Something that’s important to clarify with Banished is its classification as a city-builder. I don’t want to get too far into a discussion about semantics, but Banished is less of a true city builder in the same vein as the SimCity games, and more of a game about survival, expansion, and fighting against both the elements of nature, as well as the innate desire to progress. It’s this tense survival created by a set of strong mechanics and design principles that makes Banished an addictive joy to play. While the overall experience falls slightly short of finding the perfect balance between the feeling of progression and the importance of slow and methodical survival, the excellent core mechanics manage to carry a game that ultimately suffers from a lack of depth.
You begin each game with a set of villagers and a small set of supplies to get you on your way, plopped into a procedurally generated map. Immediately, the first thing to do is to create homes for your villagers and collect enough supplies to establish a method of obtaining food, firewood, stone, and a few other important materials. Winter comes quickly in Banished, and you’ll have to prepare for the long cold winter months in which many of your supplies will be quickly drained. Next step would be setting up various food production sites, followed by a market to distribute those goods to the homes within the vicinity.
Villagers are managed by a sub-screen in which you can designate who does what. Undesignated villagers automatically default to laborers, who will execute menial tasks such as setting up build sites or clearing out trees and stone deposits. The more villagers you have on a job, the faster and more efficient that location will be. It becomes a delicate balance of ensuring location has enough villagers to fulfill your town’s needs, while also leaving enough laborers to distribute materials and make every other job as efficient as possible.
Resource management is essentially your main challenge. Food is constantly diminishing, and overexpansion can lead to mass starvation if you’re not careful. Firewood and clothing are needed to survive the harsh winter months, and stone, iron, and coal are needed for creating and improving new buildings, as well as producing tools to keep villagers efficient. You’ll place designated buildings like woodcutters, gatherer’s huts, farms, and hunter’s lodges to manage these resources, and keeping them adequately staffed with just the right amount of villagers is vital to success.
Banished is unforgiving in the early goings, and it can be difficult to determine where exactly you may have failed. In my first few villages, things were going fairly smoothly until I expanded far past my established food production and began seeing starvation all around. In another village, I expanded too slowly and saw my villagers age to the point where they could no longer have kids.
The in-game interface tools don’t do a great job of surfacing the information to demonstrate where exactly you went wrong, so it’s really a matter of trial and error in determining how to improve your village. While I enjoyed this learning process, I can imagine this would be difficult and frustrating for most, especially when solutions can’t be found within existing cities, and you’ll have to scrap a few until you actually find some success. Similarly, the distribution of laborers can be quite frustrating, as they may not do whatever job you designate them to do immediately. While you can increase the priority of tasks for them to finish, the game doesn’t quite surface their tasks in an upfront and convenient way. This makes it even more perplexing when things start to spiral out of control and you can’t quite pinpoint why. For better or worse, Banished has very little intention of holding your hand. While the game doesn’t present an insurmountable challenge, its tendency to plunge you into sudden failure may be an unwanted surprise for some.
However, this tension of total failure and destruction prevalent in the game keeps it exciting and engaging throughout. Knowing that at any time things could go wrong helps keep you on your toes, a constant reminder to take a moderate pace to expansion and think through every move. Banished utilizes this fear of failure to encourage you to find the best build orders and locations, and as well as adopt early population management strategies. This is the crux of the game, and because the building mechanics are fairly stripped down to their bare essentials, the amount of enjoyment you extract from it will depend on whether or not the tension of survival clicks with you.
An unfortunate caveat with the small scale development of Banished is the lack of late game scope and progress. It doesn’t ever quite reward your slow build pace with a true sense of progression. While your village will become bigger and bigger, it doesn’t ever progress into something truly different from what you started with. There are no tech trees here, and what little improvements you can make to your buildings are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. The only thing to really accomplish is to expand your population as far as humanly possible before it all blows up in your face. That’s not to say there aren’t late game challenges, as disasters such as tornados and fires can wreck a few solid hours of work, but other than that, later games of Banished can quickly turn mundane and uninteresting. The challenge really comes from unlocking the in-game achievements, the hardest of which are population count challenges that are dauntingly difficult.
It’s a bit of a shame, because the core of Banished is so solid and rewards careful play, but it emphasizes a shallow expansion rather than one with any real substance. It challenges you to make your city bigger and bigger, but not necessarily better or more advanced. The small amount of building options becomes readily apparent a few hours into the game, when the only option for more food production is to build yet another farm or gatherer’s hut.
Graphically, the game uses a simple and sparse art style that gets the job done, no more, no less. I encountered few bugs during my playtime with the game, and it provided a stable overall experience. Likewise, the music wasn’t particularly notable, but like the other facets technical facets of the game it was enjoyable and serviceable, rather than being particularly poor or excellent.
I realize that most of this review sounds a bit harsh, but there really is a lot to love with Banished, despite the limited scope. Every map in the game is seeded randomly, and you can specify a certain seed if you’d like to play the same map as someone else. There’s a few other options with difficulties, terrain choices, and map sizes. While they won’t dramatically change the structure of the game, they provide enough changes to add some random elements to new games. It’s incredibly easy to lose yourself playing the game, as it nails the excitement of survival and management while capturing the same “zen” relaxation feeling that many city-building games excel at. Most of my sessions with Banished lasted multiple hours before I even knew it; a sure-fire sign of an engaging, addicting, and time consuming game.
Still, it’s hard not to see the missed potential within Banished. It’s an excellently crafted city building and survival game, made even more impressive by the fact that it was created by one man. On the bright side, mod support has been promised in the future, and there is definitely a ton of potential for the community to pick up right where the developer left off, as well as expand in all sorts of wacky and fun directions. So yes, while Banished falls slightly short of its immense potential, the core gameplay tenets available are incredibly strong and addictive. The late game is woefully underdeveloped, but chances are that what’s here will certainly satisfy you enough to ensure that you’ll be hooked on the game for a good stretch of time. While Banished won’t completely scratch that gnawing Simcity itch due to its simple scope and lack of late game challenges, its core foundation and emphasis on survival provides a different, yet similar sense of addiction and satisfaction.