For those of you who played any of the Fallout series, did you ever find yourself wandering through a vault and think to yourself...
“You know, I would sure like to try my hand at being the vault overseer. I bet I could do a pretty good job”? Well, if so, you're in luck! Life in Bunker is essentially what you would expect to come from a game developer following that same train of thought.
The title opens with a blocky 3D (I hesitate to call it voxel) animation of a man feeding some birds before a meteor drops and turns the man and birds to skeletons, and the land to dust. The camera descends into the earth, and shortly thereafter the player is greeted by the main menu. The music here solidifies the inkling of tone that comes through in the opening animation. While it seemed a little light hearted at first, given the context, the opening menu tune banishes any thought of this being a hyper-serious, “gritty” title. Don't get me wrong, it's not entirely whimsy and jest, but it's much more lighthearted than it could have been.
As I said before, Life in Bunker brings a kind of blocky 3D visual style to the table, with simple but colorful textures that help liven things up a bit. Overall, I would say I enjoyed the look, but I'm easy to please, visually, and I can absolutely imagine that for someone who's main draw is visual, this could be perceived as a bit lacking. That said, simple though it is, there's a level of polish that gives the strong impression the simplicity is intentional, rather than for any lack of aesthetic sense. Either way, the visuals feel warm and welcoming, which is a counterpoint to the actual frenetic pace and unyielding mechanics of the title as a whole.
To wit, the particular mechanics I mean are the resourcing and population systems.
These systems above others were sometimes brutally unforgiving, and there were a number of times I was forced to load a previous save when it became clear the bunker was either completely doomed or impossible to expand. Before I get into some specific instances, though, let me explain how they work. Life in Bunker has a few important resources, some physical and some intangible. The physical resourcing is fairly straightforward: raw materials (ore and food) are extracted from their respective ore deposits or farms by automatic mining units and farmers, and are then processed into building materials or prepared meals. The only real expansion on this simple process flow is the addition of storage containers and refrigerators, which are required to hold ore, finished materials, and raw foodstuffs. Saying this, you start the game with every kind of storage prebuilt to a certain extent, and – while I did find a need for more refrigeration units – I honestly never ran into a scenario where it was necessary to expand ore and material storage in my time playing.
So far, so good, but that's only part of the puzzle.
The next mechanic is population growth and management – a staple of simulation games. Your population of bunker dwellers have a series of needs that must be met: hunger, sleep, relaxation, cleanliness, and exercise. They also need oxygen to breathe, but this isn't tracked on an individual level, and is instead tracked bunker-wide as one of the intangible resources (more on those shortly). Meeting these needs requires either the requisite furniture items be constructed or that prepared meals be available, which is also straightforward. Now, your bunker dwellers can die from disease, starvation, or, inevitably, age, and this is where the wrench flew directly into all my gears.
Each bunker dweller can only do some of the jobs, not all of them, and, unless you spend research points, what they can do is randomized on “birth.” I put it that way, because not only are they not completely omnifunctional, the bunker dwellers do not reproduce automatically. Every resident of your bunker that didn't exist at the beginning of the game is born from a kind of embryonic production vat. This vat is critical to the longevity of your bunker, and can only create three residents at once. This essentially forces the player to keep a close eye not only on resources, but the most critical jobs for the next generation to fill. I constantly found myself looking to see which residents were getting too old and what profession that meant I would soonest need to replace.
Then, the pacing shows its true, insidious nature. The bunker dwellers' needs and lives progress with a speed I didn't really expect, going in. The tutorial begins with a number of these systems stalled until they become relevant, which lulled me into a false sense of slower paced play. When I tried my hand at a proper build, I found that suddenly Life in Bunker was not a leisurely bunker design sim, but was instead a fast paced, no holds barred race for survival. A true bunker begins with a few residents, some food and material storages, water supply, oxygen scrubbers, and a power core. All of this is shoved into a cramped, randomly generated space, and there are only so many building materials to begin with. Nothing else is provided.
The food isn't even edible from the get-go.
My second time through, I realized I had to move more quickly than I anticipated, and so went about making quick work of setting up farms, bunks, a mess hall, and I even got to a... wait, what's that? I'm out of building materials? Oh, that's fine, I'll just build a... what do you mean the drill costs one-hundred materials? Okay, maybe I can break stuff down to get materials. There go the tables, the bunks, and the kitchen. It still isn't enough? And on and on it went. Eventually, I just restarted from scratch, realizing that it was not only much more fast paced, but more intellectually demanding than I had expected. In a very real sense I had underestimated Life is Bunker. My bunker dwellers paid for it dearly.
That might be the genius of this title, though, that false sense of easy security. The aesthetics really are disarming, and the music is equally deceptive of the pace and forethought required to not get everyone killed. The forethought the resourcing demands extends much further than one might expect, even after they're aware that care is also necessary, as it's very possible to exhaust all the resources on one of the four levels and forget to save enough for the numerous items and systems that are required to make digging down to a new layer viable. With even one part of the system unattended for too long, progress can not only be halted, but halted indefinitely and irreparably. It's a game of keeping things running when everything is inexorably counting down, filling up, and dying off – where not keeping in mind any one aspect can result in catastrophe.
This, I loved.
But, the thing about a title like this, or maybe, if I might be candid, any game, is that if the complexity and pacing do not constantly ramp up (or introduce some other, perhaps more artificial means of difficulty), then one can eventually acclimatize to them. This will be more expedient for pace than complexity, in my experience, as simple pattern memorization and muscle memory come more quickly than true understanding, but ultimately it will come. When such acclimation does at last come to the player, the game is at last left to stand on the true merit of its depth of content. This, I am sad to say, is where Life in Bunker truly does fall short. There is certainly plenty to do, but realistically, much of the current content can be exhausted in a few hours. The research tree in particular is not only rather shallow, but also quickly maxed out with a dedicated scientist.
That shallowness doesn't end there, however.
The resourcing, which by scarcity and pace creates so much of the experience, is fairly insignificant once stability is achieved. In fact, I don't find it outside the scope of believability that after a certain point, mining and expansion might be entirely unnecessary. Realistically, there is no utilitarian reason to keep growing your base past even the first level if you can achieve stability. The goal is to survive fifty cycles (five-hundred years, the game tells us), after which you may send your bunker dwellers out into the finally decontaminated wastes, but there is no stipulation that you must have so much of any particular resource, or so many people alive and able bodied. It is theoretically possible to achieve that primary objective with a small, occasionally replaced skeleton crew working a barebones bunker.
I can't even say that the city-building aspect makes up for that mechanical shallowness. Sure, there are a number of furniture pieces, but there are fewer overall types than one might expect, and even fewer variations within types (only one kind of table, one kind of bed, three kinds of “entertainment furniture,” etc.). What's worse, the architectural options are just as limited, to the point that there is only one kind of wall that can be built. It might sound a bit like I'm nit-picking, but customization is one of the most enjoyable parts of city-building to me, especially if it provides an avenue for a unique looking environment. As it stands, Life in Bunker's bunkers all look painfully similar, beyond layout.
Someplace Life in Bunker does stand out – in a good way – is the technical polish. I already spoke of the aesthetic polish, but here I mean the nuts and bolts of the title. From the time I first started the game to present, I have encountered no crashes, glitches, strange quirks, or even hiccups in performance. A brief look over the Steam discussions showed that some unfortunate souls did encounter issues and crashes, but on some level a few such instances are inevitable, and these by no means seem to make up the bulk of topics. That same brief overview also managed to reveal a pleasant surprise in that I found the developers (Flox Studios ltd.) seem fairly active in the bug reporting thread, and generally seem to be looking after the title, despite it not being in Early Access.
So, does Life in Bunker let the player live out their vault overseer fantasies? To some extent, yes. I didn't mention it earlier, but the jumpsuits the bunker dwellers wear are impossible to mistake for anything but a raw shout out to Fallout's vault suits. Beyond that though, Life in Bunker is its own, unique experience. The title represents with ease and no small amount of cunning some of the most fast paced and immediately challenging city-building and survival simulation gaming I've experienced in a while. It only loses serious points for a noticeable lack of long-term depth and design customization options.
If learning not to starve people in cozy environments with upbeat music is your cup of tea, then at its not- unreasonable price, Life in Bunker might just be the city-building quick fix you've been looking for, just be sure not to eat the moleman meat.