All hail the cosmic leviathans
Before We Leave has the curious ambition of providing an (almost) entirely non-violent take on city-building and 4X-esque space empire management. Unlike more combat-focused alternatives, the emphasis here is on being a chilled-out overlord, leisurely commanding your beloved peeps as they scramble out their bunker to build the new world.
It’s an interesting take on the genre that makes good on its relaxed promise, with some neat design touches that help to elevate the experience.
Where My Peeps At?
Though you might feel like the one in power on first glance, in reality, you’re in servitude to the demands of your peeps. These peeps are like small animatronics who dart around your city, performing their daily routines. Before We Leave makes good on the promise of micro as well as macro-management, as you can zoom all the way into the world and select individual peeps to read a little about their day.
You can track where they live, their job, and their overall happiness rating. Most importantly though, you get a small snippet of information on their characters. On my third island, I had a woodcutter named Jerry with a penchant for writing shark-related limericks. These whimsical details help to make your cities worth investing in, even though they add little to the overall gameplay.
This gameplay itself is your standard resource-based city-building affair. There are trees that give you wood which need woodcutters; you need wood to make mines to mine stone, you need stone to build an iron smelter to smelt iron, etc. There’s also a tech tree for new buildings as well as pollution to be considered, the latter of which adds a welcome layer of complexity to city design.
Thanks to the randomly generated nature of each planet, you’ll have different cities that need to specialize in different resources or products to ensure you have a flourishing civilization.
The Demands of Space Trading
You can then trade goods between your cities, which is where a few of the problems with the game begin to arise. Trading, much like a lot of the rules on resources and production, can be a bit intimidating at first, which isn’t helped by a textbox heavy tutorial that does little in the way of educating the player on what to bear in mind as they build.
With trading, you need ships (later spaceships) that create trade routes between cities, where you can select certain specific resources to trade indefinitely as well as an option to send a designated number of resources once. On several occasions, I found myself staring at the resources screen waiting for a number to tick up that I’d scheduled trading for, which for reasons unknown wasn’t arriving.
This confusion becomes more of an issue in regards to the happiness meter. Your peeps need to keep happy; otherwise they work slower, but whilst they’ll tell you that they feel unhappy they’ll never tell you exactly why.
This lack of communication can make Before We Leave perplexing at times. I found that peeps on my second island were thirsty even after uphauling the island, installing several wells and initiating a constant trade of water from the bounty I’d amassed on island one. There’s a clean aesthetic design in its tools, but they aren’t very well optimized when it comes to communicating necessary information to the player.
A Whole New World
These annoyances are felt less on starting a new city. The hexagonal grid of the world pops out after loading, whilst the clockwork way in which all your peeps move around your city as it grows provides an accomplished feeling. The soundtrack, though it could do with a bit more flair on the whole, is aptly soothing in these moments.
The road-building, in particular, is snappy and empowering, with that satisfying effect of naturally morphing as you lay it. This then combines with the slight elevation to the world design, with adorable one-in-one-out elevators; planning the roadway system of your cities oddly becomes one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. It all looks like an elaborate pop-up book in motion.
Where Before We Leave then falters is in a lack of variety. The procedural generation of planets falls into the early No Man’s Sky trap of making space exploration predictable after you’ve seen a few different biomes. But the major flaw here is that, though combat itself wouldn’t be welcome, Balancing Monkey hasn’t really replaced it with anything else.
As a result, you get all the resource balancing and city honing of a 4X game without any of the intrigues in negotiating relations with other players, or without any danger of things going wrong. The worst that can happen to your peeps is unhappiness or a lack of resources, both of which only result in wasted time as they move slower or you’re forced to wait for new resources to be harvested.
It’s peaceful at its best but becomes a chore at its worst. Which is frustrating, as figuring out what to create from the latest biome in your interplanetary empire is enjoyable, it’s just marred by a few time-consuming details and unclear messages.
Enter Space Whale
Then there are the space whales, by far the game’s most distinctive aspect. The first time you’re introduced to these gargantuan creatures, with a terrifying moan and a shift in the soundtrack as they float menacingly over the city you’ve spent days perfecting, is as much horrifying as it is breathtaking.
Then, as the space whale departs, you’re given a quick text box which lets you know that you can avoid your planet being devoured if you go far enough through the tech tree. This spoils a lot of the mystique surrounding the concept, and I can’t help but feel like more could’ve been done with the space whales as a mechanic.
It’s crying out for something like the overarching mysteries in Surviving Mars which would add more narrative and purpose. Right now, though there’s a bit of lore and occasional thematic hurdles to overcome, they don’t significantly impact the experience. The city-building itself is almost too tranquil after several hours, as the disruptive excitement that should be felt by new buildings and concepts starts to peter out.
This is the repeating point when it comes to Before We Leave; more could be done. What’s here is a solid city builder with a charming character to it that befits wiling away the hours in a daze of road plotting, orchard planting and musician hiring. But it fails to offer much more than that.
If you’re looking for a meditative city builder and enjoy resource management and problem-solving, you should absolutely give Before We Leave a go. But if you’re accustomed to some of the bigger 4X alternatives, you might feel as if what’s here is a little lacking by comparison.
[Reviewed on PC]