Banished is a city builder for people who haven’t played city builders and therefore don’t know what they’re missing. It doesn’t do anything that about a half dozen other city builders haven’t already done better. It’s Tropico stripped of any flavor, or Anno stripped of its elaborate economic interdependences, or Children of the Nile minus any of Tilted Mill’s insight into the genre, or Settlers without the hearty Germanic personality, or Stronghold without the castle. It’s a bare bones proof-of-concept without any larger gameplay framework, like one of those version .097 betas that might come together as a modest little game in about six months to a year.
After the jump, your town
The biggest obstacle keeping Banished from being a competent city builder is the lack of information to help you make choices. Instead, you make choices that might as well be coin flips. Do you grow apples or walnuts in your orchard? What good does it do to buy extra seeds when you can already provide enough food with the crops you’ve got? How many people should work at the trading post? What good are all those mushrooms in your storage barn and how are they different from the onions? Should you make your ale out of berries or potatoes? How many herbalists does a town of fifty need? What do you need to do to make your people happy? Why are they unhappy? Why are they unhealthy?
What will initially be mistaken for difficulty is merely obfuscation. If you can’t sustain a town, it’s because the game hasn’t given you information. See the above questions. Not knowing the answers is what makes Banished challenging. You may, however, stumble across the answers, at which point your town is thriving. Now you’re watching the years creep by without any reason to watch the years creep by. Alternatively, you can probably find some sort of wiki to get you more quickly to the “watching the years creep by” level. “Why are you playing?”, one of the most fundamental questions for any game to answer, is yet another bit of information missing from Banished.
You can get some marginally helpful data once you build an expensive building called a town hall. Do you have the stone to spare? A button called a pathfinding tool is helpful for showing you that the game really needed diagonal roads. The interface consists mostly of clicking on tiny arrows to rejigger who’s doing what job, which reveals that job security isn’t a facet of Banished. You just shunt people into whatever building you need staffed at any given moment. There is no identity for these named people, who will be teachers one moment, farmers the next, and gatherers the moment after that. It’s like Tropico, but shuffled every two minutes. Fortunately, you don’t have to consider the job whiplash you’re inflicting, because it’s all on a central panel that might as well be a spreadsheet. Here’s how the experience of Banished looks most of the time:
The pacing is terrible. Here I am waiting for a child to grow up. Other city builders know how to keep your attention while you wait for a child to grow up, or a pile of gold to get big enough to buy a town hall, or more people to move into a house. Anno throws little quests at you. Children of the Nile lets you give your nobles different tasks or check the overworld map. Simcity Societies gives individual buildings specific powers. Dwarf Fortress splays before you its exhaustive detail. These games know that a player’s attention is a precious commodity, that we want to be entertained, involved, engaged by making decisions, drawn into our cities instead of just hovering above them. City builders cannot simply be anthills. They must also be interactive toyboxes. But Banished, a game so streamlined that no resource chain is longer than two links, hopes to occupy you with the swirling snow of its eternally recurring winters. Which is lovely in a Currier and Ives way, but it can only get you so far. I don’t have any Currier and Ives artwork in the house myself, since I don’t really find staring at winter wonderlands particularly entertaining. I got my fill of that in Skyrim, which was better documented.
What really kills Banished for me is the overwhelming sense of pointlessness. There are no goals, no scenarios, no unlockables, no longterm luxury goods or endgame wonders or upper level populations or advanced buildings. There is no finale. There is, instead, a world without end. When your people all starve to death, the clock keeps running. There will be no score, no stats, no records, no monuments, no sign that you were ever even here. It is always and only one of those sandbox games that’s more sandbox than game.