Colony/civilization simulations always tend to be a little bit dire, don’t they? Disease around one corner, death around the next – in what can often be as much a stress-filled crapshoot as it can a satisfying skill-based challenge.
Approaching the stage from the opposite perspective is Before We Leave, a colony-building sim which provides a deep resource-based system of its own, but with a disarming and laid-back atmosphere that makes for an appetizable and very pleasant experience.
The visuals are soft and vibrant, and a calming soundtrack with an ambient guitar track carries you along like a leaf in the wind as hours pass without you realizing.
An indepth tutorial helps this along as you are taken through the very typical resource management gameplay loop step-by-step, explaining the detailed interfaces at a friendly pace, conveying the task easily and making the game seem very approachable.
As is standard for colony-sims there are technologies unlock as you farm and refine resources, which allows you to create new buildings and vehicles to facilitate more of the same and with the ability to slow or stop time completely, you can do this without the threat of running out of resources due to slow decision making. That’s essentially the long and short of the entire game, and while that might not seem like a lot, there are plenty of things to create and ways to monitor your progress within this mechanic, which – at least initially – gives the impression of endless possibilities in your explorable solar system.
When you eventually do reach another planet, however, you might start to wonder what the finishing like looks like, and well – there really isn’t one. In a sense, colonizing one planet and you’ve colonized them all as there are no social or combative elements in the game or any threat of failure, which means that your job is to spread your populace like a pollution producing virus across planets in much the same way each time, the only difference being the availability of resources on each one.
Despite scorching the earth and creating an inevitable smog that San Francisco and Beijing might be jealous of, the tranquility of the game partly lies in the fact that there is almost nothing that can upset the status quo – other than a space whale – as you and you alone are in control of your fate. There are no competing factions or civilizations that you need to placate or interact with and death due to poor living conditions is non-existent.
So safe is your carefree populace that their mood can only be affected by being near a polluted area or by not being provided with enough luxury items – not even taking away their homes and all their food just for giggles turns their smiles upside down.
Sadly, they barely also interact with the world around them and are almost completely unaware of each other in a social sense. Left-wing and right-wing political views would be as unfamiliar to them as a hospital, as children are somehow amusingly created en-masse at schools, assuming you have created enough housing for them.
It’s a shame that you can’t influence the population once wheeled of the factory-line, as without it, your linear progress rarely differs playthrough to playthrough. Your populace’s names and even their emotional state is shown, but with wooden peg-like avatars and very basic behaviour you often forget that they are even human.
Their lack of human-like characteristics is relatively minor in the larger scheme of things and won’t likely bother you when you’re uncovering new continents with the game’s great visualization of a 3D hex tiles being put together piece-by-piece like a puzzle on-screen as you sail around the world, nor will it bore as you completely change the landscape and design great-looking settlements, but there is a bit of an empty feeling that creeps in when its open-endedness – of expanding solely for expanding’s sake – becomes apparent.
There are alternative scenarios that extend the game’s replay value that instill some urgency to achieve certain goals in certain timeframes, but it unfortunately still lacks the social or combative systems that would make this game more than just a surface-level simulation with tremendous ambience.
Despite Before We Leave removing almost all threat of failure and most gameplay variety, its wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and highly accessible gameplay is still a cut above the rest, making this colony-sim a worthwhile spin for those who want to play god from their armchair, but without any of the stress.