• Lewis Gillingwater

Review: Before We Leave

Reviewed on: PC

Publisher: Team 17

Developer: Balancing Monkey Games

Platforms: PC

My third island on my third planet is mad at me. Little floating sad faces let me know that I have somehow upset an entire continent and they are not going to stand for it anymore. Dozens of named tiny people take a break from their hustle and bustle lives of mining resources to turn their faces to the sky and give their omnipotent builder god the collective middle finger. What they do not know is that their misery is fuelling a very happy life for hundreds of other tiny people off-world, safe and comfortable in the knowledge they are being propped up by an industrial hellscape half a solar system away.

Taking its cues from other simulation games that ask you to keep any number of cities, theme parks, hospitals or villain bases running, Before We Leave asks its players to rebuild after an apocalypse. As your Peeps emerge from underground bunkers long after the dust has settled, you are here to help guide them to rediscover technologies long-forgotten (apparently including real basics like clothing and schools), decide what gets built, manage their trade, and generally help them become a prosperous civilization again.

Starting out small, Before We Leave takes your citizens, known as Peeps, from a few houses through to a prospering city. And then, once you outgrow your island, to the next island and then to the stars as you build up and move on. Along the way, you build up trade routes and keep your Peeps on barren islands stocked with items from abundant ones, and then mimic that in space lanes and interplanetary commerce.

Before We Leave sells itself as a non-violent city builder, and that's true. The only threats here come from the occasional space whale and the trade-offs inherent in industrial production. Just how much pollution is acceptable? How much work can you reasonably make your people do in this desert? Do you build a new factory or a new orchard? The game takes all the strategy inherent in 4x games and injects moral questions which you know the right answer to, but won't necessarily choose the right answer to when you're trying to compromise between 6 continents on 3 planets and only one of them has a decent supply of food to go around.

It’s a game of balancing what resources your islands, and later planets, need at any given time to be fully prosperous, combining the crafting and tech trees and slow sense of methodical progression of games like Stardew Valley and Factorio, that satisfaction of creating a well-oiled machine of many moving parts, and the grand scale of games like SimCity and Civilization as you expand and build. For the most part, it’s a very successful combination. Complemented by an art style akin to a big board game, replete with a hex-based map, and a relaxed calming soundtrack, the game is poised to let players micromanage their little worlds with a surprising amount of depth.

But that depth comes with its downsides. Before We Leave often feels like a complex simulation striving to break out from a pastel peaceful skin. Besides the twee little houses and board game-style meeples that represent your citizens are various toggles for overlays, production graphs, and trade management. There is a comprehensive tutorial here, but one that leaves you to fend for yourself quite often. Before We Leave feels like the sort of game that, like Stardew Valley and Factorio, will be great as soon as it is augmented by a player-created wiki. Every success I had in Before We Leave felt wonderful like I was really helping these little Peeps along, but it also always felt suboptimal like I was not making the best use of the myriad systems at hand.

And for all the incredibly angry people of my island I mentioned at the start of this review, making your citizens sad does not really have that much of an impact. Sure, it slows production to a crawl, but they are not in any danger of downing tools entirely. Perhaps I just had not pushed them far enough before sympathy overtook my inner ruthless industrialist, but Peep’s approval never proved much of an obstacle beyond a minor annoyance, which seems quite tonally at odds with the game’s themes of building a better world for these people after the apocalypse.

These are minor complaints though. From a robust tech tree that will keep you slowly developing your world for many hours and 4 scenarios to play through under stricter requirements, there is more than enough content here to keep avid simulation fans busy. Even as someone who has played many city-builders and tycoon games, Before We Leave captured me with its sense of scale and its optimism about building up a world for these little Peeps to live in. There are flaws here, sure, but with systems this complex that is inevitable. With time and the dedicated player base I’m certain this combination of deep simulation and chill, cute aesthetics will find, the Peeps of Before We Leave have nothing to worry about. Except for the oil refinery I just built next to their houses, of course.