OPINION | GAME ON: ‘Settlement Survival’ city-builder more interesting than its name suggests

"Settlement Survival" is sim video game from Gleamer Studio. For Jason Bennett's Game On. (Photo courtesy of Gleamer Studio)
"Settlement Survival" is sim video game from Gleamer Studio. For Jason Bennett's Game On. (Photo courtesy of Gleamer Studio)
  • ‘Settlement Survival’
  • Platform: Windows, MacOS
  • Cost: $19.99
  • Rating: Everyone 10+
  • Score: 7.5 out of 10

Would a rose smell as sweet by any other name? "Settlement Survival" surely wins the award for the most uncreative (yet perfectly accurate) game title, but the true test lies in the creativity of the game, not the name.

You'll be forgiven for thinking that "Settlement Survival," made by the indie Gleamer Studio, is a generic knockoff "Banished," a sort of baseline standard in the low-tech city-builder genre. After all, its beginning moments are very much the same: Your small band of villagers will be plopped down in a vast wilderness with scarce supplies, and must chop down trees, gather mushrooms, stone and other resources, and build a thriving civilization.

Beat for beat, the early game mirrors "Banished." Build enough houses for citizens, check. Build a forester's lodge to chop trees, check. Build a fishing dock, gatherer's hut, hunting lodge, check. Manage the townspeople's happiness and health by building churches, clinics, entertainment venues, check.

Which isn't to say this isn't executed well, we've just seen it before. There are some early differences, however. Graphics is one of these -- "Settlement Survival" is made in the Unity engine, with a low-poly, sort-of cartoonish design that's pretty common these days. Some games take the low-poly look and make it truly beautiful ("The Long Dark," for example). For those wanting a more realistic medieval look, city-builder "Manor Lords" is worth checking out.

With graphics kind of meh, but adequate, and the sound design also just adequate, and an early game that other games have already done, what is it that sets "Settlement Survival" apart? This is a game that stands on the shoulders of giants, keeping what works and then adding to it. In many builders, such as "Banished," the challenge is entirely in the early game, in keeping your villagers alive by making sure they have enough food, enough firewood for winter, that their clothing and tools are up to par. But by the mid- to late-game stages, your settlement is producing and trading for more resources than you can ever use, and the contest merely becomes one of scaling and efficiency.

"Settlement Survival's" introduction of a tech tree and dozens of advanced resources deftly creates a mid-game transition from survival game to manufacturing/industry management game. You're not just farming pumpkins for your villagers to eat anymore, that won't create enough happiness. So maybe you want to give them jam cookies, but that requires a bakery, which requires glass to build, which requires gathering sand, and cookies need sugar, which will require the right raw material, such as sugar cane syrup, the malt by-product from brewing ale, or sugar beets. And all these things require different technologies to be researched. In fact, even researching faster can be researched (but first you'll need to research how to create paper).

"Settlement Survival" is essentially two games in one, with the second being a natural evolution of what happens next when a pioneering settlement has secured its basic means of survival and takes the next step to become a full-fledged civilization.

There's a lot of micromanagement of buildings and villagers in this game, with pretty much every building being upgrade-able in various ways. "Settlement Survival" can be a pretty relaxing game to play, although (unless turned off) you will have to deal with an abundance of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, fires, tornadoes and plagues.

Another welcome feature is the ability to manipulate the landscape. Terrain shaping can let you carve up the land, creating lakes or changing the flow of rivers, or just flatten an edge of a hill to place down a building that almost fits.

There's so much this game gets right about city-building. Definitely a "Banished 2.0," as if someone took that game and its best mods and then turned the dial to 11. However, the graphics and music are about as uninspired as the name.

All in all, if city-builders are your jam, this is one to check out.

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