I bought Banished entirely on a whim. Eri (Healing the Masses) started playing it one night on Steam and the name peaked my interest enough to investigate further. She and I never discussed the game before I purchased it, nor did I read much about it other than the premise and genre. As rare as it is I play them anymore, City Builders are one of my foundational genres. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours endlessly toiling away at my cities in Pharaoh (my all-time favorite). My cousin even played, so whenever he’d come over, we would share notes and I’d show off my half-built pyramids and newly renovated housing districts. Other than some extensive time with the more recent entries of Tropico, I haven’t really touched the genre sense.
Banished appealed to me instantly. It was a City Builder, for one, but it looked like it didn’t inundate me with graphs and menus and other noise. As much as I love having those details available to me, lots of City Builders want to overwhelm you with the depth of their simulation rather than their playability or fun. Without any regard for the fact that I didn’t really have a spare $20 lying around, I bought the game with far less research than I normally would do.
The first couple hours of Banished, I worried I had wasted my money. The game wasn’t especially deep. There are only a couple of industries that you need to juggle and there isn’t much in the way of beautification. Typically, I play more to make a beautiful city than an incredibly well-functioning one. Instead of feeling burned, something kept me involved. More and more, I became entirely engrossed by the games minimalism. It helped that it was relatively bug free and decent looking too.
Forty hours player later, it finally dawned on me that I had spent a couple of days obsessing about the game. I hadn’t stopped to consider how much time I was sinking into it rather than the new Donkey Kong or beta testing MMOs. The thing about Banished is that as meager as it is, it is an immersive experience. It is relatively difficult to maintain a sense of balance – more people means more workers but also a fickle infrastructure further taxed to its limit. The game does a relatively good job of conveying the feelings of a group of pilgrim/pioneer-sorts, banished to a foreign land, to begin society anew.
Though it is obvious that I got my money’s worth, extensive play did validate my early opinions about the game’s shallowness. Sure, it is difficult and I am by no means a master, but outside of disaster, it does get a little boring when the game becomes a repetition of building the same three buildings and slowly expanding over and over. Everytime I reach 100 people and I really start repeating myself, I just quit. Once you’ve assembled the basics a few times, there isn’t much more to strive for unless you are an achievement seeker.
If I were to make one request, it would be a large update that adds building upgrades. The game lacks any technology tree or building upgrades (outside of converting wooden houses to stone ones). It would have been nice to have ways to upgrade current facilities, further customizing my city and lending the game a greater sense of progression. Specialization would be nice, as well. You can somewhat do it, but since the trading system is so random, you cannot reliably use it. You are forced, no matter the location, to do everything or else your city will not last.
Negatives aside, I must reiterate that I played Banished for forty hours. It is a fun game and an indie achievement, as far as I am concerned. I’d buy this game three more times if I could erase ever having bought the recent SimCity game. Banished manages to do a lot more with a lot less (both in game and in its development). Its willingness to leave players to their own devices (no overall goals) as well as provide them ample opportunity to hang themselves (challenging gameplay) make it a standout game for a genre I truly love. Hopefully will see more like it in the future.