Banished PC Review: Who Needs Combat When You have Cholera?

Banished PC Review: Who Needs Combat When You have Cholera?

This no-frills, indie city builder/survival sim has Cassandra hooked in spite of its tepid difficulty curve.

"I guess that explains why they were Banished in the first place." Someone quips over Twitter.

Honestly, I'm a little mortified. I don't care if it's thematic. I know medieval tweens were keener on marriage than some 30-year olds are today. But that doesn't change the fact that there's something deeply, fundamentally wrong about a 12-year old girl shacking up with a 29-year old man - even if he's a bearded beefcake of a stonecutter. Seriously. No. Just no. This mismatched pair was the latest "family unit" to sprout in my town of Lestellow. Sandwiched between a geriatric couple and a spinster who has remained obstinately single since she moved into the house, they should have represented hope to me. Hope, and the promise of a future in Banished's bleak, hungry world.

"Eeeew."

The girl, who is freckled and dressed in rumpled overalls and pigtails in my mind's eye, was apparently pregnant. According to the little window detailing the wooden shack's particulars, she just gave birth under my vigil. If her husband dies in the quarry, I am so going to dance a jig on his grave. Ewwww. Ew. Ew. This is what I get for letting foreigners into my town.

In spite of Lestellow's infestation of pedophiles, I like Banished a whole lot. It's an open-ended survival simulation jammed into a city builder, a lone developer's fevered vision of a medieval micro-management utopia and a game so steeped in that "one more turn" taste it took me six hours to yank myself free. Banished is blunt and understated, eschewing frills in favor of resource friendliness. Depending on your starting choices, temperament and aptitude for such games, Banished will either be a relaxing diversion or a reason to get quite, quite cross with your villagers' inability to stop dying.

The core premise is a familiar anthem: survive. Survive against the odds. Survive against the approaching winter, the outbreaks of dysentery, the fires and the inexorable, lethal march of age. In the beginning of every playthrough, Banished will drip a handful of families, a construct or two and a token amount of goods into your hand. After that, you're on your own. Unlike so many Civilization-sortas, Banished lacks tech trees. Everything is available from the start; you just need the resources to build them. As such, it's entirely possible to begin with a tavern, a hospital and berry-pickers. Stupid and ill-advised, perhaps. But possible. (I suppose, if nothing else, you'd be able to consign your town to a happy death.)

In that respect, Banished could be construed as rigid. Your first order of business will always pivot around fulfilling your townsfolk' vital needs: food, shelter and warmth. How you go about it, of course, is entirely up to you. Instead of constructing rickety residences for each of the families, you could play at being thrifty and build a cheap-as-opinion boarding house. Firewood is mandatory but do you raze forests to the ground or have foresters secure the lumber? And what about that thing called food? Sure, agriculture is great but there's no reason not to dip into nature's cornucopia. Mushrooms, roots and venison will feed your town just fine.

The first year in Banished is arguably the hardest. My first playthrough ended after an unexpected blizzard, my second because of the fit of rage that segued after a tornado's jaunty little visit. Banished isn't shy about punishing you for mistakes you didn't know you made. (Disclaimer: I was too impatient to slog through the tutorial. You should totally slog through the tutorial.) I spent an hour or so bleeding the surrounding wilderness for building material only to realize that foresters and quarries were the way to go. Similarly, indoctrinated to believe that my people will tell me when cabin fever hits, I ended up leaving my founding families clumped up in their homes to grow old and die together. It wasn't until a visit to Reddit that I realized that no one ever moves away from Mama unless vacant property is already present. Unfortunately, at that point, everyone was too concerned about hip problems to breed dewy-eyed rugrats. (A problem, because new life will only penetrate your town two ways: through the horizontal mambo or via retired nomads)

Still, the hiccups and the bumps you'll encounter have a weird charm to them. Banished's rhythms might be difficult to pirouette to at first but it's absolutely sublime when you do. After a few false starts, I managed to built a healthy albeit deviant community. Today, the marketplace is overflowing with goods and the storage barns are crammed to the ceiling with delectables. There's a brewery which supplies my settlement with berry wine and beer. We have a hospital and a school. The graveyard might be riddled with the bones of my mistakes but no one goes there, anyway. Ahem. Would I have enjoyed it as much if I hadn't spend all that time worriedly micro-managing everyone's careers? Would I have liked it if there were options to make it easier? No. Not at all. I carved this town from the wilderness's skin. We made it civilized. Habitable. I am city council, hear me legislate!

Which brings me to my next point. My current playthrough was supposed to be Hard. Hard. As in, takes-no-prisoners hard. But I'm coasting into my 23rd year with nary a horror story to share. I am stocked with stuff. All manners of it. I have a nagging suspicion that my settlement would be entirely safe even if I were to wander away for a few hours. And that's a troublesome issue. Banished felt absolutely intimidating at the start, what with its sprawling web work of numbers, data and promise of pinetree brutality. But that tough facade is like a burnt marshmallow. Under that blackened shell, it's rather squishy. Once you've gotten all the basic utilities running and enough necessities stockpiled away, Banished slowly migrates from kill-you-dead-city-builder to Zen garden-meets-ant-farm. In the immortal words of many people in many places, I'd really have liked it to stay harder longer.

But don't let that should stop you. I enjoy Banished and so do a lot of people. Sure, it might not be very visually rewarding but there's a certain, inarticulate pleasure to the everyday grind. You can transmogrify traders into teachers, hunters into foresters and more. The citizens-at-large are of a malleable, competent breed, the kind that require only the most basic of educations in order to power any profession you can fling at them. With the game's dismal birth rates, it's essential juggle your working population carefully especially when the harvest is slim. And it's oh-so-satisfying to pull that off, especially in the face of looming disaster.

Banished isn't Sim City. Or Dwarf Fortress. Or the upcoming Clockwork Empires. Your people won't have clever little quips; they don't have any personalities outside of whatever you assign to them in your head. There are no puns to find, no sprawling expositions or complicated narratives. Every piece of text you'll encounter in Banished is brief, perfunctory and entirely utilitarian. That said, who knows what Banished would be like after the modding community has put it through its paces? For all of Banished's problems, it's a game red-raw with potential. I keep finding myself returning to Lestellow, ever-driven by some rad new goal or another. Maybe, this time I'll see if I can grow the town into a 500-people strong city. Maybe, there'll be a trader who will give me a cow in exchange for mushrooms. Maybe, maybe.

Just mind the teen-loving itinerants.

Ew.

Banished is like the quiet kid in school: unassuming, down-to-earth but also filled with hidden depths. If you're looking for a no-nonsense city builder that demands you keep a handle on important things like food, warmth and how much beer your citizens have. Once you've figured out the basic mechanics, Banished's appeal can dip slightly but there remains something weirdly engrossing about watching the seasons pass.

3.5/5

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