One can’t help feel a bit like a frontiersman when they boot up an early access game. Along with the promise of new discovery, early adopters are faced with threats from all sides. Not threats on their lives, mind you (unless they’re epileptic I suppose), but threats of wasted time. Crashes, bugs, and even the updates designed to fix them can all wipe away precious progress. That in mind, it was with trepidation that I stepped into the world of Clockwork Empires.
It takes brave souls indeed to venture out into the unknown and colonize new lands. Unfortunately, the Empire is a little short on such souls, so the colonies will have to make do with a handful of soldiers and an assortment of random pilgrims. Still, these wayward pioneers will strive to build a colony that does their beloved Queen proud. Well, they will if they don’t eat each other or summon an elder god first.
This is a steampunk town-building simulation with a serious Eldritch bent. In case you hadn’t noticed, we kinda dig that here. In addition to the standard dangers of life on the frontier, like starvation, your colony will be beset by roving bands of fishmen and plagued by dark whispers of forbidden secrets. When death claims one of your own, hungrier colonists might turn to cannibalism to survive. Gaslamp Games have effectively systemized classic Lovecraftian story tropes, and it’s delightful.
At least, it ought to be. Unfortunately, in this stage of development, you have very little control over what your colonists do. Some of this is by design. Characters are driven by their own personality, which is shaped by their memories, and your control is intentionally limited to assigning jobs and signing death warrants for particularly heinous crimes. This seems like an interesting and dynamic feature – and the little descriptions of each colonist provide a nice bit of flavour- but the AI just isn’t strong enough to support it right now. Colonists will often sit around doing nothing while there’s work to be done, eventually starving to death and being eaten with a bush-full of edible berries not 10 feet away.
Commanding your troops is particularly annoying, as you can only assign them rallying points, as opposed to telling them to track moving targets. Only soldiers can fight off fishmen with their pistols and rifles, so you’ll often end up with a lot of dead colonists before they can gun down the scaly assailants. The patrol mechanic could alleviate this a little, but right now it’s pretty buggy and soldiers patrol too close together. I understand that making people vulnerable is an important aspect of any horror-themed game, but without a deeper level of control over your troops, your only defense against attacks seems to be good guesswork before they happen.
That’s all part of a larger and more general problem with the game’s UI. It’s more difficult than it needs to be to select units and objects, and moving the camera around is a headache. Queuing up jobs is a chore in itself, and it’s unclear how to manage which jobs should get priority. Menus show a heck of a lot of information while actually telling you very little that you need to know. It’s difficult to see how many resources you have when you’re actually building things that require resources.
But then, this is the wild, untamed frontier of early access. These problems ought to improve with time -AI, graphics, and UI almost always do. Where it counts, Clockwork Empires shows promise. Its systems serve as a basis for interesting emergent events, and its setting and tone help it stand apart from its contemporaries. With a bit of polish it can be a very good game. With more features – new areas to settle, new threats to face, and maybe some kind of structured campaign – it could be something special. Right now, though, it’s a little too broken to recommend. If you need a simulation fix, I recommend Prison Architect instead.