Before We Leave
Developer: Balancing Monkey Games
Genre(s): Casual, Indie, Simulation, Strategy
Platform: PC (Steam & Epic Games Store)
Age Rating: PEGI 7
Release Date: 13/5/2021
A code was provided for review purposes
With billionaires going on sub-orbital day trips and the climate crisis worsening by the day, it’s hard not to think about the state of our planet. More importantly how we can save it, or leave it. After all the billionaires are trying to, right? But how can we, the average individual, ever prepare for the inevitable collapse of our planet? By playing video games, of course; or should I say one video game.
Before We Leave is that game; a small title that is far more than just a relaxing city-builder. In it, you’ll find intricate management systems, top-notch tunes, and an emphasis on environmentalism that is both depressing and inspiring. Trust me when I say this is a game you’ll want to play.
Before We Leave tasks you with guiding a society of little people looking to start a new world out of the ruins of an old one. What happened to the old world or why the survivors hid in underground bunkers is never fully explained; though it would be safe to assume some natural disaster or global catastrophe is what left society in ruins. This is but one of the many surprising elements Before We Leave has to offer. A compelling and mysterious backstory isn’t necessarily something you’d look for or expect from a city-builder; yet in Before We Leave, it’s absolutely everywhere.
Remnants of the old world are littered across the hexagonal tiles of each planet. These are often strange pieces of leftover technology; ruined skyscrapers that reside high up in the mountains or submerged in the sea; or great mechanical behemoths that stand frozen in time as rusted monuments to a bygone age. The inclusion of such a rich and visual history, as well as its flawless execution, is easily one of Before We leave’s standout features; but it doesn’t end there.
The beauty of the game’s mysterious history is the mystery itself. Despite how integral and omnipresent the world’s past is, the developers have deliberately kept everything pretty vague. That ambiguity allows the player to interpret the world in whatever way they want; which serves only to invest you further in an already enthralling experience.
A Brave New World
At its core, Before We Leave is a neat little city-builder with a host of familiar gameplay features and mechanics, such as; resource management, a tech tree, and, of course, city-building and planning. In the beginning, getting your little society going is pretty easy. Your society of peeps (yes, they’re called peeps) is fairly basic and only requires the essentials. These include potato farms, wells for water, huts to live in, and building materials like wood and stone. It’s all very rudimentary, but it makes for a really calming and fun starting experience; especially with how easy it is to play and navigate its multitude of menus and overlays. The casual nature of Before We Leave is definitely one of its main selling points; which it does still manage to preserve well into the slightly more challenging late game.
Your first major goal will be to rebuild and commandeer a spaceship to colonise a new world. Along the way, you will research new technology that will aid future expansion and increase efficiency. This includes things like seafaring, electricity, and cooking. These all provide new buildings, resources, and ways to better fulfil the needs of your little settlements.
While this does make everything a little tougher to manage, the ability to automate things like trade routes and eventually jobs really takes a lot of the stress out of the late-game experience. The game even hands you a surprising level of depth when it comes to managing your settlements, providing you with bar charts, overlays, and other intricate systems to help you optimise your playthrough. One of my personal favourites is the ability to see a settlement’s resource production, as well as supply and demand. This information is incredibly helpful in understanding where a settlement is struggling, and how you can fix it.
This may sound a little daunting to those looking for a relaxing and easy experience, but trust me when I say you have nothing to fear. Things like trade, automation, and management provide more experienced players with new ways to optimise their playthrough; but the option is still there for casual players to have a good time and still be able to use these to their advantage.
It perfectly balances casual fun and strategic complexity, allowing you to dive deep into its more intricate layers, or just sit back and watch your busy little peeps scurry around zealously playing their part in a society of your own making.
The Bigger Picture
What cannot be understated and goes way beyond gameplay value, is the significance of industrialisation and pollution. Before We Leave is remarkably detailed despite its small and relaxing exterior; not just in its gameplay design, but in its clever foundations. It’s hard not to notice the overt philosophical and societal themes present within Before We Leave, the most prominent being environmentalism and climate change.
While you may start the game with a quiet little community, you grow quickly out of minimalist bliss, and headfirst into the gaping maw of industrialisation. Reaching the point of industrialisation is a key milestone in Before We Leave. With it, you’ll be able to mass-produce and refine important natural resources and material goods needed to advance your society further and expand across the globe and into the stars. The problem is, with great abundance comes great responsibility.
Industrial and manufacturing buildings will lead to two things. The first being pollution, and the second, being unhappiness. Pollution is something that’s tough to manage and really challenges you to think ahead in terms of placement; particularly with buildings like steel mills and oil refineries. You’ll have to place them accordingly to avoid polluting an entire island. There are ways to tackle the pollution output from these buildings, but much of the most efficient ones are pretty far along in the research tree; coming right after you’ve already colonised another planet. It sounds silly to master space travel before innovating new eco-friendly solutions for climate change; but when you think about it, it’s surprisingly – and depressingly – accurate.
Pollution is also a big factor in the happiness of your peeps. You’d be bummed out knowing that you’re helping kill the planet too, right? Though, you do have options to increase the happiness of your populace. The issue is that these struggle to lift anyone’s spirits if not used and managed according. Not even things like clothes or jewellery can cause a tidal wave of happiness. Who would’ve thought that material possessions would be so ineffective at making people happy?
Before We Leave is remarkably thought-provoking, with a whole host of philosophical subtext and depth. It challenges you to think about your impact on the planet both in-game and in the real world; whether that is conveyed through its gameplay design or the message it’s trying to promote. It is so much more than what it shows on the surface, elevating its quality far beyond what you might expect.
Looking beyond Before We Leave’s addictive gameplay and central themes, it wouldn’t be complete without one thing; its positively charming style and tone. Firstly, you have its graphics. Before We leave looks gorgeous without ever pushing for next-gen realism; understanding that more often than not, bigger doesn’t equal better, and that simplicity is king. Every building and piece of land is expertly textured and pretty to look at, with each building and biome having its own distinct look and feel. On top of that, you have the option to enable additional graphical effects like light bloom, which will have you constantly chasing the horizon.
Second, is its wonderfully merry soundtrack. From the moment I loaded up the game, I was moving my head and shaking my hips to its multitude of jolly jingles and rambunctious rhythms. It feels very much inspired by sea shanties or bards’ songs, which your (hopefully) happy peeps will play nonstop through night and day. This is what lends the game much of its pleasant and calming atmosphere, and something you’ll want to hear for yourself.
To top it all off, every peep has their own name and unique personality trait. For example, Helene, one of my peeps, is apparently a weirdo who sleeps without a pillow; and then there’s Audrey, who just likes to make other peeps smile. If that’s not wholesome I don’t know what is. While a very insignificant thing to mention, the fact peeps are even given a name and personality trait speaks volumes for how Before We Leave masters its style and tone.
Despite how bleak and ominous the threats of pollution and over-consumption may be, Before We Leave still opts to be a pleasantly endearing experience. The end of the world isn’t marked by frantic panic or a chaotic last hoorah. Instead, life goes on in what can only be described as a high-spirited and gorgeous little world, even as it’s slowly falling apart.
I can honestly say that Before We Leave proved to be a far more compelling experience than I originally anticipated. It is at its most basic level an addictively fun, pleasant, and relaxing city-builder that will keep you playing for hours with its plethora of management systems, phenomenal audio design, and beautifully simplistic landscapes. But dig just a little deeper and you will find a fascinating and mentally stimulating experience that you just don’t get very often; especially within this genre.
For a game all about expansion, growth and efficiency, it never shies away from the problems that they cause. It’s why I left the game both eager to return and afraid of causing more harm to my digital peeps’ digital world. Yet, while the depressing reality of the climate crisis is something the game doesn’t want you to forget, it also doesn’t want you leaving without having a good time; resulting in an entertaining and unforgettable game that isn’t afraid to reach for the stars.
Rapid Reviews Rating
4.5 out of 5
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.