Banished is exactly the kind of game I love, but one that I feel probably appeals to only a limited number of people. Describing it in terms of games, I’d call Banished a merger of SimCity, Dark Souls and perhaps EVE Online; It is, at its heart, a brutal village building simulator requiring you to focus on balancing numbers, workers and growth versus expansion. Fail to make the numbers do what you want, and you will be rewarded with brutal consequences. Because of this, Banished is less a game you’ll have fun with, and more a game that is a test of your ability to manage.
What makes this great noteworthy is that it is very clear that Shining Rock Software knew what they wanted to make, and stuck to their goal. If you try to play this game in any way other than carefully, you’ll be having a bad time pretty darn quick. Every game of Banished will, more or less, begin the same way; You start with 10 adult Laborers, a bunch of mouths to feed….I mean children…, a stockpile of coats, tools and potatoes, a storehouse and a stockpile of lumber, stone, Iron and firewood. Changing the game difficulty will adjust how much of these starting supplies you begin with, but starting out, your goal is going to be the same: Food and Shelter.
However, the game give you no real direction, and offers up everything from the very start: there are no technologies to unlock or special building to research. You can build farms before you build houses, or a massive quarry before you even think about food. Everything is available and only limited by your choice. THIS is the true power of Banished; the fate of this little frontier town rest in your hands, and in the hands of lady luck.
While the game is gorgeous, and has a phenomenal serene soundtrack to back it up, you will be looking at charts, graphs and list of numbers for a good majority of your time. This is no doubt where the game will lose some people; it could easily receive the same title that is given to EVE at times of “Spreadsheet Simulator 2014”. I happen to like that massive amount of data, all careening towards my face at once, telling me that my town is doomed, or that we’re likely to survive this winter (as long as no one has any children). For time to time though, you should make an effort to just soak In the environments. Winding rivers and forested hills give the game a wonderful naturalistic air, and at those times where your population isn’t under threat of death, the game can be quite peaceful and meditative.
Then, a hurricane touches down, wipes out a school and you’re storage yards, and wipes out almost any chance of you surviving the oncoming winter.
The game, like life, could easily be called un-fair: bad things will happen when you least expect it and to the workers that you most rely upon will die. Rocks will crush stonecutters, people will die in child birth, and starvation will strike. Harvests that one year put you at a healthy surplus will fail, depleting all your stored food and leading to notifications popping up like mad. It’s stressful, but I love it. You get a real sense of accomplishment after making it through a famine, or coming back from a particularly harsh winter. Sure, you lost people, but as a village, you’re moving forward.
If you do manage to make it by the basics, you’ll have more options at your disposal; markets allow you to trade and by new seeds, livestock and supplies. Churches, Breweries, and Graveyards will all help your citizens deal with the harsh realities of life on the frontier (in vastly different ways). Yet, while these “end-game” options exists, everything comes down to the hierarchy of needs: Are your people warm? Are your people fed? Do you have enough people to do the work needed? Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is actually a perfect visual representation of progress in Banished, and that reflects how well Shining Rock Software has done at recreating the needs of human survival in a frontier town.
The problem that I think that some people will have (and know some people have…they’ve told me), is that fact the game starts the same way. You’ll always start by creating a gatherer and a hunter, or perhaps a fishing dock for a little bit of spice. You’ll always need to get a black smith and a tailor before anything else to make sure your people have the tools and clothing they need. You’ll always need to build houses. The game could easily come off as repetitive, and perhaps lacking in replayability, but I think this is largely going to be a reaction coming from people that are not looking for a simulator of frontier town life. Life wasn’t exciting on the frontier; it was dangerous, repetitive, cruel, full of freedom and unfair. Banished is all these an more.
The most important question is, of course, is Banished fun? I’d say yes, but it’s a different kind of fun. You can’t get excitable, and you can’t build things like crazy. You have to be measured, and virtually everything is centered around delayed gratification (example: it’ll take you years before an orchard you plant ever produces fruit). Your abilities to make the numbers balance and manage your workers will be tested. If anything, I’d have to say Banished is “refined fun”. It is a challenge where you must find a pace. A cup of tea/coffee/beer is necessary. Think. If you’re looking for the near cathartic experience of watching your village grow and develop, and don’t mind waiting to see that potential pay off, than Banished is a game you should play. The excitement is spelled out in numbers and small notifications, which will no doubt make it difficult for some to digest, but any self-respecting lover of an uphill battle or a solid simulator who can digest this superbly designed game owes it to themselves to themselves to play Shining Rock Software’s first title.