Review: Banished is a deep and satisfying city-sim

Platform: PC

Banished is an isometric city-sim strategy game from Shining Rock Software. This game hit my radar in the wake of SimCity’s recent launch problems. I saw a video of Banished’s gameplay in pre alpha. It struck me as interesting because, as far as the video depicted, you didn’t play as some deity figure that the townsfolk praised or forsook depending on your ability to meet their demands. It made it seem as though you were an unseen, impersonal force that guided these wayward travelers through their short lives. I was also interested in the resource management and individual career assignment aspects of the game, and I was eager to see it become available on Steam. Now, some nine months later, it’s on the Steam Store in the Top Sellers list -- and it’s pretty damn entertaining.

Mechanics

Resources and task priority management are two of the big keys to creating an environment for your small starter group of exiles to survive through the first few in-game years. It’s a game you can work on for a couple hours and then let idle in the background and come back to see the progress or ruin that has befallen your makeshift city.

The point of the game is to create a successful town with the limited resources you start with when your map is generated. Starting with a handful of building materials, food, tools, and people, you must create an environment that allows your population to survive winter, famine, loss, and the other challenges of life. What you receive in terms of terrain assets to work with is random, which creates a natural system of supply and demand, as your villagers will have to trade for resources they lack. Starting near a river where two or three small streams meet could incentivize you create an economy based around fishing, or if there are several nearby valleys and mountains with not much else you could eventually create a mining town. This is a great example of how random generation systems in games create dynamic content that is different each time you play.

The four main things your town will need are food, heat resources, housing, and more people. Securing the first three creates the necessary environment for your citizens to become baby making machines. But everything needs moderation and managing, as the growth is cyclical in the game. Timing resource collecting with the birth of new infant citizens is key, because they are a drain on stockpiles until they reach the age where they can labor and be added to the workforce. A boom in population could deplete resource reserves and decimate your population through starvation.

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Humble Beginnings

After playing through a few of the intro tutorials I felt it was time to dive into the game headfirst. Of course this meant that Default Town, my first venture into the real game, was doomed from the beginning. We’ll write it off as a learning experience for everyone who led a cold and hungry life there.

Spooneville was destined for greatness (and was built on the bones of the fallen Default Town). The second town was built in hard mode, which means you spawn with no pre-existing ownership or knowledge of seeds. Seeds, in other modes, are a main staple used to feed a growing town at the beginning of its construction. I lucked out with the map that was generated for this town, and had a good mix of available stone, iron, and wood to provide a great base of operations for the town. With no seeds, the citizens set out on the available wild game and edible plants in the forests through hunting cabins and gatherer’s huts. This provided enough food to feed my group of twenty people effectively for the first few years.

Next I focused on maintaining ample firewood supplies to last through the winter. Then I rushed construction on a trading post which would allow the town to trade with wandering vendors. I made a serious error when I built a mine and quarry to generate building and trade materials for the trading post -- this pulled resources from other tasks I left unattended for that year.

In late Autumn of the year 23 a tornado landed near the town – which at this point was dying of starvation and cold. The tornado headed straight for the mine and quarry where a good portion of the population worked. The event window lit up with a trail of deaths. Many Spooneville workers lost their lives that day.

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The silver lining of the story is that, after all the deaths, the survivors had enough food and firewood to go around. Spooneville made it through a harsh winter, and the citizens began to struggle to make their home into the glorious metropolis it is today.

As I watched Spooneville develop I took special interest in one citizen: Rolan. He worked as a general handy man as I juggled his profession from laborer to builder to blacksmith and then to firewood collector. He did the job of four laborers when I had only one. He is the reason Spooneville became self-sufficient.

Now, at the age of 66 with failing health, he still gathers food for the town where he has worked nearly every job. With frequent visits to the herbalist he’ll live to see several new citizens be born to the great town of Spooneville.

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My view

Here are the criteria I consider most important for scoring Banished:

#1 – Gameplay – 9/10

Banished was very easy to pick up and play on my own after 30 minutes and only having played through the first few tutorials. The resource management and other ways you guide your town are fun and engaging, and seeing your town develop over the years is a fantastic gaming experience. Finally, I appreciate a game that I can play off screen while attending to other tasks. I liked being able to give my villagers jobs with the confidence that they would do what they were told as well as they were able.

#2 – Music, ambiance, and style – 9/10

The first thing you’ll notice when you start up Banished is the calming, tavern-style music. All the ambient tracks in the game play seemingly perfectly loops. This makes the game very entrancing  and adds to the immersion if you dedicate your full attention to the game. I also like that Banished leaves a lot of room for the player to create their own imagined scenario by not giving a definitive narrative about how or why the people in Banished were exiled from their former towns. As a creative person I enjoy filling in the blanks surrounding the story and the characters myself.

#3 – Graphics – 8/10

One of the best things I’ve noticed when constructing buildings in the game is that they often have subtle differences, so it doesn’t just look like a collection of carbon-copied huts. This makes the towns that are built more dynamic, and ultimately more special. However, the resolution and pixelation of citizens and textures when viewed up close takes a bit away from the overall experience.

#4 – Fun and flexibility – 10/10

Banished is a game that you can pick up and play and then drop in a minute to go do real life tasks. You can largely play the game on your own terms and in your own style, which is wonderful. The goals in front of you are flexible enough to allow for creativity while concrete enough to give you a sense of accomplishment.

Overall score: 9/10

GameCrate reviews represent the opinions of the GameCrate writer who wrote them, and not necessarily those of Newegg.