The city builder genre was quite unique when 1989’s SimCity hit the scene. It was a game with no end, something rarely (but not never) seen in those days. But there are only so many times you can maximize the density of your residential zones before it loses its grip.
2014’s Banished altered this by incorporating a survival aspect and increasing the possibility of failure. It’s been adopted by many builders since, and Against the Storm is another. And in it, we see the genre mutate further. There actually is a great deal of progression in Against the Storm that further diverges from SimCity’s “build forever” philosophy. By incorporating some aspects of the roguelite genre, it’s able to give greater meaning to your civil development strategy.
And it’s very successful, so long as you are okay with repeating the same steps a lot.
Against the Storm (PC)
Developer: Eremite Games
Publisher: Hooded Horse
Released: December 8, 2023
Against the Storm is set in a world ravaged by a deadly weather pattern known as the Blight Storm. Every few years, the eponymous storm wipes all the world clean of civilization. The last survivors are only saved by retreating to the Smoldering City, where they are protected by the powerful Scorched Queen.
You are a Viceroy of the Queen, and are sent out into the wilds to establish colonies to gather resources. This means plopping settlers down in the middle of dense forests and carving out a town with a productive industry and a happy population.
The Scorched Queen is as demanding as she is powerful. Your goal for each settlement is to build your reputation to a certain point before her patience runs out. You can keep the impatience meter under control by making steady and constant progress while also making sure her subjects are happy. Once you cap out your reputation meter (or max out her impatience), you win, and it’s onto the next settlement.
Also, the forest hates you, and you have to suppress its rage as much as possible. Against the Storm is a very layered game. I’m not going to be able to cover every facet of the game in this review.
You only get so much time to create your settlements before the Blightstorm pushes everything back to the Smoldering City, and the cycle begins again. I’m not sure if I’m slow or quick when it comes to playing Against the Storm, but I usually only get about three or four settlements before everything starts over.
As you succeed with your various towns, you get meta resources that you can use to upgrade your civil abilities. These upgrades range from starting with specific buildings or simply bonuses to trading and production. However, increasing your skills isn’t the primary objective of the game.
What keeps Against the Storm from growing stale really quickly is the fact that each settlement provides different challenges. You always start with three of the five available species of settler, and each one has different needs to keep them happy. Every time you start a map, the available resources are randomized. Even if you had a very successful settlement that thrived because of a sustainable supply line for creating pies, doesn’t mean that strategy will be viable in the next settlement. One of the ingredients might not even be found on the map, which means that pie just isn’t on the menu.
You may have to lean heavily on visiting traders who you can barter with for other supplies. If you’re short on fabric, for example, but are overproducing insects, you can trade the latter for the former. If you’re having trouble keeping your villagers happy, you can just buy a bunch of pies from the trader if they have them in stock. It’s a short-term solution, but sometimes you just need it to get you through until you can establish better infrastructure.
Likewise, the buildings you have access to are limited. You start out with the basics, then can unlock more out of a random assortment as you raise your reputation. Once again, this is an effective way of forcing you to adopt strategies based on what’s available rather than what is most effective.
While randomized elements might not be for everyone, they not only support the repetition of the town-building segment but also put more emphasis on survival. You have to adapt to the varied elements of each map. You need to learn not just the massive array of nuanced mechanics but also how to read the game and think on your feet.
Even the best survival city builders have trouble with this. There’s usually a threshold past which the survival element is diminished. You know how to keep your colony alive against any threat. But in Against the Storm, that threat is always changing. Each new grove that you cut into could reveal something you’re unprepared to face and leave you scrambling. The random nature of this never felt unfair to me, as there was always enough time to react appropriately and divert resources to solving the issue.
The final goal of Against the Storm is to connect a route of settlements to “Seals” out in the world and close it. That extends the next cycle by a number of years, which helps you reach the next Seal. There are eight Seals in all, and I’m assuming that closing the Adamantine Seal wins the overall game, but I’m not sure. I’m 40 hours in (some of which was during Early Access), and I’ve only managed to close the first.
It’s probably best to tackle Against the Storm in short bursts. I’ve been playing the Early Access version for months off and on, and it never really wore thin. Going back to it, I always could remember the basics, but some of the more complex stuff I had to relearn. Finishing one settlement, then waiting until the next day to start another, seems like the best way to play without the repetition becoming abrasive. Plus, as you advance through the prestige levels, you’ll gradually earn more and more new mechanics to learn. It’s a lot to digest.
It’s also wrapped up in a lovely whimsical package. I always love a good nature-focused fantasy, and its music is just so calming and endearing. It manages to be cute while also maintaining an appropriate gloominess.
I’m impressed by how well Against the Storm came together. There are so many facets and mechanics to it that I feel they must be hard to juggle when designing a game like this. However, they all interplay perfectly. Each one is introduced gradually and thoughtfully to ensure that you don’t get overwhelmed by all these gauges and menus. The randomized elements are probably going to bother anyone who is allergic to RNG, but the way they’re incorporated never felt frustrating or unfair to me.
Against the Storm is easily my favorite city builder to reach its full release this year. It manages to escape from the sometimes dull lack of progression felt in some other builders, while also providing a lot of depth to sink your teeth into. Because of that, it lives for far longer than most games in the genre can claim. Eremite Games has really built something special here. A very nearly perfect storm.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]