An Instant Town-builder
It’s been a big year for solo indie developer Oskar Stålberg — having used his “ridiculously long Swedish parental leave“ to bring Townscaper out of Early Access and into a full release, he’s also partnered with Raw Fury to port the tiny town-builder to the Switch. Also, you know, he’s been enjoying his time with the newest addition to his family (congrats!).
I first discovered Townscaper last year; like its sudden, surprising full release, its original Early Access launch was a quiet one with little fanfare, yet it was immensely popular right off the bat. There was something special about this “game,” and I knew that I had to see for myself what it was.
At first glance, there really isn’t much to Townscaper, and I mean that quite literally — just a wide open ocean and a color palette off to the left side. But clicking on one of the colors enables players to start building their mini metropolis, adding color-coordinated buildings one at a time. First, the concrete supports rise up from the water, then the buildings themselves, little brick structures with doors, windows, roofs, and more.
As players add more and more buildings in all sorts of combinations, more markings of a city begin to appear. Birds nest on the rooftops, boots, benches, and chairs appear by the doorsteps, and clotheslines run from window to window. Although there are no little townspeople to be seen, Townscaper starts filling up quickly and quaintly.
As is par for the course with these sandbox type of games, everything that a person is able to do in Townscaper is realized within the first five or so minutes of gameplay. If building massive structures in Minecraft sounds less fun than pulling teeth, than Townscaper is probably not going to be your cup of coarse, rough, and irritating. Unlike other sandbox games, however, this is a little builder that holds more discovery than initially meets the eye. For example, if you make a full ring of buildings, a park will appear in the middle of them. If you place two unconnected buildings of the same color next to each other, a clothesline will feature clothing of the buildings’ color. Townscaper isn’t just about creating to the player’s vision, but also discovering how the inhabitants settle within.
In this sense, Townscaper feels a lot more alive than your average sandbox city-builder, which is no small feat considering you never so much as even hear a peep from the citizens. It’s almost as if there’s a positive feedback loop going on between you and the game — players build, and the city reacts to your placement, settling in around your choices. I’m not sure I’ve played anything like it.
Unfortunately, I do have a few little issues I wish could have been ironed out before full release. For one, the original trailer did show buildings being rapidly placed in a sort of like “click once and drag in a line” fashion, but that’s not possible in gameplay. I get needing to painstakingly place little buildings here and there to make masterpieces, but that was something I was really looking forward to.
Second, I really wish we could have been able to choose more than the few colors available in the palette. Having a color dropper with a big swath of the rainbow to choose from would have really opened up so many more creative options for this tiny town-builder, and I think it would have also meant more artistic approaches to the game, like making pixel art in digital brick and mortar form.
One complaint I did have when I first previewed the game was rectified, which was the lack of WASD as camera controls. Those have since been added since the original early access release, and it’s made a world of difference in getting the perfect shot.
Despite any perceived issues, Townscaper is an extremely chill little game that brings out the best in both creative and non-creative types alike. It’s easy to just pour a few minutes into it, then back out and see other creations and realize just how much potential there is in these little buildings. If sandbox type games aren’t normally your thing, this might actually be the one to turn you. In the very least, you can do a lot worse for six bucks.
Townscaper is minimalist in every sense of the word — minimalist gameplay, minimalist UI, minimalist sound — but the sheer amount of potential hidden within this title defies its style. If you’re looking for a new obsession or a nice little title to play during lunch breaks or just before bed, Townscaper is the soothing sandbox town-builder that will do the trick. The town-building aspect may be instantaneous, but you’ll soon learn you spend an awful lot of time discovering all the little signs of life that spring up along the way.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Raw Fury; Developer: Oskar Stålberg; Players: 1; Released: August 26, 2021; MSRP: $5.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Townscaper purchased by the reviewer.