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Review

Written by Rachel Mangan | Edited by John Gerritzen

A paradoxically relaxing and overwhelming game, Before We Leave is a cute city builder with a lot of depth.

The Stars Are Calling

Before We Leave, developed and published by Balancing Monkey Games, is a city builder game with a lot of heart. Set after a great, unnamed cataclysm, you’re in charge of guiding your small colony of Peeps out of the depths of their bunkers and towards repopulating their solar system. It’s a daunting task, as your Peeps have next to nothing when they emerge, only surviving off the scraps and resources they can harvest from a world long ruined. And that’s not even accounting for the space whales.

Out of the Ground

Your Peeps, small little meeple-like pawns, are your primary resource for getting things done when you first emerge from the bunker. Left to their own devices, they’ll only mill about, but when given a direction, they perform it adequately. While you never control individual Peeps directly, they’ll wander about with purpose, delivering goods to houses and resources to building areas with expediency. That is, of course, if those resources exist in the first place. Every Peep requires a place to live, food to eat, and maybe even some luxury goods to entertain themselves. Basic housing requires wood and stone, along with a Peep to build it. Wood comes from your Woodcutter, who harvests and replants nearby forests over time. Stone can be acquired by clearcutting forests, but those don’t grow back, so your more reliable source is from the various ruined apartment buildings littered around the landscape. However, your Peeps don’t start off knowing how to mine, so you’ll need to establish a Library and Explorer’s Hut to gather and process old technologies into new, usable research to rediscover what was once lost.

What I’m trying to get across here is that supply chain management is paramount to Before We Leave. Any small snag in the process can lead to wasted hours wondering why your Peeps are starving when you keep building vegetable and potato fields. Unhappy Peeps are slow working Peeps, you see, and there are a multitude of factors that contribute to your Peeps' happiness and efficiency. The obvious ones are the needs I mentioned before, (food and water, lodging, happiness) but things like pollution level of workplaces, type of work, overpopulation, and building placement all contribute to how quickly your little workers can churn out the resources you need to make that next leap to the next planet to get your next technology.

To Boldly Go

The main objective, near as I can tell, is to repopulate the star system you find yourself inhabiting. I played through to a certain point twice, once with a tutorial and once without. The tutorial is fairly comprehensive, if a bit long, and spans your entire first planet. The charming little text boxes neatly guide you through your first steps, advising you on where to place individual buildings and what to prioritize as you expand. Slowly, it takes the training wheels off, offering you broader objectives, culminating finally in just "Recover, Repair, and Launch the Ruined Spaceship." It's a tall task, considering you've only just expanded to your third and final island on your first planet, but you and the developers both know that you have the necessary tools to accomplish this in time. My first run ended shortly after founding my second planet. I expanded too quickly, leaving myself with few resources on the new planet and no means of acquiring new ones with any sense of speed. I still needed to produce a trading spaceship to cart goods from my better-established planet to my new colony.

My second attempt proved a bit better. Knowing what I was doing, I was able to breeze through my first planet and set up a self-sustaining colony on my second. I noticed that, while terrain generation and resource placement are random, your first colony will always have certain resources, your second colony will always have another, and so on. This forces you to specialize in each colony, trading between them both within and between planets. As such, I did make it to space, but on the backs of the miserable Peeps unfortunate enough to live in my third colony. This wasn't any particular malice on my part; I tried everything I could to get my Peeps happier, but my supply chains just weren't what they needed to be to get resources where they needed to go in a timely fashion. A good 30% of my second playthrough was waiting for steel production from that third colony, so it could be shipped to my first colony to make spaceships so I could load those up and cart them over to my second planet.

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Bungled supply chains aren't the only headache you'll have to contend with out amongst the stars. Timing is everything, and by the time you colonize your second planet, you'll be informed that something beyond the stars has awoken. Now, you're not totally unprepared for this; the tutorial signs off with an ominously cheerful, "watch out for the Guardians," but the first space whale encounter certainly caught me off guard. Doubly so when it started eating up tiles from the planet's surface. Thankfully, it missed my islands, but I rushed to build the whale-feeding Space Elevator research all the same. The next problem was building it. On the second island on my second planet, I encountered more hazards. An ancient ruin I found, instead of the usual expedited research it usually gives you, instead spawned a robotic minotaur that I had to rapidly build a wrestling ring to train fighters to take it down. While I waited for that to complete, the minotaur took it upon itself to terrorize my Peeps, stopping their production and slowing down everything on that island. Further, that island also had a robotic sphinx that would periodically ask me questions that my Peeps couldn't answer and would destroy a random building as retribution. Given the issues I already had, these were a bit overwhelming.

Home Sweet Home

Paradoxically, I also found Before We Leave to be equally relaxing. Everything from its art style to its sound design to the flavor text for your Peeps is downright homey. All the buildings have a detailed, board-game aesthetic to them. Houses spout comfy gouts of smoke out of their chimneys, everything is made of wood and stone (yes, even the spaceships), and seems cobbled together in a way reminiscent of a small model village made of scraps. There is rarely ambient music, the soundtrack instead produced by your houses depending on how happy your Peeps are. Keep them contented, and you're treated to rousing Irish reels and jigs, full of fiddles, lending a pastoral air to the proceedings. Fail to entertain your Peeps, leaving them in polluted hopelessness, and you'll be treated to somber, almost dirge-like melodies that are beautiful in their own right but hauntingly so. Your Peeps bop around your colonies with aplomb. Click on one, and you'll be treated to a small factoid about them, such as "Definitely knows a ghost," or "Can jump higher than anyone."

Even the layout of the hexagonal grid lends to this air of organic expansion. Unlike squares, the hexes lend themselves to more curving, lazy shapes. Every building needs to be connected by a road that takes up an entire hex just like any other building. On top of presenting an interesting strategic challenge, it also forces you to spread out your buildings from each other, leading to open swathes of undulating pathways, carving out whimsical shapes in the dirt. Never once did I find myself disliking the scenery Before We Leave put before me, and more than once, I found myself bobbing my head to the impressive soundtrack.

7

The Verdict: Great

Despite spending a lot of my time waiting for things to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Before We Leave, at least in shorter bursts than I usually play games. The pacing could be upped a bit, but overall it's a quality product and fun time for fans of the city builder and strategy genres.

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