After the first few hours of Banished, I felt like I was playing Dark Souls in slow motion; one mistake can cost you everything, but it will take about forty minutes for your demise to be complete. The frustrating combination of slow pace with punishing difficulty almost put me off this game for good, but within a day I found myself drawn back into this deceptively harsh world, determined to not only survive, but thrive.
Despite the intriguing name, Banished has no story. Beyond the tutorials you have no missions, no objectives and no guidance. You simply oversee a group of exiled villagers who must draw from the randomly-generated environment to stay alive. And what an environment it is: crystal clear rivers cut through verdant grassland, herds of deer gallop through forests, and gentle snowfalls coat the countryside in a soft white blanket of snow, while warm plumes of smoke billow out of the chimneys of your villagers’ thatched cottages. The art style is beautifully idyllic, but the life of a settler is not as pleasant as it looks.
Banished’s play style is not so much city building as it is ecosystem management. People need food, shelter and warmth at a minimum, with other services such as taverns and graveyards to keep them happy. This sounds basic enough, but there are a lot of ways that it can go wrong. Unlike other strategy games, this world tends not to find a natural equilibrium—for example, population growth will not level off to match food production. If you don’t keep up with food production your people will begin to starve, but as these people include your food producers, this hinders your food production even more. The same is true of firewood shortages; villagers freeze to death, leaving fewer villagers to gather enough firewood to supply the rest, and so it goes on. All too often, the tiniest problem can quickly snowball into a death spiral that is practically impossible to escape.
Also, not supplying enough tools to your workers will damage their productivity, leading to shortages that cause freezing or starvation. Similarly, welcoming nomads into your village causes a small population spike that may strain your resources enough in the short term to kick off any one of these death spirals. Even going for too long without children being born results decades later in the ageing workforce dying off with nobody old enough to replace them. The only way I survived—after many cataclysmic attempts—was by stockpiling ridiculous amounts of resources, while monitoring production and consumption rates at the town hall so I would have enough margin for error to react before anyone died. In Banished, prevention is not only better than the cure; there is no cure. Once that first villager drops, the game is pretty much over.
Banished would be much more manageable if jobless labourers could do more to look after themselves. Even if this weren’t automated, adding a button to command them to hunt or gather all food resources in a set area—much like the existing buttons for harvesting other resources—would help to provide damage control if starvation was starting to look likely. Also, production buildings such as tailors require too much babysitting, requiring the player to manually switch them from one output to another once raw materials for the former run dry. If people are freezing to death because they’re out of wool, the tailor shouldn’t have to be told to switch to leather. In a game where a potential issue can become a full-blown crisis in seconds, the player can’t afford to get bogged down in micromanagement.
How addictive and enjoyable you find Banished depends largely on your appetite for punishment and amount of free time. If you’re the type of person with the patience to successfully bake a soufflé, this might just be the game for you. If rolls of raw cookie dough are more your style, you might want to try something a little faster and more forgiving.