by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
All too often, the economic necessity to launch a game when its development window comes to a close is paramount to the survival of its developer. Sometimes, this is just fine. In the case of Clockwork Empires, it means the difference between a decent game and an absolutely outstanding one. Is there such a thing as spending too much time in Early Access?
Before I answer that, let’s backtrack a little - I’ve not even told you what the game is. Clockwork Empires can best be described as a colony simulator - a cross between a survival game and a city builder. It’s not just any old simulator, it’s offbeat in so many ways that you’ll feel like you’ve never played anything quite like it. If I’d have to describe the game, I’d have to say it’s like Banished, but with a touch of steampunk, a dash of British colonialism and a rather large helping of some of the most insane disasters that any major of a struggling colony could possibly conjure up during his nightmare-filled nights.
As the Colonial Bureaucrat, your task is to give guidance to a small band of settlers who are sent to colonize the new world. Equipped with the barest of necessities, you are in charge of feeding the settlers, providing them with comfy homes, giving them jobs and keeping them safe from dangers varying from mild nuisances to outright horrors.
All of this is accompanied by a fair bit of storytelling in the form of mini adventures in which your actions can have rather serious consequences. The rise of a dark cult within your colony, for example, can lead to all sorts of surprises. I sent out my army commander to investigate rumours of this cult. Before long, he uncovered that the colony cook was heading up a rather sizeable group of cultists. The commander asked what I wanted to do, commenting that it really was a job for a vicar, not a soldier. As the cook was central to the food supply and health of my colony, I ignored his recommendation to kill her. Instead, I opted for the destruction of the object of their worship, an altar hidden somewhere in the forest. Feeling confident this would solve the problem, the game one-upped me by telling me the altar was not destroyed. The commander himself was a cultist and refused to do the job. What happened next… well, I’ll let you experience that yourself but things get rather ugly. I can only surmise how the story had played out with a vicar, or a commander not under the influence of the cult I sent him to destroy but I’m sure another playthrough will be very different.
Left to their own devices, your colonists will almost certainly end up dead. They’ll occasionally pick up a new task should it present itself, such as getting new ingredients for the stew they are making, but most of the time they’ll idle unless you give them something to do. Colonists are organised through work crews that are headed up by Overseers. You’ll likely forget about the labourers that work for them, but the loss of an Overseer is often felt deeply as - their - skill level affects the level of the entire crew. Once assigned to a specific task or building the used skills improve over time, thus increasing the efficiency of the crew. Their mood too affects efficiency - working under an unhappy, desperate Overseer is not the best way to spend one’s day.
Comfortable housing, good food and a decent place to work are the main ingredients for keeping everyone sane and happy and the player has quite a bit of control in this area. Disaster, of course, is not so easily controlled. Things can go sour in an instant, even when you think you’ve warded it off. I once patted myself on the back for fending off 21 foreign invaders with very few casualties on my side. “Back to work!” I told my peons, but then the indigenous fishpeople started eating the bodies of the dead, causing everyone who saw it to panic and run away in disgust and refuse to work. With my food supplies rather low even before the attack, I really could not afford my farmers to take time off. The next day people weren’t fed. This time, I managed to turn things around but these sort of cascading events are constantly lurking around the corner. Rarely did I feel my colony was healthy and secure.
All of the above is tremendous fun. A colony survival game is supposed to be tough and living on the brink of annihilation is an exhilarating experience - surprising for a genre that is notoriously slow paced.
Unfortunately the game comes with some rather sharp edges and a steep learning curve. The short, somewhat unsatisfying tutorial introduces you to the key mechanics but does not sufficiently prepare you for the utterly overwhelming user interface. Menus, buttons and options are everywhere and while the interface received a major overhaul in the weeks prior to the game’s launch, all of it is still very confusing. All of the text is too small and the aesthetic design of interface objects is so garish that it is difficult to quickly and easily make out what is what. What’s worse is that some items are missing from the building menu, and others do not have the correct tooltip text to explain how they are made. I spent half an hour trying to figure out how to build a brick ceramics kiln, only to find out that the workbench it requires has the wrong tooltip text. These types of confusion happen regularly, slowing down the progress of your colony. You can’t really afford that, as the disasters increase in ferocity and require better gear and more settlers every time a new one knocks on your colony’s door.
The game isn’t completely stable either, though it will save frequently so the loss of playtime is usually only a few minutes. A few features are sorely missed. Those dead invaders that were being butchered by fishpeople, leave “dubious meat” behind. You can tell your colonists not to touch this meat, but you cannot clear it up - I have had these litter my colony and sit in my storage areas for an entire afternoon until the fishpeople took pity on me and started eating them. More difficult to forgive is that buildings cannot be extended or repurposed. If it’s too small, or no longer necessary, you’ll have to tear it down.
A crying shame
Despite numerous updates - perhaps even too many as most updates broke previous savegames - the game feels like it would be more comfortable back in Early Access. Which brings me to my original question and its promised answer: yes, I think Clockwork Empires did spend too much time in Early Access. I feel this caused the developers to lose focus. The game lacks polish, despite - or maybe because - undergoing many rigorous changes throughout its development. The result is a game that conspires to both lure and confuse its players to the point that you’re simply not sure whether you want to continue playing.
My heart is screaming to love Clockwork Empires. Its premise, its setting - it is so uniquely fresh and daring that it should have amounted to something extraordinary. I’m struggling to even like it, let alone love it. No, I do like it, but it is a crying shame that it lacks the polish it deserves. As it stands, the interface throws up too much of an obstacle for Clockwork Empires to shine as it might have.
Unique setting and premise
Interface gets in the way of its full potential