Banished has ruined me.
I’m writing this at the tail-end of a week in which Banished has given me blackened, sore eyes, a pounding head, and an ache in my back. Y’see, I have spent every spare minute of my time from Sunday through to Friday slumped over my desk, completely and utterly enveloped in the world of this brutal city-building strategy game, and as such I have become something of a mess.
Rarely do I let a video game consume me in the way that Banished has. Not since the release of Fallout 3, in which I piled an obscene, nigh-on shameful amount of hours [Never be ashamed of that! ~Ed. Nick], have I found myself compulsively checking in on a virtual world so much so that I’ve become a little worried that it will soon conflict with my myriad of other responsibilities, and that I’ll soon come to value my accomplishments in the dreary medieval village of Butley (the randomly generated name the game assigned to my world, which I kept because BUTT LOL) more than I do in the real world.
If I’m making Banished sound off-putting, that’s probably because it is. At least, it is at first. Designer Luke Hodorowicz (who was the sole developer of the game, meaning that he has an almost loathsome level of talent) was wise not to mandatorily lump the tutorial at the beginning of the game, instead choosing to make it optional. As I’d heard prior to playing it that Banished was a game which heavily focuses upon the survival aspect of the city-building strategy genre, I decided to forego the tutorial in favor of diving in headfirst and learning its mechanics the hard way.
Thanks to Banished’s simplistic user interface and relatively basic concept—unlike the SimCity series, there are no wages or taxes to attend to, with trading being the sole form of currency—I was able to figure out everything of my own accord after no small degree of trial-and-error was employed. My first few attempts at building a village within Banished’s unforgiving world were quickly thwarted.
First, it was mass starvation that offed every single one of my villagers, after I had failed to assign enough of them to my crops; then, a bug infestation which destroyed all of my food, again leaving the denizens of my small plot of land to starve; then, a lack of firewood caused them to freeze to death; then finally, a tornado swept everything up in its path aside from Herbert and Gertrude, two aging survivors who eventually died of natural causes before giving birth to any offspring, thus leaving my village devoid of human life.
What is so utterly engrossing about Banished is that by taking these mistakes into account the next time you play, you’ll eventually learn how to create a sustainable environment for your population to live in. So as not to risk bugs wiping out my entire supply of food once again, next time around I ensured that I left a measurable distance between each crop field. Likewise, I expanded my village into a reasonably-sized town in order to prevent a singular tornado sweeping up my entire population once again.
Failing to jump over Banished’s many hurdles but then learning how to masterfully clear them the next time around is the game’s most alluring facet, and it adds a true element of survival that we’ve rarely seen in this genre before. Typically, “God” games as they have become known put players on a quest to make their city/town/village as desirable a place to live as possible, but Banished asks nothing more of you than to make a functional environment for your ever-expanding populace to survive in. This means that there are no “luxury” items awaiting you if you complete certain goals, and no end-game to speak of. If you need something to keep you playing a game other than the constant threat of death, then Banished is not for you, but the exclusion of these genre tropes ensures that the game stays true to its survive-against-all-odds concept.
If the world of Banished isn’t pretty in a figurative sense, it most certainly is in a literal sense. There’s nothing immediately dazzling about its medieval wood, stone-‘n’-grass color palette, but after spending an extended period of time with the game you'll grow to love its warm, homely aesthetics. Each winter’s snowfall rests gently on the houses you’ve constructed, the summer brings with it full crop fields of peppers, corn, and pumpkins, along with fresh new rows of trees lining your orchards, while the intermittent rainfall of spring douses the world in a dreary coat of grey.
Technically there’s nothing graphically astounding here, but the art direction perfectly befits the game’s style, and I found myself frequently zooming in on my village to admire its finer details. Unfortunately, by comparison the villagers are dull and plain-faced. Also, in what is my only major criticism of Banished, they’re quite bafflingly stupid.
With the aforementioned emphasis on survival, the denizens of your created world will find themselves frequently growing hungry and cold. As it is a wise decision to spread your village out to lessen the impact of aforementioned bug infestations and tornados, I placed several barns around the world in the vicinity of my citizens to be used for storage to ensure that food would be evenly balanced and distributed. I also placed several woodcutters in Butley, who would routinely chop up logs in order to create firewood to keep the population warm during the harsh winter.
However, despite resources being plentiful, I frequently found Butley’s inhabitants dying simply due to them refusing to collect supplies for themselves. As you can’t control an individual villager’s movement in the game, watching one of them amble about aimlessly, seemingly making a conscious decision to avoid eating any food and consequently dying is frustrating, especially when you need all the help you can get in keeping your world afloat. Fortunately, this irritating quibble doesn’t derail the game, and though you may find yourself shouting at your PC monitor while one of your hungry citizens walks straight past a storage barn without picking up so much as a singular pumpkin to keep themselves alive, this annoyance is outbalanced by the sheer wealth of enjoyment that is to be had in the rest of the game.
Banished is not impressive solely because it was made by one man—it is impressive, period. The fact that this little gem stems from the brain of one lone developer only stands to make it all the more of an unequivocal triumph, and it thoroughly deserves your attention. If you’re a fan of God games and have found yourself disappointed by recent entries in the genre, such as the latest SimCity and the Early Access version of Peter Molyneux’s underwhelming Godus project, then you owe it to yourself to pick up this game.