard. Despite there being dozens of individual food types, from onions to venison (most notably, NOT human flesh), the game primarily sees these as one generic “food” variable, and a varied diet is only really necessary for the town’s overall health and happiness rating. Coal and iron are only used to produce tools, which are generic and serve as a uniform efficiency modifier for all citizens. The same goes for clothes, with no real variety. Thus, when designing your town, you rarely have to pay much attention to creating smooth supply lines from resource to producer.

Similarly, your citizens provide little meaningful interaction with the town or the player. Lacking any sense of personality, emotion or eccentricity, the lives and deaths of any individual is completely meaningless outside of their contribution to the overall population. Any citizen can perform any job, regardless of age or education (which again serves only as a generic efficiency modifier), and though there is some sense of a family unit, death doesn’t seem to have to terrible an impact on other members. Lack of true individuality prevents the insane spirals of depression that are often the most hilarious and challenging elements of a DF settlement or PA prison.

Banished (3)

Since there’s a severe lack of producible good and a further lack of meaningful citizen interaction and specialization, trade is a hollow institution. Most (with perhaps the exception of Ale) of the produced goods are less valuable than their basic elements, making a production based economy pointless. I rarely felt the need even to buy things except out of convenience, and since the price to buy and sell goods is identical it serves more as a simple product exchange than an actual economic function. Essentially, it becomes agricultural alchemy, transmuting corn into cherries etc.

Despite all these issues, Banished is still an enjoyable title that I can see myself investing more time into. As I mentioned above, it’s really a problem of pressure, and eventually a problem of depth. Even in its current state, it feels like Banished could be throwing more curve-balls at the player. More aggressive wild animals perhaps, higher incidences of death and population decimation, potentially disruptive citizens and such. It needs more than hunger, cold and some vague notion of health and happiness, as right now it’s easy enough to gradually plan out an ever increasing townscape. In a sense, Banished is a big cup with only a little water poured in, and could stand to be filled more challenges and content with little or no change to existing systems.

Banished (2)

If the developer were to add a few simple management options such as being able to specialize stockpiles for certain resources to create more efficient supply chains, or more emphasis on the values of currently existing resources (like a more significant difference between food types or a higher valuation of items such as coal), bigger problems could be thrown at the player without otherwise disrupting the design. Of course, Banished would shine if it also significantly increased the variety of houses, civil services and producible goods, but that’s a fairly tall order at this stage.

Modding tools have been promised, and the developer continues to be quite active on his blog, so with any luck we will see an increase in both official and independent content over time. The bones are there with Banished, I would just like to see more meat.

Banished is available at GoG, The Humble Store, and your local Steam retailer.

 

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