Clockwork Empires Review

Reviews
4 months ago by Jon Bolding

There's fish-people in them there hills

Elsa Oatcorn is dreaming of a desert city, withered and lifeless, though leathery corpse-figures still walk there. It is a beckoning to a deeper horror, older than her civilization: The great Clockworkian Empire. I tell her to ignore the dream and go do a lot of laudanum at the pub instead. We never speak of the dreams again.

These are the kinds of little moments just off the beaten path in Clockwork Empires. Much of the game is city-building and colony management, but not all of it - it blends in crafted stories and emergent events. It has a whimsical art style, combining eldritch horror and a Victorian steampunk flair with a lovely sense of humor. Over the course of the game you build a colony of people, each with wants and needs, and manage the expansion and defense of the little township they live in. It has many of the pitfalls of other games like it: A user interface not quite up to the complexity of its systems. A pace that often leaves you waiting, bored, for colonists to undertake the commands you’ve given. Still, if you’re willing to tolerate a small learning curve you’ll find a delightful game full of interesting strategy and clever story details.

Sidestepping the aesthetic frippery and ignorance of history that steampunk often wears proudly, Clockwork Empires instead does a great job of emphasizing the feel of an industrial revolution. Five people with steam-and-aether-powered tools can do the work of twenty with conventional tools. For the most part, though, the game favors period-appropriate tools and equipment over steampunk contraptions and fashion.

A Victorian colonial fantasy is a charged concept, involving the displacement (at best!) or oppression and genocide (more likely!) of native people. Clockwork Empires sidesteps the historical trappings by fictionalizing the European analogs is uses, and by including people of all kinds in its cast of characters. There are no native people on this new and unknown continent you travel to. No human native people, that is, because there are horrid Lovecraftian fish-people who serve the game as a sort of lurking chaos and, later, greater threat. Clockwork Empires does not make the mistake of casting the fish-people into a human culture analog of any kind - though you can open diplomacy of a sort with them, they’re distinctly and fantastically non-human.

Into this whimsical world steps you, a bureaucrat in charge of developing a colony on far-away shores. With a cohort of colonists deposited into more-or-less the middle of the wilderness via airship, you call the shots on what land to level, what timber to fell, and what ores to mine. Difficulty is tied to where your colony is in the new world. Each biome has its own unique crops to be farmed, assortment of animals, and native flora, which changes what you have to trade for to survive and what your colonists can produce at speed.  A tropical colony is harder than a temperate biome because it has more hostile wildlife, and a desert’s lack of trees - for wood - and frequent heat waves make it harder than both.

You spend most of your time planning: Plan out the buildings colonists live and work in, developing their tools and decor to maximize either your aesthetic pleasure or, more likely, their productivity. Plan out where to gather resources. Plan out what to use them to build. You do not, by contrast, have much control over what your colonists do with their time.

Most of your control comes in knowing what resources you have available and how to spend them at a rate which will allow you to manageably increase your population. You must queue up and place each individual bed or cabinet your colonists need - it’s fun at first, but the pleasure of interior design starts to wane when you’re using the same handful of components to design your tenth cabin. Add that to the bright, overcrowded interface for placing furniture and I quickly found myself resorting to a standard layout.

Clockwork Empires’ best innovation, which will hopefully become a colony-builder staple, is work crews. In true Victorian fashion, colonists are divided up into social classes that define their role in the game world.,. Middle class colonists head up work crews based on their skills and character traits, and each can be assigned a handful of lower class workers to drag along. You can leave these crews unassigned, in which case they’ll handle general tasks like cutting trees or gathering your resources into stockpiles. Primarily, though, you assign them to specific workshop buildings, like carpenters or ceramicists, where they’ll undertake whatever you’ve queued up. Unlike most other games in the genre, that’s the entire extent of telling your people what to do.

It’s a nice twist, allowing you to have a finite cast of important characters - your overseers - but still have a big, bustling colony with a hundred or more citizens. There’s no assigning tasks on an individual basis, nor is there specifically telling certain characters to only mine, haul resources, or cut wood - hell, you can only very broadly customize what colonists will store in your resource stockpiles. Clockwork Empires eschews that kind of micromanagement in favor of having you manage precisely what equipment is available, what meals are cooked, and what tools are built. You try to set up the best workflow for your colonists in the hope that they’ll get things done as efficiently as possible.

There are, however, a few roadblocks between you and the efficient conversion of the Untamed Wilderness to Civilized Territory. There are entertaining and humorous storylines involving dark and eldritch cults, foreign powers, and inter-colonial squabbles. As these events happen, you as manager must decide which member of your colony will deal with them - presuming that kind of specialist is available. Need a scientist to go inspect an airship crash? I hope you’ve got a laboratory built. Much of the game is about managing your colony’s readiness to deal with these events when they arise, ensuring that you’ve got a stock of food for when your best cook joins a cult and has to be executed, or plenty of ammunition for when a fish-person raid comes. Much of your desire to progress up the game’s technology ladder also stems from readiness - after one airship crashes in your territory and you’ve got no foreign office to deal with it, you’ll probably build a foreign office earlier next time. Playing to see these varied events is much of the game’s appeal - their writing and execution is top shelf.

While the events and storylines the game kicks up are quite good, the systems of colonist behavior and personality feel pretty lacking. They are, in short, a matter of balancing numbers and ensuring that commodities are available. Too many sadness factors and a colonist might break down and stop working for a day or two, too many anger factors and they might storm off in a rage and... stop working for a day or two. On lower difficulties it doesn’t have too much of an impact - other than to slow down colonists’ progress towards finishing whatever it is you’ve got queued up for them.

Those speed bumps are a real pain, because Clockwork Empires takes time. You run on double speed, but even double speed isn’t that fast. It takes fifteen or so hours to build up a big, thriving colony, but more than a few of those are going to be spent waiting for workers to get around to your queue of tasks. Interesting events will occasionally crop up and disrupt the crawl towards progress, but much of the game is spent planning and then... waiting. It’s not an innately boring game, but some will find it so.

Because the game’s pace is slow, it just can’t be that difficult in the way this kind of game often is. It takes five or more hours to get your colony out of the early stages of the game and into making metal equipment, then five more before you’re building your first steam contraptions. A particularly catastrophic famine, set of temper tantrums, or raid story arc during this time can set you back an hour of gameplay or more.

If you could realistically lose, it’d be awfully frustrating repeating the early game over and over, but you can’t really lose. Not meaningfully. The worst thing that happened to me was an attack that set my colony back some forty citizens - brutal, but the remainder soldiered on, as did I. Though frustrated, I knew it would take longer to start a new colony and rebuild all my infrastructure than it would to wait for the next wave of immigrants.

Despite its flaws, Clockwork Empires is a unique game, packed with potential for optimizers and strategists. Its more sedate pace and ease of play invite beginners to try their hand, but those with more time to put into the game will get the most out of it. If you love this kind of game, you should definitely try it. If you like steampunk, cosmic horror, and strategy games, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. In the end, I think my time with it left me hungry for more, and I’ll get that. Gaslamp Games proved in the past that they support titles after release, and I’d be truly shocked if this game didn’t get tweaks, improvements, and additional content well into the future.

(Oh, and a note on technical performance: Early Access play of this game was rife with bugs and crashes, as well as features that hadn’t been implemented. I didn’t have this experience in the final review build, and my game worked quite well for over 20 hours, no crashes or significant gameplay bugs.

It does not have enough hotkeys and shortcuts, however. I find this a forgivable sin, but if you are a hotkey fiend, you have been warned.)

Clockwork Empires by Gaslamp Games is available on PC and Mac.