The grinding gears of Clockwork Empires

, | Game reviews

If I was to make a game that I didn’t want anyone to actually play, it would look a lot like Clockwork Empires. A torturous interface with lots of busy little buttons and information spilled across various mutually exclusive screens. Basic tasks that require about two too many steps. Lots of waiting among the various stages of any process, so when you went off to do something else, you might forget the first thing you were doing. One way doors into unrecoverable economic death spirals that you don’t know you’re in until it’s far too late.

Also, it would crash a lot.

After the jump, steamedpunk

It seems like Clockwork Empires has been in early access forever. I’ve held off playing what seemed like a really clever city builder slash resource management slash survival crafting slash Victorian Sims slash Lovecraftian horror game, because I wanted to wait until it was officially released. Or “finished” as we used to say in the olden days. I should have kept waiting. If this is the official release, I can’t imagine what a mess early access must have been. This is the sort of thing I expect in the early stages of early access.

Although it wears its distinct steampunk theming proudly if not erratically, Clockwork Empires fits a familiar mold. The basic concept is very Prison Architect (which is itself very Dwarf Fortress, but I wouldn’t know), although with resource gathering and crafting you wouldn’t do if you ran a prison. But like Prison Architect, you drag-select the size and shape of a specific type of building. A barracks, a house, a kitchen, and so on. Then you determine its efficacy by putting furniture in the building. A gun cabinet in the barrack, a bed in the house, an oven in the kitchen, and so on. Now put someone in charge of the building, and you’re off!

There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, despite pretty good tooltips, a helpful enough tutorial, and even a decent ingame manual. But it’s not enough because of the haphazard way the game is put together. For instance, your first order of business is to feed your people. Your only starting options are foraged mushrooms and farmed corn. The kitchen turns these into mushroom stew and corn soup, but it’s not enough to keep your people satisfied. They want more complex food, such a fruit or vegetable medley. But you can’t plant fruits or vegetables until you research them at the laboratory, which is far down the resource chain. So you persevere, try to offset colonist dietary discontent with other stuff, and maybe make a beeline for laboratories. Maybe you figure out you can set a naturalist to hunt for a little meat thrown into the pantry. But it’s not enough. You can’t get to laboratories fast enough (see below) and hunting naturalists aren’t very effective. After two or three economic death spirals, you will eventually discover by poring over tooltips that Clockwork Empires thinks corn is a vegetable. Two bushels of corn make a vegetable medley.

Protip: corn is not a vegetable.

Armed with the knowledge that I’m in an alternate universe where corn is the sole ingredient in a “vegetable” , it’s relatively easy to feed your people. So on to game three or four. Clockwork Empires provides lot of helpful feedback, if you know where to look. But it often fails to tell you what to do with that feedback, and it’s certainly not intuitive. Now that they’re fed, your settlers’ happiness will plummet and their fear will skyrocket as they complain about being in danger. “We’re being recklessly endangered,” they complain. -32 happiness! So you do everything you can to boost the barracks you already built. More gun cabinets. More appeal decorations. More laborers. But to no avail. The people get increasingly afraid, which means they work fewer shifts, which means they gather and produce less, which means you slip into another economic death spiral. There goes another game. You eventually discover that a barracks has a setting for whether to patrol during the daytime or at night. You can only pick one or the other. Turns out you need two barracks. One for the daytime soldiers, another for the nighttime soldiers. Clockwork Empires doesn’t really tell you this.

On to your next game. Now that the people are fed and adequately protected, you’ll need glass for your pub, your lab, your windows, your furniture, and so on. Glass is important. It’s made from sand, of course. Where’s the sand on the map? Set your naturalist to explore. Nope, no sand there. No sand over there. No sand here. And you didn’t select a map with desert because who wants to settle a desert? There goes your fifth or sixth game, even though you’d figured out the bit about corn and multiple barracks. Eventually, you’ll discover that sand comes from a mine. Yep, you mine sand in Clockwork Empires. Must be a steampunk thing.

In your next game, you’re building a mine, only to discover that your naturalist needs a ton of paper in order to survey a geological node or some such thing. Eventually the mine starts producing sand, which makes glass, and at long last, a game is well underway toward meeting the goal of a certain population threshold, which will unlock harder starting conditions. This is pretty much as far as I’ve made it, because here comes an airship crash random event. It crashes so hard that the game tells me this:

clockwork_empires_crash

This isn’t the first time Clockwork Empires has showed me that. Yes, yes, Clockwork Empires, I know, just like before. Luckily, the autosaves mean I don’t lose too much progress. But this time when the game loads up, all my food is gone. Furthermore, something is happening where my cooks aren’t producing more food. Is it something in the tooltips? Is it related to the airship crash? What has caused this latest economic death spiral?

And all the while, through these six or seven restarted games along the long plodding slog trying to figure out what’s what, even on what is supposed to be the easiest introductory difficulty, Clockwork Empires has forced me through one of the most tortuous interfaces I have ever banged my fingers against. It’s amazing that the game came through a long early access period and still ended up this way. How do you release a game when the simple and frequent act of adding furniture to a building takes this many steps across this many separate screens? How do you implement a minimap this useless? How do you not include a single useful hotkey other than the spacebar to pause?

There are reasons to play. The interplay of different empires offmap with shifting alliances. The nod to cosmic horror, although this seems to be mostly occasional attacks by weird creatures. The deeper you dig a mine (they’re eventually good for more than just sand), the closer you get to the abyss and whatever critters are down there. Occasional multiple choice events. Colonists might go mad if you make the wrong choice. And there’s just plenty of good ol’ resource management, watching colorful supplies carried around, stacked up, doled out.

It’s just too bad there are so many more reasons not to play.

  • Clockwork Empires

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Finger torture masquerading as a steampunk city builder resource management Sims game.
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