They Are Billions Screenshot 16

They Are Billions PS4 Review

Oh lawd, they comin’. 

The zombies are on their way and I only have one defensive tower manning their entry point into my haphazard colony. I’ve just finished production of some spiked traps which might slow them down, but my next generation of soldiers still need to be trained and I’ve run out of workers after opening up a brand new quarry. It’s time for some quick decision making.

I only have seven hours until the next onslaught, all of 30 seconds to save my colonists from impending infection. I send a bunch of my best rangers to man my city walls in the direction of the oncoming attack and spend the invasion flitting control between the two battle-hardy soldiers I have remaining after the last wave. 

Disaster: the zombies have broken down my walls and I’m down to two rangers and a lone soldier. The first building to fall is my sawmill and the cries of my lumberjacks soon awaken my citizens to the danger stumbling their way. My rangers fight valiantly as more and more tents succumb to sickly green infection, but it’s not enough. Soon, my community centre falls and it’s game over. All because I chose a new inn over a lookout tower.

If you play games on PC, you’ve probably heard of They Are Billions. The resource management RTS zombie disaster simulator has been kicking around Early Access for a while now, with a fully fledged launch hitting last month. I’m not playing on PC, though. I’m playing the brand new PS4 port, and I can’t help but feel my chances of surviving this particular apocalypse would be greatly improved with the help of the game’s native controls. 

The aim of the game is simple: survive a set amount of days while building up your colony enough to fend off waves of zombie invasions. Let just a couple of undead foes wander into your camp and a simple trespass can quickly destroy your bustling colony as infection spreads. The experience is one of constant juggling, generating enough resources to develop your defenses and providing enough food to sustain workers to do so, all while training up your army and directing the movements of each fighter during battle. 

One of the most obvious successes of They Are Billions is in its need-strategy-achievement-reward cycle. Everything feels perfectly matched to ease you up the ranks in a single playthrough, teasing you out further into the map to find specific resources with wholly attainable goals. Every building you create and every colonist you welcome into the camp feels like progress and every mistake perfectly sets you up to improve next time.

It achieves a flow state revered by similar games which work in these cycles of presenting the player with a need, allowing them to come up with a strategy to fulfil that need, having that strategy achieve its purpose organically, and rewarding you with a mechanic that will, in time, generate a new need. This structure is so tightly woven in They Are Billions that the resulting gameplay is hypnotic, luring you in for hours at a time through a mixture of pride for your colony and the ever-present, just-in-reach next step.

The more you play, the more you realise how deeply connected everything is. While this does take a toll on a more battle-weary PS4 (I noticed significant stuttering on my base model once I reached a colony of about day 60 size), the systems underlying everything you do are refined and smoothly balanced. Whenever you survive an attack, it’s a race to rebuild your defenses, research new technologies, and build bigger, better options for next time. All of this functions in an ecosystem so neatly designed that progression feels natural, rather than the more common mechanics of grinding for materials.

Even when you’re waiting for a building to be completed, or just taking stock of your current stage, it’s charming to watch your own colony go about its daily rituals, keeping itself sustained and thriving in the face of the evil undead. That’s if you’re willing to conveniently overlook the fact that you are only giving these people a place to live and food so that they can work for you and provide that sweet tax money. Colonists soon become workers, and their presence is more necessary for your own structural or financial gain than their own welfare, but it’s not a perfect world and no-one said you were a fair dictator – you’ve given them a mayor after all. 

When it comes to defending your territory, the pride you’ve built up in your city quickly turns to panic. Zombies will occasionally wander close to your walls, so there’s always some level of threat, but the heat really kicks up when a horde makes its way over to your town. This is where your infantry units come into play, of which there are seven. At the start of the game you’re gifted a handful of rangers (archery specialists that can take down zombies from afar with their relatively weak but efficient arrows) and a single soldier (a metal-clad gunner with an eye for a closer shot). 

For the main part you may do well rotating through these mercenaries, padding out your defenses with a healthy footfall of each, but once the big boys start coming through you’ll want to explore some of the game’s more specialised combat units. The sniper is really only good for high-level solo enemies, but Lucifer can scorch any number of undead rivals within the scope of his flamethrower. Thanatos is packing missiles but can hold his own in hand to hand combat, while a Titan can clear the board in seconds but it will cost you a pretty penny. 

Managing each of these factions, all with their own priorities and skills is where the beads of sweat really start to roll. Each unit needs careful management, and as soon as one starts ploughing through zombies, another across the map might be in dire need of your direction. It’s a shame, then, that the PS4 control scheme can’t keep up. 

This is where things start to fall apart, where this feels more like a rushed port than a console offering. It’s not that the controls are clunky, it’s that there’s far too much required of the player to fit with the style of control demanded by the PS4. It’s incredibly difficult to deftly fling a soldier into action when you have to find them, select their tiny figure, and scroll along the map with an analogue stick.

It’s a problem of scale that seems to have wormed its way into many aspects of They Are Billions’ PS4 design. Selecting small icons on a TV screen with a DualShock is far from ideal, and doing it under immense time pressure, when everything you’ve been working for over the last two hours is at stake can be incredibly frustrating.

At best this is a tricky port, at worst it’s a port that fails to retain the strength of the source game due to a potential oversight in controls. When time is your main enemy, it’s difficult to justify control schemes that require precise selection of combat units from potentially anywhere on the map with an analogue stick and an X button.

There’s an option to pause the action, give your commands, and then restart, but quite often that feature detracts from the RTS nature of the game, even if it does allow for a few more minutes of survival. Text is tiny, menu options are undefined, and your control panel is populated by small folder icons and even smaller tabs to navigate – all without the use of the D-pad, by the way. 

We also only have Survival Mode on PS4 at the moment, so you’re not quite in it for the long game. Sure, there are unlockable maps that become available when you’ve racked up enough points from your previous runs, as well as a number of different configurations you can set up to alter the overall difficulty of your experience, but we will have to wait even longer for that campaign we’ve heard so much about.

Add that to the small but consistently noticeable spattering of bugs that have managed to find their way into the finished product (my colonists spent most of their time bunched around gates they couldn’t open for some reason) and the fact that my game, in particular, crashed at the end screen every time, and you’ve got some serious concerns about They Are Billions’ quality of life on PS4. 

There’s still an excellent time to be had here if you’re a patient player with a penchant for easy modes (managing my units in a more difficult scenario may have resulted in a controller-through-the-TV incident). They Are Billions is certainly an impressive game that can be on PS4. Whether it should, or at least whether it should yet, is another question. The port feels fairly rushed overall, with little consideration given to the changes in control dynamics and player setup that come into question when running on console.

It’s a shame, because the base game is extremely satisfying with just the right level of complexity and a sucking whirlpool of flow play. Hopefully, the devs can make their console offering a little friendlier before the next wave hits. 

[Reviewed on PS4]