Before We Leave is anything but your simple and ordinary city building game. This game has a surprising to find depth hidden behind the cutesy graphics and goofy citizens.
For me when I am not chasing the next frag in an FPS like Rainbow Six Siege or hoping to get that epic boss loot in an RPG, I find comfort in city builders. There is usually no story, no dialogue, no combat, and no stress. It is a perfect way to unwind from a high-stress gaming session.
In full disclosure I was aware of Before We Leave as an Epic Games store exclusive release on May 8, 2020. Flash-forward a year and a few days, developer Balancing Monkey Games along with publisher Team17, launched the game on Steam. Last summer, during the era of pandemic lockdowns I remember seeing some streamers playing the game. I spent what amounted to no more than a few minutes watching before I wrote the game off as a cute little city builder and jumped to another stream. After spending many hours playing the game, I regret not spending more time last summer checking out the game.
City Builder? More Like Civilization Builder!
4X games are all about explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. City builders are all about taking some piece of land and building a massive cityscape. Before We Leave combines elements of the two genres in an unconventional way all the while still providing a fun civilization management experience without any violence.
At the game’s start you will see your villagers emerge from an underground shelter where they had been riding out some long forgotten horrific galactic event from centuries past. Now these villagers or “Peeps” are ready to reclaim the surface, rediscover old technologies, and build up civilizations.
The first buildings you will want to construct are the explorers hut, used to gather ancient technology, and a library to research and use technologies. In fact research is the foundation of the game. Before you can move to a new island, blast off into space, or improve the lives of your Peeps you will have to do a lot of research.
Beyond those initial buildings common elements of city building and resource management take shape. Peeps will want homes, need food and water, and something to do. All you have to do is make sure they can gather the materials and then tell them what to build while opening up more through research. Note that all buildings will need roads. Road planning with the hexagonal tiles design is a must and often a bit frustrating.
On the starting island there is a handy building called the transmogrifier, located near the shelter, which is the only source of tools until metalworking. An old wood burning power plant in need of repairs will help with power needs. And lastly a derelict ship awaits those brave enough to explore.
Islands, Planets and Space Whales?
Repairing the ship lets you explore the world and colonize a new island. These new islands may offer new biomes, challenges, research, and resources.
To colonize an island all I had to do was pull up the ship and drop a port. At this point the standard city build loop went on repeat. Build and gather more research to unlock shipwrights and ports. This unlocks the important trade ship. Not all islands are created equal in terms of resources and to help with overabundance or lack thereof, trade ships can move goods from island to island.
New islands create new challenges. In my case this was the desert tile biome. Peeps don’t like the heat and it is not good for crops or water. One thing to note and that is every colony must have a library in order to build any non-basic buildings.
Peep happiness had also become an issue. Pollution and gloomy buildings will make Peeps sad. Keeping Peeps happy means they are more productive. For example clothing research will protect Peeps and keep them happy when crossing desert tiles. As the population grows past certain thresholds they will expect better goods and luxury items. A cheap fix to boost happiness for me was smart placement of fountains.
If you are lucky like I was then your second island will have a derelict spaceship. No spaceship, well, looks like you will need to colonize more islands until you find it. Once you have the hefty list of items for repairs the final frontier awaits. Blast off into space and pick a planet to colonize.
Your new world can have different biomes such as the swamp and new research types. There might even be some old electronics to gather and several other surprises. Upon landing once again the standard loop begins. Research eventually leads to space ports, launch pads, and a space elevator for more planetary colonization and trading.
At this point you will have potentially several islands on at least two planets. The UI here is a big help when quickly switching between worlds. Trying to manually move yourself around the world can become somewhat disorienting. Once more the alerts can let you quickly jump to the appropriate location and address the issue of concern.
Space whales? Yes, space whales! Did I mention they are hungry and like to eat planets? Hopefully if you encounter one it is when you have the proper counter measures built to feed the beast something that isn’t your world. If not, then you might be rebuilding some stuff.
Before I Leave
Before We Leave is a fun and charming civilization builder. The game strikes a fine balance between simplicity and complicated enough to create depth that doesn’t fully overwhelm the player. One might argue that the game’s simplicity was the developer playing it safe. I would argue it was a bold move that allowed Balancing Monkey Games to focus on specific details to really bring out the fun and turn up the joy.
At a graphics level the Peeps are fairly basic. Even their voice lines are a simple mumble, however, it fits quite well with their quirkiness. The same goes for the buildings and environment. For example mountains where stone comes from are obviously old skyscrapers. Buildings and their upgraded architecture is often charming and blends well with the post galactic event world.
The game is full of little happy details that will spark joy. For me one that stands out is when I had a happy home of Peeps who were really rocking out. Both the music jam and moment was unexpected and just one of those many little details the developer go so very right. If you are looking for a fun city builder give Before We Leave a chance.
Notes: The PC key provided for this Before We Leave review was provided by Team17.