As an avid ‘cozy gamer,’ I am always hunting for the next lazy adventure. Be it a deep woodland exploration or submerging myself underwater from the comfort of my couch. If it’s a land of new wonders I can explore without lifting a finger, I’ll probably enjoy it.
Having spent hours delving into realities far from my own, I’ve probably spent more time with a controller in hand than I have exploring the world beyond my doorstep. Still, I’ve never really considered taking the reigns and creating a world to explore of my own.
In Before We Leave, this idea of exploration starts with the player. Tasked with taking the reigns and rebuilding civilization from nothing, it’s our job to ensure all our ducks are in a row before we can explore the unknown and start the process again.
At first, I felt skeptical about being given this much power. It’s overwhelming to go from being the explorer to being the person creating the place to explore. Even though I love any vague life simulator, having this much power still felt like too much to learn – especially with a whole species in my hands. But before I knew it, the role of God looked good from the living room.
This cozy top-down city-building game is perfect for anyone searching for something productive to pass the time. It’s got everything you need in a great game to really lose yourself in for a while. From minimalist graphics to keep your focus attached to gameplay to a soundtrack that feels hypnotic as you craft a new row of huts, this game has me utterly obsessed.
Let’s Rise From the Ashes
After spending what feels like an eternity trapped underneath the ground, your townsfolk – affectionately referred to as ‘peeps’ – have decided it’s time to resurface.
But because of the post-apocalyptic setting, your tiny shard of the universe hosts a desolate, stone-age technology standard. So rather than having enhanced, super practical tech ready from the get-go, you have to start from scratch.
Outside of setting up the islands, city life quietly ticks on in the background as you invest your time into research or exploration. I appreciated the lack of stress this gentle passing of time caused, and anything more than checking in to make sure my peeps were still happy at the end of the day probably would’ve put me off the rest of the game.
But scattered across various islands are different ancient technologies left behind by your predecessors. By harvesting these technologies and researching the information and skills lost along the way, you can rapidly progress towards restoring the life your peeps once led. Finding these ancient technologies is initially the main drive of the story, but once you’ve got set up – it becomes less of a drive and more of a passive task.
As you travel further into the solar system, ‘ancient guardians’ are introduced, which come in the form of enormous space whales, and the game suggests they threaten the peace of your peeps. But, they never pose any real threat, nor do you ever have to face them in hand-to-hand combat, which was a huge relief.
As a whole, the story of Before We Leave doesn’t go much further than this. The story remains the same even when engaging in interplanetary travel and encountering giant, intimidating alien beasts. You’re emerging from the ashes of your ancestors, and it’s time to rebuild your society.
I would’ve loved to see more exploration into why certain planets were the state they were or more of a dive into what happened before the nuclear bunker.
Teeny Tiny Tutorial Text and an Overwhelming UI
When diving into the gameplay, it’s easy to get started. A tutorial talks you through everything you need to know – though if you’ve played any sort of civilization builder before, you can probably put two and two together.
With games like this, or any game reliant on building from materials I have to harvest myself, I always pay close attention to tutorials. I’m prone to blitzing through materials without giving it a second thought and then realizing I’ve metaphorically shot myself in the foot before having to start again. So with Before We Leave, I made sure to pay attention.
Though even with a sincere attitude, I couldn’t help but feel the amount of information being crammed into tiny bubbles was overwhelming. In both docked and handheld mode, every time a task was completed and the game tried to tell me the following steps; I had to get incredibly close to the screen to try and read it.
I appreciate the charm and personality from Balancing Monkey Games that’s clearly injected into the tutorial screens. Still, I think a simplified version of the tutorial content would be much easier to digest.
In handheld mode, the UI, which includes tips and hints, seems overbearing on screen. It’s almost impossible to continue playing the game as soon as a hint appears due to the amount of space it takes up. Paired with the tiny text it’s home to, I found myself ignoring these bubbles and clearing them before having the chance to read them out of sheer frustration.
Of course, they’re as easy to get back as they are to remove if you do miss a piece of vital information, but it’s never something you can’t piece together, really.
Mechanics Become Muscle Memory
Generally, Before We Leave is a super relaxing game to sit and invest hours at a time into. The controls are simple to remember and rapidly become muscle memory. It’s straightforward to switch between islands and planets, which I appreciated since having to watch your rocket fly across the screen while another planet loads would quickly become tedious.
Once you’re up and running, the world is pretty much your oyster. You’re free to grow your civilization at any pace and any way you want to, which is precisely what I wanted from the game. Of course, there are hints to help you along the way and a consensus of which direction to head in if you progress towards interplanetary travel.
But for the most part, building the world is literally in the palm of your hands. However, because of the lack of story and a general lack of challenge, which I’ll cover later, I could see myself finding the gameplay slightly repetitive and boring after a few planets.
As I mentioned briefly, city life ticks by once you’re set up with no real struggle when you finally step away from your first island. Given you have appropriate shipping lanes and you’re transporting goods from one island to another, you’re pretty much set for the whole game.
Exploring new islands is fun to start, but once you’ve seen your peeps run around once, you are set to move on to the next island or planet.
My one gripe with gameplay would be the lack of progression once you’ve rebuilt the spaceship. As soon as you discover the next planet, you’re basically repeating the same steps you’ve just traveled from but with significantly less help from a tutorial.
While part of me adores the genuine open-world nature of the game, I still wish there was a reason to keep exploring rather than for the sake of feeling like you should.
The Challenge of Happiness
One, if not the only challenge of the title, is keeping your peeps happy. As you travel across different planets, you encounter new climates and circumstances that will be detrimental to the happiness of your inhabitants. As soon as they’re unhappy, they won’t work, which is when things start to go downhill rapidly. But a well-placed vegetable patch, blender, or fountain can increase happiness to keep the cogs turning.
As much as I say this is a challenge, it never feels detrimental to your gameplay. Unless you leave a group of peeps stranded on an island with no food or water, their happiness is steadily affected during your time in the title. The only time your peeps will feel the heat of your work is when they take a fatigue break, but if you speed up the time, this just feels like a pause. Or, as I used it, an excellent time to make a cup of tea.
Outside of this, Before We Leave is a relatively stress-free experience. Sure, it can be frustrating when you’re starting a new project and realize you have no materials to hand. But it only takes a few minutes to counter.
In addition, there’s no combat, which I find is a unique take on an interplanetary civilization-building game, so I happily sat building towns for hours without anything to worry about.
My Tiny Army of Wooden Figurines
In terms of looks, Before We Leave is a visually pleasing game. Each island you encounter hosts a different landscape to the last, signified by small details like the native tree or the different types of hexagons you can build on.
Although it took me a while to appreciate the use of hexagons to place buildings on, I learned to love them after a while. It made organizing populated areas so much easier, not to mention how satisfying setting a vegetable field between two huts was.
Additionally, the attention to detail in landscapes is what kept me traveling to other islands and wanting to explore what they had to offer, which can also be said for different planets. So, hoping to find something new and exciting, this title will keep you traveling. But much like gameplay, even landscapes lose their thrill once you’ve put enough hours into the game.
Although the UI is incredibly detailed, the game’s visual design takes more of a minimalist approach. Which I thoroughly appreciated after ingesting so much information from the get-go. The entire game feels like something straight out of a toy chest, which is perfect when you essentially adopt the role of God and control towns of tiny, wooden figured-like people.
A Title That Takes Away the Hours
Regarding sound design, I fell in love with the soundtrack to Before We Leave as soon as the acoustic started playing. When it comes to finding a genuinely relaxing game, one of the first things I consider is how pleasing and unnoticeable the soundtrack is. If you can immerse yourself for a good few hours and not have the soundtrack pull you out of a trance, it’s probably a good game.
Before We Leave features a series of upbeat acoustic tunes that perfectly mirror civilization’s progressive development, they are entirely appropriate for the passage of time within the title. They don’t feel repetitive, jarring, or invasive at any point.
When getting my first island set up, the music slipped by, and before I knew it, I was singing along the next time it tuned in. Admittedly, I hadn’t realized just how many hours had passed and how much time I’d spent listening to that song, but my point still stands.
There’s Life in the Music
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a bit of diegetic sound within a game, especially something as top-down and building-focused as this one. So when I realized my peeps were getting together to sing in the evening, I had to put this sound design to the test.
When you zoom into the center of your civilization, you’re greeted with overpowering murmurs of talk, but as you steadily zoom out, this noise slowly silences. The same can be said for the singing of peeps. Zooming into a building will let you hear their happy songs, but if you’re far away – it’ll remain unnoticed. So trust me when I say I spent hours zooming in and out of villages to see if there was a difference in sound.
As you develop your towns, the music becomes more frequent. Initially, I could’ve easily ignored this element. But once you colonize a new island and switch between your first, you’ll notice how painfully quiet the second is. I loved this feature because it felt like you were building something beautiful from nothing. As someone who could ramble for hours about how vital good soundtracks and sound design is for games, Before We Leave has left me truly satisfied.
Where to play Before We Leave:
Although this review is based on my experience with the Nintendo Switch copy of Before We Leave, it is also available on PlayStation 4, XBOX One, and Steam.
Pros and Cons
- It will quickly put you in a trance-like state as you set up
- Plenty of hours worth of setting up and exploring every island and planet
- A completely stress-free experience
- More than enough opportunity to keep playing even after ‘completing’ the main goal
- Incredibly cozy soundtrack
- No real drive or challenge
- Once you’ve progressed to a certain point, it becomes slightly repetitive
- A lot of information to take on board during the tutorial
- UI dominates half the screen as you set up your first island
If you’re looking to take the reigns on building a civilization like Before We Leave offers, you may want to check out these games too! But be warned, other games don’t have life as easy as the peeps.
- Aven Colony
- Imagine Earth
- Airborne Kingdom
- Seeds of Resilience
Question: Does Before We Leave support multiplayer?
Answer: Currently, there is no multiplayer mode in Before We Leave. However, developers of the game have suggested they are working on bringing a Co-Op mode to the title at a later date.
I think the idea of playing multiplayer would be an incredibly whole experience with friends or partners, but I can already feel myself getting annoyed at a building being placed on a hexagon I was saving or going to build something new and finding all the materials I’ve been saving up have been used already. I love the idea, but I think I’ll stick to my one-player world right now.
Question: How long does it take to beat?
Answer: Despite being completely open and not having a linear storyline to complete, I’d say that Before We Leave has around eighteen hours of ‘campaign’ before you’re entirely left to your own devices. With city-builder games, you essentially ‘beat’ the title once you’ve built a city – as the name suggests. So it’s down to your play style and how you like to view things. But for me, I’d probably say around the eighteen to twenty-hour mark is where I started to feel like I was done. But that’s not to say I won’t dive back in to continue my space-wide travels.
Question: How do I get red research?
Answer: This was something I struggled to wrap my head around as I began to explore islands outside of my first. But, to get red research, you need to find the coinciding ancient technology. Ancient technology is scattered across all islands – so once you’ve found an island home to red ancient technology, you’ve found the gateway to red research.
I’d immediately colonize the island and set up a shipping lane to your first island. Consistently trading red and green research between your islands will ensure you’re always rich in both, saving you a world of stress (quite literally) as you try and develop new skills within the game.
Before We Leave Review: Conclusion
As a whole, Before We Leave is an incredibly consuming and rewarding experience, which leaves you feeling like you’ve completed a hard day’s work at the end of a session. Coming from someone who usually fears having to control more than one thing at a time, I have thoroughly enjoyed this game.
Because of the nature of its gameplay, it’s also something I will continue to return to repeatedly. As most life sims tend to go, as soon as you feel like you’ve hit a wall – put it down for a week. After that, you’ll probably pick it up again and feel like it’s the very first time, which is what I love most about anything closely related to and including the simulation genre.
Despite having a few gripes in terms of lack of story, and occasionally feeling like environments are repetitive, I think Balancing Monkey Games have created an experience that will consume players for hours without the feeling of gamer guilt sneaking in over time.
It’s a perfect package of wholesome gaming while maintaining that edge of an apocalyptic past, and it’s the best way to unwind on any tough day which makes you feel like a nuclear bunker is the best way to go.