All Hail The Fishmen
I have to give it to ’em. Gaslamp Games (of Dungeons of Dredmor fame) is one of the few companies to really do Early Access right. Throughout the last two years of Clockwork Empires’ development on Steam, the dev team has been responsive, communicative, and proactive in fixing bugs and implementing the features that users wanted to see. Now that they’re finally ready to release their final product, I want to take a moment to stop and appreciate how rare it is to see Steam’s most exploitable system actually done right for once.
As for the finished product itself, well, it’s…it’s okay. It’s a fun little strategy game that mostly delivers on the promise of its Lovecraftian premise. If you’re a big fan of citybuilders and haven’t picked up Civilization VI yet for some reason, you’ll probably enjoy its quirky narrative and micromanagement gameplay. But if you’re not already in love with the genre, I can’t say I see Clockwork Empires doing much for you.
Let’s get right into it. As a Colony Bureaucrat, you take control of a Frontier Colony of a steampunk version of Victorian England known as the Clockwork Empire, responsible for building buildings, keeping villagers happy, and making “Important Decisions” involving Occult Investigators and the Menacing Fishpeople. The game is Very Fond of Capital Letters, but don’t let that put you off – I found the writing to be very charming and often funny. The game doesn’t have a story, per se, but important events in your playthrough are chained together through a loose narrative of Event Arcs, and the flavor text in the tutorial, descriptions, and notifications is full of dark humor I personally found quite amusing.
You can also name your colonists, which is always fun, and don’t worry – as you can see in the image above, I made sure to bring back Hey Poor Podcast fan favorite Scrungo Jerry.
The gameplay is fairly complex, as you’d expect from a strategy game of this type. Basically, you start in a randomly-generated location with a handful of starting supplies and a group of Overseers and Laborers. Overseers are the villagers you can actually control and name, the bulk of your workforce, while Laborers are essentially productivity boosts – you assign them to work for an Overseer and they help that person perform the task you’ve assigned them a little bit faster or more effectively.
Control over these Overseers is much more finicky than I feel like it should be. Instead of controlling them directly, you can assign them to work at a specific building or simply wander around the environment, and you can set tasks that will be picked up by the nearest Overseer who isn’t already busy or on break. This means there’s no way to prioritize tasks, and often construction projects that I really needed to be finished would sit undone while my Overseers chopped more wood I didn’t need or collected food I already had a ton of or sat around and chatted on their break (what kind of Empire is this, anyway?) With no way to assign specific tasks to specific Overseers, all I could do was sit and watch as the barracks I needed to defeat the Fishmen sat unfinished for ages.
The obvious solution to this problem is to only assign one task at a time and then only assign the next one when an Overseer’s at least started the first, but this contributes to a bigger problem with Clockwork Empires‘ gameplay: there’s an awful lot of waiting. You have to wait through the nights where colonists don’t do anything but sleep; you have to wait to build buildings until you’ve flattened the terrain because you always seem to start in the hilliest location possible; you have to wait for your colonists to build the materials you need to build the thing you really want to build, et cetera ad nauseam. Though there is a button that makes the game go twice as fast (which in my opinion you should press as soon as the game starts), I can still see why some of the Steam reviews mention they like to play the game in another window and check in on it every 20 minutes or so.
What’s more, on your first few playthroughs of the game, it’s often unclear what you actually need to be doing. I know my colonists will be happier if I put these fancy new windows in their home, but doing so requires some resource that’s only represented as a small white box with no label. It looks like glass, but it’s not any of the types of glass my ceramics workshop can produce right now, and I’m not sure what oven or workbench will unlock that particular technology. Plus, I’ve run out of room in said workshop, so now I have to hope good ol’ Scrungo can take a break from his busy landscaping to build me a new one that can fit whatever the new workbench is. To Clockwork Empire’s credit, there’s a fairly robust wiki that answers a lot of these questions, but I don’t particularly enjoy pausing a game to go read an instruction manual, especially when the problem could easily be solved by including a label that says “Glass Planes (requires sand bushel, brick ceramics kiln)”.
In addition to the usual resources of food, wood, and minerals, you also have to manage your colonists’ happiness. This is where the game starts to become something more unique, as failure to keep your workers satisfied can lead to them starting a cult, attacking your other workers, or even going insane and resorting to cannibalism. Much of the time it’s an interesting mechanic that helps contribute to the game’s subtly Lovecraftian atmosphere, but it can also be infuriating, like when the AI goes nuts and your villagers who were at full happiness a moment ago kill each other over minor slights. And it often spirals out of control – if one of your villagers gets angry and attacks another, that can traumatize the victim, causing them to join a cult that starts turning your best Overseers into Fishmen, and the next thing you know most of your workforce is gone.
And you know what that means.
The game is also host to a number of technical issues. Some of these, like the notoriously bad user interface, the devs have promised to fix post-launch – something I believe they’ll deliver on based on their two-year track record thus far. However, I haven’t heard anything about fixing the framerate issues (which are annoying but not game-breaking), or the excessively long loading times that you have to sit through every ten minutes when the game autosaves, or the numerous problems with the AI. Among these: pathfinding that occasionally causes them to spend several seconds trying to walk into a solid wall, Overseers throwing consumables randomly onto the stockpile until another Overseer comes along to pick them up, the ridiculous conga line of civilians being chased by enemies who are being chased by soldiers until everybody finally dies.
Most of the problems I’ve outlined here are annoyances, not things which outright break the game. If you can sit out the waiting and once you’ve figured out the tech tree, you’re still left with a mostly fun and inventive strategy game with beautiful graphics, music, and presentation. I’ve chosen not to spoil some or the more fun and interesting mechanics, like what happens when bandits set up camp in your town, but rest assured there’s a lot more to the game than meets the eye, and it all builds at a fairly reasonable pace once it gets going. Plenty of people have already sunk hundreds of hours into Clockwork Empires, and now that it’s officially released I can only imagine the people who like it will find even more to love.
But I don’t think it’s a game for everyone. At the very least, you might consider waiting for a Steam sale.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Gaslamp Games, Inc; Developer: Gaslamp Games, Inc; Players: 1 ; Released: October 26, 2016 ; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Clockwork Empires given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.