Game Review: Banished

Image courtesy of pooterman @deviantart.com

It should be noted that most of the games I’ve played recently I didn’t go out to discover myself. Mostly I discovered them due to the persistent badgering of my friend Ris. I have a very love hate relationship towards gaming because it is very counterproductive. If you’re sitting down and playing games, then you can’t write, think about your plot or do any sensible kind of work. I’ll confess it was one of the reasons I liked having a Tamagotchi as a child because although you were constantly aware that you were ‘playing a game’ you could also put it into your pocket and forget about it while you busied yourself with school work.

I didn’t think that this sort of experience existed anymore until I was introduced to Banished.

Developed by Shining Rock Software, Banished is an indie game which makes you responsible for a group of villagers who had had to leave their birth place, most probably under suspect circumstances. You have to make sure they have lodgings, food and sufficient resources not only to get through the winter but to expand their population as well. You don’t have any direct control over the villagers, rather functioning as an omnipresent power that works as the inspiration as to where (or whether) they should put up that Brewery… You can decide how difficult you want your starting positions to be and you can decide whether your villagers can be affected by natural disasters or not so the game provides a fairly decent learning curve (though the training wheels fall off eventually, so be warned).

And, you can simply leave the game to run by itself.

It’s one of the reason’s I’ve clocked so many hours in it, because I set up my village and then leave to see how my new developments affect my people (or whether they bother completing it at all). I’ve had the game running in boardroom meetings, during NaNoWriMo, over weekends. Apart from trying to figure out how village expansion rate vs food resources, the game requires very little mental processing (if you’re not me that is, I went obsessive, set up an excel spreadsheet and tried to beat the game with pure mathematical statistics). You can simply set it up and let it run.

Apart from World of Goo that I played with its release, Banished was the first real exposure that I had to indie gaming. Originally, I had resisted playing the game simply because, like a badly advertised self published novel, I didn’t think that it would be worth my time. But, the persistence of a friend won out and I was proven delightfully wrong. The mechanics were solid, the graphics delightful and the attention to detail (such as needing to maintain a reasonable hunting rate, lest one depopulated the deer) was a marvel. And, it’s not as easy as it first appears, especially when you realise for instance that your population can become too old to reproduce.

It’s not action packed, it’s not emotional (thought you can get pretty emotional when you see a hurricane happily make its way through your village) and it doesn’t have a story. (Or, your village might not but I make a point of taking note who is born and what they achieve in their lifetime. Especially the child named Demon…)  But, it is fun and that is the basic building block, no, the foundation of games. And, it was developed by a single person, so you have to give him kudos for that.

It’s a game that feels as if it has been specially designed for myself. My obsession with numbers and predicting the statistical outcome of resource procurement, combined with my tendency to zone out in front of the computer without the need to think, made this the perfect game.

Ultimately, it’s the kind of game I’d comfortably recommend to anybody who needs a distraction without being completely sucked into another world. It’s reasonably priced and if you consider how many hours of gaming you can get out of it (as well as replay value – there’s something very exciting about starting up a new village, because you don’t know whether they’ll make it…) it’s certainly an economical buy.

Banished is easily available on Steam and GOG.com.

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Experience – Uniqueness

Due to circumstance, I’ve always been a bit of a console gamer. My reasons for this range from as simple as: Well, I have a PlayStation. To: I don’t like gaming where I write. The latter is especially true. My computer has always been for work strictly. Games provided too much background noise.

That concept changed this year. With the new console generation knocking at my door and demanding to be let in at a ridiculous price with whole bunch of unsurely friends that I don’t want to give the time of day to (Destiny, cough Destiny) I figured I’ll change my pace and get a computer capable of playing games. This goal was helped on by me unwillingly donating my computer to township charity when some smuck from the street broke into my house pre NaNoWriMo 2013 and relieved me of my laptop.

It took me a while to gather the funds but settled for a Toshiba 15’6 screen laptop with a Nvidia Geforce graphic card and a Core i5. I got it on a steal of a deal and although I know the i5 wasn’t ideal it does serve its purpose. Too well.

With desktop gaming came the inevitable exposure to Indie Games. I’ve always thought that Independently Developed games were the same as self-published novels. Ideas that never quite made the cut in big companies that’s… cute but not really worth the effort. (A bit hypocritical I know, but this statement comes from experience Indie Authors. I’ve never really read one book that was self-published that made me go: WTF was wrong with the publishers for not printing this?! I live to be corrected of course and love being proven wrong. And don’t tell me Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published in the beginning. That DOES NOT prove my point!!).

Getting off of THAT rant…

It turned out that indie gaming was more defined. It was independent developers standing up and saying: You know what, I’m going to make a game that I like. I’m going to take a risk and put something together that is unique. You won’t find an Assassin’s Creed serial in indie gaming, nor something as stretched out and thin of plot as Call of Duty or Battlefield. If I reflect on 2014 I hardly paid any mind to ANY of the triple A games (ok exception: Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age (Damn you Bioware, DAMN YOU), Alien Isolation, I intend to bed you as soon as you become cheaper) and ended up filling my palate with Indie games downloaded from Steam and GOG.com. I have to confess that I would never have looked at them if it wasn’t for my mate Ris but I have and now there’s no coming back.

The fact is that every one of them deserves a review. Deserves notice and mention. And, as time presents itself, I’ll certainly do so.  What pulled me to the various games is their difference in presentation and the experiences that they provide. That risks and effort that I saw the developers put in. Last year saw Call of Duty Ghosts marketed with the phrase: We have a dog.

I can’t imagine a less thought out and slap dash advertisement campaign than that. Assassin’s Creed is marketed by “The Ultimate Multiplayer Experience.” My thoughts on THAT was: Well skippy do arseholes, join the line. I’m not sure whether this is just a part of growing up but I’m just not interested in all these franchises anymore because there is nothing new. The only new game (2013, yes, I know I’m behind) that I can think of to mention was The Last of Us. And it wasn’t that unique (stealth, killing, fighting off infected) as it was simply fantastically executed.

I’m not saying that all indie games are good, not all novels are either, but the gems that have come to light not only have replay value, but it has a charm that leads me to become bolder and taking risks with purchases. I want to give these people my money. Their games might not be as graphic loaded as the top developers but they pull me in and keep me. I had a look at my logs the other day to see which 5 games I’ve put the most time into in the past 2 years and the list was surprising.

It read like this:

Not only did Indie Games wrap up the top and bottom of my list, but they stood proudly among games that I found to be arguable some of the best time I’ve wasted in my life. (I’ll not think about the fact in general that, if I had actually just bothered to write in those hours, at a pace of 2000 words per hour, I could’ve had a series of 2,8 million words…). And the triple A games like Mass Effect cost me over R700 (About $50) to purchase – Don’t Starve cost me (or rather Ris, who gave it to me) R70 ($5). If you bring in the words: “return on investment,” Indie Games win.

I’ve become somewhat bitter about the big releases, about the future of gaming. I’m not sure whether I’ve just been at it for too long, but the truth is that I’m not excited by new big releases anymore. I look at the games and go ‘meh’. Or: Ag. Ok. Maybe. Someday. And then go back and try and save my village from starvation in Banished. The reality of my life is that, despite the figures presented above, I actually have very little time to put into games. So, if I have a moment to do so, I want to make it worth my own while. Rechewing the pimped out plot of Infamous (which should’ve stopped at 2 – just saying) or staring at another plot holed filled Resident Evil scene doesn’t strike me as time well spend.

Again, I live to be proven wrong and I have looked into my future and seen myself sitting beside a PlayStation 4. Because inevitably some big flashy company IS going to cough out something that I want. But that time isn’t now. This is the time for developers like Klei Entertainment to keep me up in the middle of the night.

For fledgling companies like Hinterland Studios to keep me at the edge of my seat.

This is the time of Indie Developers.