Impressions: Lovecraftian Citybuilder Clockwork Empires

By Alec Meer on August 14th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Clockwork Empires is a citybuilding/Lovecraftian survival sim from Gaslamp Games, they of the splendid Dungeons of Dredmor, in which you manage and protect Imperial colonists attempting to build a life on a new frontier. A new frontier which just so happens to contain Other Creatures. While it might be a dramatic departure from the successful roguelike that went before it, it does retain the horror-comedy tone. It arrives on Steam Early Access tomorrow, but I’ve been playing it for the last few days.

It does say ‘Early Access’ – that ubiquitous bête noire of PC gaming in 2014 – on the tin, so I must keep reminding myself of that as I struggle to reconcile what’s on my screen with the wonderful things promised of Clockwork Empires back in March. Hopefully some of those delightful things will indeed come to pass in time, but right now we’re looking at a barebones citybuilder with a smattering of Lovecraftpunk flavour text attached. My challenge today – other than ‘wash’, ‘eat’, ‘stop slouching’ and all that tedious stuff – is to try and balance what’s here with what might one day be there, and then again with what I myself want to be there one day. The Early Access riddle is the hardest one to solve. It’s clearer for games which manage to nail the key concept and mechanics first then add supporting features over time (a DayZ or Elite Dangerous, for example), but for something like this, which is using the gradual addition of features to build towards realising the key concept much later on, it’s almost impossible to glean what the finished product may be like.

This is something like what Clockwork Empires intends to be:

Long-term, Clockwork Empires – from the makers of the sterling roguelike (oh, do stop quibbling) Dungeons of Dredmor – aims to expand into offering sorta-quests, internal intrigue and revolt, an array of Cthulian beasts and other dark forces to battle or attempt neighbourly relations with, and a detailed AI system which sees every citizen’s performance and aptitudes affected by their experiences. It’s important to look at their development status page, breaking down what’s there and what’s planned, before you read any of what I have to say, as really I’m purely tackling the ‘should you buy this now?’ dilemma.

Right now, the promising AI personality aspect exists in the form of icons and colourfully-written text on character sheets, but either there’s no outward effect or it’s so minor as to be drowned out by the day-to-day business of harvesting and building. Quite clearly, looking at the game’s devlog and seeing the odd piece of debug text pop up, there’s plenty going on under the hood, but it may be some time before this state of mind stuff coalesces into noticeable impacts on what your guys are up to.

The tone of it all is lovely, and perfect words like ‘Stygian’ and ‘eldritch’ abound. The owner of a simple, homely kitchen might elect to name it ‘The Stygian Widowmaker’ for instance. If only Gregg’s had employed similar thinking. The naming stuff happens visibly, while if you want to dig deeper, brief and entirely optional villager bios tell of their hopes, fears, histories and politics.

To compare it to Sunless Sea, another alpha/beta access game which adopts a similar (if less cartoonish) Albion Horror tone, Failbetter’s game presents its language and mood as you play. You will naturally pick up a sense of this place and its people, and that sense will inform how you react and which options you choose. In Clockwork Empires in its current state, you have to dig deliberately into little menus for all that stuff, and while you might well enjoy reading it and daydreaming about what kind of character the NPC who’s joined a cult or seen a dead body or felt angry towards the distant monarchy is, what they might do, who they might do it to or with, right now that’s going to happen.

If you do want blatant Lovecraft overtones, Fishmen occasionally stagger over and take clumsy swipes at terrified farmers, but the rest – and hopefully the best – is yet to come.

In the current build, as well as only offering a few buildings to erect and a relatively lifeless world beyond your own enclave, it’s micro-management heavy, which is of greater concern than yet-to-come features. For instance, if you’re looking to build a house with a bed in it, while you can draw out a blueprint in whatever silly shape you fancy, a carpentry workshop won’t simply make the required planks from logs – you need to go in and specify how many logs you need, otherwise it’ll sit idle. You might not even have any logs, because you need to repeatedly nominate exactly which trees need chopping down, as even a workgroup who you’ve set to only engage in forestry tasks won’t wander off to the next copse when the current one’s been felled.

Even once you have the resources you need, the build site will probably sit idle for ages, as a combination of bugs and minimal or opaque methods of diverting your settlers from whatever else is occupying them means no bugger will turn up to saw a plank.

Eventually, someone will finish up their other tasks – and often their tasks are being idle, as personal needs are met, which is something I hope is more illuminated in future builds – go saw logs into planks, then someone else will go carry those planks to the storage zone. Then someone else will collect those planks and carry them to the new house. Then they may or many not construct them into a bed. At each of these stages is a whole lot of uncertain waiting, and while much of this comes down to villagers being engaged with earlier orders that you gave either sensibly or recklessly, the lack of any current facility to prioritise or cancel tasks means heroic patience is the only option available. (Job priority/cancel buttons are in there, but they don’t work as yet).

I ended up running Clockwork Empires in the background half the time, like Mountain, checking in every 20 minutes or so to see if anything had built yet or that no-one was starving to death. It kind of worked that way, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s intended to be played.

The reliance on manually tagging everything, from which berries you’re going to forage to exactly how many bricks you want your ceramics workshop to pump out, does trouble me on a deeper level, and I pray there’ll eventually be options to automate certain tasks so that it isn’t an exhausting click/drag fest. I know that games focused around a constant search for food remain very much in vogue, but dragging a box around some lingonberries every quarter of an hour is perhaps not in the same boat. The lessons of the appalling Godus must be learned, and learned well.

Which, of course, sounds like a big old moan, but none of this is some damning judgement on whatever the game eventually intends to be (though, of course, it may or may not become that). All I’m saying is that right now, in this infant form, it’s fairly tricky to find the good times amongst all the hanging around and hard graft. Turn up because you want to support the devs or you want to watch a leftfield citybuilder evolve and grow over time, not because you want to sit down and lose yourself in building your own little world. It doesn’t even have savegame support yet, for instance.

HOWEVER. It looks lovely. The writing is full of lovely words and phrases. Watching tiny redcoats try to shoot tiny fishmen is lovely. The basic structure of resources/economy – clay becomes bricks, coal becomes charcoal, wheat becomes beer – is logical and gently engaging without being over familiar. Everything the devs have promised sounds clever and appealing. Aesthetic and atmosphere – there’s some great, unsettling music too – are in place. This is without a question a game I want to see more of.

In its long journey to ‘full’ release, Clockwork Empires has two big challenges on its scaly hands, as I see it. One is to make its NPCs genuinely mean something more than a means with which to gather wood, construct buildings or gun down occasional mermen. The other is to polish up the nuts and bolts of resource gathering and settlement growth, so that even if you do find yourself speeding towards certain doom by starvation or disgruntled populace or fishguy invasion, it’s down to broader strategic failure on your part rather than because you didn’t click the same icons over and over.

I’m doing the armchair designer thing again, I realise. Sorry. I’m just hoping that, based on everything that’s been said before, and on the dev’s track record of playfulness, oddness and unpredictability as well as gentle brutality, we’re not just on course to have a cuter, fiddlier Banished. Which is not to defame Banished or open old wounds, but rather to say that Clockwork Empires seems to have its eyes on a different prize, and while it’s not anything like close to it yet, I sincerely hope it does reach it.

Clockwork Empires arrives on Steam Early Access tomorrow, but you can buy ‘Earliest Access’ direct from the devs right now, if you like.

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48 Comments »

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  1. Orija says:

    Lovecraftian has to be the most overused adjective of the English language.

    • vecordae says:

      I’m pretty sure the adjective “overused” occurs with much greater frequency.

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      Better or worse than “Tolkeinesque”?

      • Shuck says:

        “Tolkeinesque” is underused, if anything, considering how often that’s exactly what games are attempting to be.

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      Arren says:

      Orwellian says hello.

    • Lacessit says:

      Hah! Dickensian and Kafkaesque laugh at poor Lovecraftian from their lofty perch!

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      Chaz says:

      Machiavellian screws the lot of you.

    • magogjack says:

      Odd to make such a comment when it is in fact being used correctly…

      • Josh W says:

        It’s funny, most of the reason it’s misused it’s actually about correctly representing someone’s intention; someone wants to evoke the aesthetic of lovecraft works and their endless derivatives, possibly for a kickstarter. Probably for a kickstarter.

        This is one of those few games that strikes me as doing that kind of thing well, not least because they’ve got that clockwork victoriana thing going on too.. Basically they’re sitting in some proxy war between pop-cthullu and steampunk, playing them off against one another to maintain their independence.

    • Steve Catens says:

      But is it “gritty”?

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    J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I’ve been following the development of this game for some time now and I was seriously debating buying it tomorrow when it hits Early Access. However, the price was a bit of a concern for me personally, and after reading this, I may just hold off in hopes it develops into a more playable state in the near future. I still adore the setting and most of what I’ve read of the game, but I’d rather have that not ruined by playing it currently.

    • Canadave says:

      Same here. I’ve been looking forwards to the game for a while, but the relative lack of features in the Early Access means that I think I want to avoid it for now. I’m already pretty burned out on both Kerbal Space Program and Prison Architect, so I really don’t want to have that happen again before it’s “done.”

    • teije says:

      I feel the same – I think this game will turn out great and I love the vision and passion the developers have shown so far. But I’m going to wait until it’s more fully baked to dive into it. Lots of other good stuff around right now to keep me busy.

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      slerbal says:

      I totally agree. On the negative side: no Clockwork Empires for me yet, but on the positive: better day one sales for them and a finished game for me to enjoy and not get burned out on :)

      • Jac says:

        Alex has nailed it really. I’ve turned up because I want to support the devs and have every faith that this will be the game they want it to be. Eventually. That progress page is fantastic and shows there is a plan and from reading their dev blog they will get there for sure.

        Think this is a completely fair analysis of the state of the game and tbh not sure I’d expect anything else from a game literally just launched as an early access title.

        Anyway will file this away with prison architect until it is more complete.

    • StillUsefull says:

      I bought it anyway without the intention to play the thing before it is finished.
      Because:
      a) I think they can make a great game out of this
      b) I paid next to nothing for Dredmor
      c) They kept me hugely entertained with their dev blog

    • rexx.sabotage says:

      A glacial, ‘Mountainesque’ ;) Dwarf Fortress with gobs of visual appeal and an eerie soundtrack? Color me intrigued! Finished or not though, they’re gonna have to do something about that price before I bite.

    • sophof says:

      Quill18 did a video on youtube as well if you want to have a watch. personally that already dampened my expectations enough sadly.

  3. EveryoneLovesPirates says:

    I’m quite surprised by this review, as I apparently had a much different experience with my “Earliest Access” build. In fact, I question the fairness of even “reviewing” a pre-early access build that’s sole point of existence seems to be to get the game ready for Steam’s Early Access — perhaps waiting one more day in order to give people an idea of what they can expect in the Steam EA version would’ve been more useful to the readers? But I digress.

    Admittedly coming from a background heavy in Dwarf Fortress experience, I appreciated how CE tackles a lot of the micromanagement issues people tend to have in DF. For instance, CE assigns jobs through an overseer system. Overseers choose a designated job, or claim a workshop, and then have their team work it. That means if you want to prioritize making planks, just put more laborers under the overseer in charge of that workshop (and maybe build another workbench). As is mentioned, you can tell that entire workgroup to do nothing besides work in their workshop (or fell trees, etc.) just by clicking a couple icons — something that seemed to work just fine for me.

    Now, foraging for berries can definitely be a bit tedious, but I believe that’s by design as you’re really not meant to support a society just on foraging. Farms, for instance, are completely micromanagement-free — just build and forget. You can also queue up a years worth of meals in the kitchen, which will get made when the supplies are available, should you not want to mess with that either. Coming from DF (which I still love, btw), I find CE easier and less frustrating in every measurable way.

    Sorry for the novel, but I’d hate to see people get put off a game based on a somewhat harsh review of a game in pre-early access. Especially when it seems to almost ignore, or not quite understand, the overseer system. If anyone’s interested in a video showing the current state of the game, here’s a link to a video I did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsF3ROuA_MQ . Not claiming it’s amazing or anything, but it shows the overseer system in detail. Or you could just wait for tomorrow and check out a review or video then, as I expect a fairly significant update for its Steam Early Access debut.

    • Sleepy Will says:

      If their accepting money, it’s perfectly valid to tell consumers what they can expect. We’re not morons, we understand the concept of early access, so don’t treat people like they don’t and will take this as a definitive review.

      • EveryoneLovesPirates says:

        True, but my point there was that this is an impression of a pre-early access version that was made available to people following the development of the game and wanted to help get it ready for public Early Access. Considering that the public version is being released tomorrow, I question the usefulness of this article today. If it seemed like a personal attack on you or Alec, I apologize, it wasn’t meant as such.

        • puzzlepiece87 says:

          I understand your viewpoint that it could be better to wait to review the thing that people would be paying money for rather than reviewing something close to it but not quite the same, but I for one appreciate that they gave people an idea about the game before it was available for (early access) sale, especially because the previous review was gushing and many readers may have bought Early Access just from that review.

          • EveryoneLovesPirates says:

            That’s fair. Sometimes I forget there are people who will buy something, especially early access games, without thoroughly researching it first. An article today will give some info to those people who might buy it immediately after it goes on sale tomorrow, before an impression of that version would be able to go live.

            To be clear, and append my original comment, I doubt many people would find CE in its current state (and even in it’s likely-much-improved version tomorrow) worth the $30 USD they’re asking. I bought it mainly to support a developer I’m quite fond of and to potentially provide some useful feedback for a game I think has a lot of potential.

          • Sleepy Will says:

            “without thoroughly researching it first”

            How is anyone supposed to thoroughly research anything if articles like this are “unfair”? Like I said, they are charging money for it, they have spend a substantial amount of resources getting the game onto steam, therefore, it is only fair to tell people what to expect for their cash. The article made no secret about it being early access, so your assertion that people will form an impression that taints their view of the finished product is, to be quite frank arrogant. Granted, there are stupid or naive or uninterested people out there who will get burned, but they are not the sort of people who would research anyway, thus they wouldn’t read this article.

            The vast majority of people who read this article will get a clearer understanding if the game is for them at this stage. That’s a good thing, because believe it or not, keeping people ignorant of the current state of a game that is being sold, is bad for consumers and ultimately bad for the game.

            And try really hard to understand, most people have as good an understanding of the situation as you do, many will have a better understanding. You are not that unique or special in your cognitive abilities!

          • EveryoneLovesPirates says:

            Well, I “questioned the fairness” of the timing (not the existence of the article itself) — a point I ceded in the very comment you’re replying to, so arguing with me on that seems moot anyway. When I mentioned “thoroughly researching” I didn’t mean it to be derisive to the rest of gamer-kind, just that I tend to dig into every morsel of information about a game before I buy into Early Access (mainly because I have a low risk tolerance for full-priced games) . Apparently my tone came across as haughty, I didn’t mean it that way. Sorry. Honestly, I’ve never noticed much of a combative spirit amongst RPS commenters in the past, so I have a feeling that the whole tone of my original comment must have been misinterpreted — either that or the oft-quoted “peoples divided by a common language” thing. Or maybe a few people are just jerks and are intentionally misinterpreting, ignoring, and cherry-picking my comments. Who knows? :) <— (see, light-hearted!)

            In case you're honestly interested in the way I (personal, just my definition!) "thoroughly research" something before buying into EA, here it is. First, I only choose projects where the dev is exceptionally communicative, and then read all the devlogs and signup to any email lists. I also check out the official forums (a lack of which is a serious red-flag). Then I watch videos (positive or negative, doesn't really matter, as long as it shows gameplay) to try to ascertain how well the various systems seem to work and if there's any aspect of the game I might personally enjoy or find tedious/unfun. Lastly, I read other people's impressions (articles like this one, steam reviews, forums, etc.) to see if that person might have some insight about something I didn't catch in any of my previous "research". I then combine what I've learned and compare it to my personal risk assessment based on the the asking price, developer's history, and how far through the development process the game is. No matter what the result, I still only buy something in EA if the answer to "Would I buy this game if the dev said it would never see another update ever again?" is "yes".

            I understand many people don't have the time to do what I do, they probably wouldn't do it even if they did have the time. Which is why I ceded the point when another commenter made a kind suggestion that the timing of the article had value to others despite the potential of not being 100% up-to-date. If I didn't hate editing comments so much (as I believe in being accountable for what I write or say), I would've just deleted that whole first paragraph. But I assumed, and still believe, that most readers can skip over a point they don't agree with and still find validity in my other points. Anyways, I have a feeling that I'm getting dangerously close to having my tone misinterpreted again, so I'll leave it at that. Especially since I've written another novel and comment sections seem to die out after a couple days on RPS, so one one is probably reading this anyways. I'll just leave you with the hope that I think I've learned my lesson and will be careful, brief, and dull should I ever have the gall to opine again :) <— (see, still light-hearted!)

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      Martel says:

      You’re in luck then as it’s not a review, but Alec’s first impressions. Even says so in the title.

      • EveryoneLovesPirates says:

        Sorry, I only remembered to put one of my “review”s in quotation marks. I understand that this is just an impression of the game, but it’s also easier and more colloquial to write “review” than “impression”. Despite only commenting once before, I’ve lurked RPS long enough to have known better than to make that mistake.

        Still, I mainly wanted to state that my impression of the game seemed at odds with Alec’s, especially when it came to micromanagement and, what I see as a core mechanic of the game, overseers. Thought people might want to hear an opposing view from someone who has also played the game.

        • puzzlepiece87 says:

          I appreciate your alternative gameplay view even though I disagreed with you on publishing timing :)

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      SuddenSight says:

      I’m not sure “better interface than DF” is the best advertisement.

      • Tssha says:

        Kind of like saying “Killed less people than Hitler”. It could be zero, it could be (single-digit) millions. It’s hard to tell.

      • Damien Stark says:

        Yes, but that really is the point.

        The game is very much meant to resemble Dwarf Fortress in its gameplay. Those who play it expecting Sim City or Anno or something are barking up the wrong tree. If it manages to do half the things DF does, with an interface twice as friendly, then it’s a hell of an achievement. Especially if it doesn’t take them 20 years to release it…

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      slerbal says:

      I think these impressions articles are really handy and form a core part of my research, and like people said if they are taking money then they are fair game for these kind of articles. Also I really, really want this game and I am happy to wait until it is ready :)

    • Josh W says:

      Yeah, it’s fascinating to see them getting just enough better than dwarf fortress in terms of intuitive interfaces that people can actually start considering their interface something lacking. With my DF head on, it all sounds much more coherent.

      It makes me wonder whether they’ll find that they have to start avoiding certain interface features, so as to guide people towards the way it actually works; directly setting priorities on each person does not scale, so it’d be good to have that actually be represented as being a small scale thing, based on gathering them together for group conversations or something, maybe take some cues from the early utopian community groups, and have larger meetings get sidetracked into the people showing off too many of their weird personality traits, nice way to represent personality too.

    • frightlever says:

      Good points and swaying me towards an early purchase. Cheers.

  4. XhomeB says:

    Have the developers ever mentioned a possibility of a GOG release?

    • suibhne says:

      Dredmor didn’t get a GOG.com release. Either way, it’s unlikely to be up there for Early Access. You might consider posting in the devs’ forums if you want to advocate for their presence on GOG.com.

  5. MrFinnishDude says:

    Well, I guess the early access has a severe downside. You get the unfinished bare bones game and play until you are fed up with it. You will rationally try to tell yourself that it is still in development but deep inside your primal parts of your brain say that it’s shit, boring game with no features. And then that gets ingrained into your brain and you never play it again.

    This is why you shouldn’t put games in early access too early as we saw with The Forest

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      slerbal says:

      I got in on the Earliest Access on “Invisible Inc” (formerly “Incognita”) because Klei were a know quantity and I wanted to support the development of the game. It has been a minor torture though as I’ve had to hold myself back from actually playing it until it is ready :)

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Dwarf Fortress has been in “early access” for years (and will always be in that state, most probably) and has a fanatic following.

      • MrFinnishDude says:

        Well dwarf fortress will never be finished at least in a twenty million years. And it has already more game than most games ever known to man.

  6. Laurentius says:

    Hmm, Banished also flew a bit over Mr Meer head so I think its less about armchair development and more about not being target audience.

    • iMagiNation says:

      yeah, maybe he’s just burnt out on city builders or sumfin

  7. akbarovich says:

    In the previous RPS writeup of Clockwork Empires (link) you were gushing about the “extraordinary AI” and soldiers who have PTSD and need to drown their sorrows with alcohol and personality traits and cults, and now you’re saying the AI has “no outward effect or it’s so minor as to be drowned out by the day-to-day business of harvesting and building”, wot? Or that the AI is nothing “more than a means with which to gather wood, construct buildings or gun down occasional mermen”? And so another RPS hype cycle doth endeth.