The RTS genre, once the king of all PC games, has been relegated to the sidelines for the past decade or so. You’ll still see its roots in the new genres that it spawned, like the MOBAs and Tower Defense games that are now ubiquitous, but an honest to goodness RTS is few and far between. Indeed the last true RTS I reviewed was almost 2 years ago now and since then there hasn’t been anything that has caught my fancy. However that changed when They Are Billions caught my eye when it popped up as one of the top games in my State of the Game post series. Now I typically steer clear of Early Access titles, reviewing before 1.0 always feels a little premature, but given that the hubbub surrounding the game didn’t seem to be dying down I figured it was probably worth a look in.
17 hours later I can report that it is, even if it still has the rough edges that comes with Early Access.
They Are Billions is set in the distant future where a great zombie apocalypse has destroyed almost all of civilisation, leaving but a few thousand behind. Your job is simple: survive 100 days in this world by building up a colony that can withstand the raging hordes of zombies that will come after you. To do so you’ll need to gather food for your workers, gather materials to build defenses and buildings, and train an army to fend off the dead. It all sounds easy right? Everything does until there’s a horde of zombies kicking in your door.
The game’s visual steampunk aesthetic has a slight dream like feel to it, I think partially due to the fact that it’s all hand drawn and animated. Make no mistake though the hand drawn part doesn’t mean a lack of detail as you can zoom in ludicrously close if you want to try and pixel peep on your units. The engine powering it is a custom one developed by Numantian Games and is apparently capable of handling quite a lot of units on-screen. Certainly the game didn’t miss a beat on my PC, handling the larger zombie invasions without breaking a sweat. Those hoping for Linux and OSX versions will be disappointed though as it’s a .NET based engine and the developers aren’t particularly interested in trying to optimise it for those platforms in the near term. For us of the Windows PC master race however we can get this in up to glorious 4K resolution, if that’s your thing.
They Are Billions is a combination of RTS, city building and roguelike game elements. The game takes place in real time and the base building, whilst comparable to your typical RTS affair, feels a lot closer to city builders like Banished than it would a true RTS. The roguelike elements come mostly from the random map generation which, depending on what seed you get, can make your life incredibly easy or frustratingly hard. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from playing a map for 5 minutes, seeing what you’ve got to work with and restarting if you don’t like what you see. There’s upgrades to be researched, tech trees to unlock and various different types of army units all of which have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. All in all it’s a pretty competent RTS, something I didn’t expect given the fact it’s PVE only.
The game currently has no tutorial to speak of so after selecting your map preferences (more on that later) you’ll be dropped unceremoniously into a game with a command center, 5 troops and a whole lot of questions. The basics are relatively easy to figure out: there’s primary resource categories like wood and stone, secondary resources like workers and food and the ultimate limiting factor: gold. Anything you build will draw from all 3 of these resource pools and different tiers will have different requirements. Bases have a power grid which can be extended through the use of Tesla Towers which limits where you can build things (even unpowered defenses, for some reason). This usually means that you’ll be able to expand aggressively up until a point where you’re short of a critical resource. It’s at that point you have to figure out what you need and whether or not your current territory can provide it. If not you need to expand and thus you must venture forth into the unknown.
Here is where the game sets out its first challenge for you. The map is littered with zombies, some by themselves and others in groups. Some of them wander around and, when you’re unlucky enough, one of them will stumble into your colony. If you’ve got some defenses around you’ll know but often it’s not possible to have every approach guarded or fenced off. So the first dozen or so games are likely to end in tragedy because a single zombie got through, managed to infect one tent or other structure and the infected multiplied out of control from there. If you’re also unlucky enough to stumble across one of the zombie towns (which look like theme parks for some reason) you could also unwittingly bring a horde of zombies down on yourself with your only hope being that they stop chasing you once you’re out of vision range. This by itself would provide enough challenge to keep most players interested for a good while but They Are Billions doesn’t stop there.
Oh sweet jesus it doesn’t stop there.
Every 10 days or so you’ll be treated to a wave of infected coming at you from an area of the map (north/east/south/west). It’s up to you to guess which side of your colony they end up on and you’ll have a limited amount of time to ready your defenses before they get there. The first few waves can be easily dealt with by your original troops and a wood wall but the numbers get exponentially larger from there. The size of these hordes can be changed by a setting when you set up the map (as can be the number of zombies that are scattered around) but even then if you misjudge where they’re coming from or don’t have the proper defenses in place when they get there it can be all over quicker than you’d think. Indeed several of my games ended because the horde figured out that one section, even though it was a much longer route to get to, was much less defended than my other parts and blasted through my woeful defenses. I’m sure the waves get absolutely terrifying beyond the 70 day mark but I honestly couldn’t tell you because I never got there.
I did eventually manage to get a good strategy in place but the problem is that, in order to endure the later waves, you must expand in order to tech up sufficiently. This increases your attack surface and thus, the more defenses required to keep it in check. There is, of course, an equilibrium point but I only managed to reach that after numerous failed games and several difficulty notches down from the standard. It was at this point where I started to grow tired of the game and decided to leave it at that. Honestly with 17+ hours in the game I don’t think that’s a bad thing, indeed I’ve put down higher budget titles much quicker and for less than what They Are Billions has done to me. I guess I want to mention that to say that whilst there is a lot of replayability here it’s not infinite and the rough edges of Early Access are likely to start wearing on you after a while.
Those rough edges are quite numerous too. Army management is a chore as the hitboxes on the zombies are so small that trying to micro units is a complete waste of time. Similarly upgrading buildings with hot keys will sometimes work, sometimes it won’t which means its usually quicker to just click to make sure that it will work. Double clicking units and buildings will select all of those types of units, even those out of your current vision range. This can be problematic when you’re trying to say, upgrade a wall before a horde as you could inadvertently end up selecting all the walls and upgrading the ones on the other side of the map. Crashes aren’t common thankfully but alt-tabbing did cause it to lock up on occasion and I did have it refuse to start a game sometimes for whatever reason. Finally the pathfinding on units is so bad that you’ll often find groups of your own units getting stuck on each other, soldiers getting stuck in zombie hordes that they can navigate around or even units deciding to take the most absolutely absurd path to get to where you directed them to. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could queue up move orders but that doesn’t seem possible currently (this also impacts patrols, which can only have 2 points currently). Of course these are the kinds of things that you expect to see in an Early Access title, and I’m sure they’ll be made better over time, but if you’re thinking about diving in now caveat emptor.
They Are Billions brings a new experience in the RTS genre that I don’t think anyone was expecting. The combination of RTS, city building and roguelike elements blend together into an experience which has quite a lot of replay value in it. I certainly didn’t set out to spend as much time in it as I did and so there definitely is something there that many will enjoy. The Early Access tag is well earned given the numerous issues that need to be ironed out, including content related things like a tutorial and the inclusion of a campaign. In its current form though They Are Billions is definitely worth it for those who, like me, have been craving a new RTS experience but have been left wanting by the offerings that have come to the table over the past couple years.
They Are Billions is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 17.4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked. Game was played during Early Access.
The “frustration game” genre has developed a cult following over the last 5 years or so. Born out of the democratisation of game development tools these games are typically the spawn of newer developers looking to try their hand at making games. Not knowing how or not wanting to adhere to conventions they stumble about and end up creating experiences that are defined by their awkward, frustrating nature rather than being derided for it. There are, of course, those who set out to deliberately craft them and none are more infamous than Bennett Foddy who brought us flash games like QWOP, GIRP and CLOP. Getting Over It is his first ever full release and, in staying true to his previous accomplishments, is a brutal mishmash of awkward controls and punishing gameplay.
The game is an homage to a flash game called Sexy Hiking which was released some 16 years ago. You are a man in a cauldron called Diogenes and, armed with a rock climbing hammer you make your way up a mountain covered in various detritus. At any point in the game however you can make a wrong move and plummet all the way back down to the start. There are no checkpoints, no way to solidify your progress so you can continue from there. You will fail, sometimes spectacularly, and you’ll have to do what you did once again…and again…and again.
Getting Over It has all the trappings of what Foddy describes as “b games” which are akin to their b grade brethren from the silver screen. The game appears to be made almost entirely out of assets taken from the Unity store, all of them loosely cobbled together to form the level you’ll play through. There’s a surprising amount of attention to detail put into it however like the use of various different sound effects for different surfaces, your character’s utterances which are dependent on your actions and the inclusion of numerous physics enabled objects, typically done to throw you off your game. If I had to put it in one sentence I’d describe it as a beautifully put together trash pile.
The objective of the game is simple: make your way to the top of the mountain. To do this you have to wrangle your hammer in various ways to overcome the objects in front of you. The mechanics are pretty simple, the hammer will grip most surfaces and your character is strong enough to rotate themselves around an attachment point, but the controls don’t respond how you’d expect them to. The character’s arms are somewhat bound by realistic physics however things change dramatically with momentum and, depending on where his arms are positioned vs where your cursor is things might not go how you expect them. Honestly it’s hard to describe just how unintuitive the controls are as you’re better off just playing it yourself to see what I’m getting at.
Getting Over It does a good job of slowly introducing harder and harder puzzles to you although the difficulty curve takes a sharp spike up the further you progress. Quite often you’ll find yourself progressing without really understanding how you got there and, when you inevitably fall back down, will struggle to redo the section you just did. You’ll start to work out what strategies work for you however and eventually you’ll have a good idea of how to keep on moving forward.
That is until you reach here.
This corridor seems to have broken me and many others attempting this game. Whilst there are numerous strategies for getting through it I couldn’t get any of them to work reliably for me. Sure, I did make it past that point once, however I instantly catapulted myself off the top, sailing gracefully back down to the bottom. It was honestly so soul destroying that I couldn’t do anything but laugh for the next 5 minutes, my anguish best expressed in tears of laughter rather than sadness. I did make it back up there eventually but fell back down again not too shortly afterwards. It was then I decided to put the game down and watch a speed run on YouTube.
Indeed the stats show that this is pretty much typical for anyone playing this game. Half of people playing this game give up before they’ve played 1.3 hours and the average total play time is a meagre 3. Beyond that the minority who’ve managed to complete this game once average a total of 11.7 hours, or some 10x the amount of time I’ve spent in the game. Honestly I’d had my fill by then and am quite happy to say the game has beaten me. I’ve got much more interesting things to do with my life than continue to slam my head against this wall.
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is exactly what you’d expect from a game like this. It’s a horrifyingly awkward, frustrating game to play and it delights in tormenting you whenever you should fail. It is rewarding when you manage to complete a section but if you’re like me that doesn’t happen often enough to justify the continued time investment. There are some who will delight in this kind of no-holds-barred challenge and to them I commend you. For me though whilst it was a hilarious distraction it’s not something I’d recommend unless you knew what you’re getting into and even then I’d urge caution.
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is available on PC and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on the PC with 1.6 hours of total play time and 0% of the achievements unlocked.