Wot I Think – Lethis: Path Of Progress

As the doors of game development open up to more and more souls, an added benefit is that it’s ever-more plausible to make some great art then slap it into your engine, elevating the functional into the beautiful. Caesar/Zeus/Pharaoh-inspired, combat-free Gallic citybuilder Lethis: Path Of Progress doesn’t do especially remarkable things in terms of town management, but with an animation-inspired, gently Steampunk art style which falls somewhere in between bande dessinee and Studio Ghibli, it’s too gorgeous to put down even when it’s on the verge of tedium.

The isometrically-presented, 2D Lethis comes from the provision of services and meticulous route-planning school of city-building thought rather than the capitalism simulator side of things. You’re trying to keep your citizens happy in order that they upgrade their own homes, and that entails a laundry list of construction – food, laundry, utensils, medicine, all the way up to towering cafes staffed by steam-powered automatons. Everything you build needs highly efficient road connections and nearby maintenance buildings to stop it all falling down, and you also need to worry about plentiful tax offices and exorcists to, er, keep all the ghosts out. It’s a pretty fast’n’loose Steampunk/fantasy fiction, far more interested in charm than explicability, and it’s absolutely the right choice for the game: I fear Lethis would have been desperately dry otherwise.

The upgrade cycle is endearing for a time, as the pay-off is fancier houses and more varieties of ostentatiously-behatted workers patrolling the streets, but for me it became routine. Any significant expansion of your housing areas involves either placing one (or more) of everything all over again or some extremely meticulous road-planning to ensure workers’ routes are tight loops, and usually both. If you want Lethis to be a timesink first and foremost it absolutely delivers, but it’s much more about staying the course than experimental city-design or even crisis-management. There is creativity for sure, as you draw mazes of houses adorned with trees and benches and parks (though decoration primarily serves the purposes of keeping townsfolk happy), and your time and dedication investment is rewarded with enormous special buildings and a slow, gratifying spread across the landscape, but expect maintenance more than drama.

I alternated between revelling in its relatively pressure-free prettiness and looking forlornly at everything I had to yet to build, knowing how many more maintenance buildings, little parks, storehouses and of course food I’d have to build were I to have the population to support it all. These weren’t things I needed to figure out or even especially work for, but simply routines to perform. This was all the more acute in campaign mode, where it throws demands for e.g. large resource tributes to the king or fixed expansion goals into the mix, which feel more like chore than achievement. I much preferred sandbox mode, left free to figure it out and expand at my own pace.

The prettiness is a double-edged sword too. Thanks to its healthy smattering of visual invention, Lethis’ animation style looks wonderful, managing to stay on the right side of twee despite child-like character models and a society in a state of eternal contentment. But this conceals a lack of life: the workers are the only souls you see, and they lack names or desires of their own, just pretty automatons performing endless circuits around their corner of town. It’s a brief joy to watch the animations on each new structure you place, but then the clockwork loops become apparent and the spell is broken. No-one lives, no-one dies, all is puppetry. Despite the uncommonly characterful presentation, there’s no escaping that Lethis is simply a machine.

Many other city-builders are machines too, of course, and Lethis is to be admired both for the inventive appearance and for being achieved by a tiny team. It’s in the shadow of more ambitious, and unforgiving, one-man-show Banished in the latter regard, but even so, for the most part it looks and feels high-quality.

Not entirely so, however. It’s launched in a pretty buggy state, which the devs have been more than apologetic about, but there’ve been a couple of patches already and it’s significantly more robust now than it was the first time I tried it. Unfortunately English-speakers especially will still find the mangled translation pretty damn distracting, especially as the text is heavy on incoherent gags. Another good reason to stick to sandbox mode, which is altogether less talky. Limited camera controls and a UI which can’t always read which building you clicked on create mild practical frustrations too, but mild they definitely are.

I know I keep throwing around the word ‘charm’, but if you’re not a die-hard Impressions Games fan, charm is absolutely the main reason to play Lethis. What’s beneath the pseudo hand-drawn Gallc style is somewhat functional, more a straight climb up the tech tree than a true sandbox, but of course that’s consciously serving a certain mindset’s need, and I suspect those people will be absolutely delighted by its mechanical precision. As much as I might personally mourn its clockwork nature, it is intended to be clockwork, and it’s very much meeting its promises.

That said, it doesn’t at all feel throwback: though simple, Lethis comes across as modern and thoughtful, not chained to nostalgia. I’ve enjoyed my time with it for the most part, but I’m ready to part company with it now: I feel I’ve seen everything and any revisit would simply be repetition. I’d love to see its art approach applied to something a little more organic, though.

Lethis: Path Of Progress is out now.

34 Comments

  1. Cochise779 says:

    So as a lifelong Impressions Games fan, especially Zeus (and Poseidon) for its inclusion of roadblocks that added a lot of control to pedestrian loops, is the suggestion the overall linearity and emptiness of the progression in this game will leave me unsatisfied/unfulfilled against the standard?

    • Alec Meer says:

      I’ve only dabbled in Impressions stuff, but as I understand it this is considered somewhat more lightweight despite being relatively crowdpleasing. It has roadblocks in too btw.

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Most of the complaints in your WiT sound rather like could be writing about Pharaoh and Zeus, really – which were saved from feeling completely rote by, respectively, a fairly complex but intuitive economic meta-layer, and quests. Is that kind of stuff present here?

        • Cochise779 says:

          Quests, large-scale building projects, employees, and trading to acquire critical resources all added unique complexities to the Zeus games that could vary from mild impact on building a temple to very real limitations on growth or even sustenance when imported food dried up. For the micro-level city builder (compared to the C:S macro level), nothing will ever compare to Zeus for me for a simple progression and complex meta-game.

          • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

            Oh, definitely. The actual experience of Pharaoh and Zeus is much more than the sum of the constituent parts, and even after all these years they still feel just a bit like magic, in a way no other builder has touched.

      • Cochise779 says:

        Got it. I would take a pass except you said the magical “r” word without which I won’t approach pedestrian-pathing city builders after Zeus. I’ll call it a rainy day (or never day) game, in that case. It sure does look pretty, though…

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I always wondered if there was a more efficient way of laying out the city in Zeus than the self-sufficient housing loop, side ~ 12 tiles long with houses on the inside and all the service buildings on the outside.

      • Cochise779 says:

        I did buildings on the inside with service on the outside in smaller loops that had the service buildings actually servicing separate neighborhoods. Right around the end of the last time I played I started experimenting with some new spindle configurations but I hadn’t quite gotten it down yet. Felt close, though.

  2. Gap Gen says:

    It’s interesting you use the word “bande dessinee”, because French comics have a hugely range of diverse styles (I mean, English-language comics do too, but you have to dig under a lot of Marvel and DC to find it).

    • Alec Meer says:

      Yeah, I know, but didn’t manage to pin down exactly which style it was going for, bar the Ghibili stuff referenced.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Yeah, I know what you mean. There are probably a bunch of artists who use this style (I’m not particularly an expert in French comics either, really). I certainly appreciate the hand-drawn look. Ubisoft’s recent 2D platformers look great compared to a lot of expensively rendered 3D art.

      • Bernardo says:

        I’m not sure about the characters, but I guess from the backgrounds one could call it a kind of ligne claire?

  3. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Nice. It’s not a game I immediately want to buy and play, but knowing me, I will one day see it mentioned somewhere and then spontaneously buy it and play it for 16 hours over one weekend.

  4. Shadow says:

    I’ve been semi-coincidentally playing Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, the fourth, lesser-known Impressions city building title, and perhaps the most refined one.

    So I’ve been eyeing Lethis, but it seems rather simplified. Does it have a military side to it? Are there other cities to at least superficially interact with, like in Zeus/Poseidon and Emperor? I find those elements are necessary to add some depth to what’s otherwise merely a mechanical rise from huts to lavish homes.

    • Seraphithan says:

      I’ve been semi-coincidentally playing Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, the fourth, lesser-known Impressions city building title, and perhaps the most refined one.

      That makes me somewhat jealous. It’s the only one of the 4 I haven’t played and it is also the only one that hasn’t become available again.

    • studenteternal says:

      Ah you made me sad, when I saw your comment I hoped it meant the Rise of the Middle Kingdom had become available on GOG or other modern platform.

      • Shadow says:

        If you guys do manage to acquire it somehow, it runs wonderfully on Windows 7 64bit at least. There’s a widescreen hack around for the most popular 16:9 and 16:10 resolutions, which is necessary since otherwise the game runs on 800×600 or 1024×768.

      • Shadow says:

        In case anyone’s interested, here’s a screenshot of the elite quarter of my current city:
        link to dropbox.com

        Beautiful even after all these years.

    • airknots says:

      Love that game. Never got to the war part though, though I know it’s in the game. I enjoyed making roadblocks to control the flow of people.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Nothing military, and only interaction with other cities is a single and very simple trade screen (which often isn’t needed).

      • Shadow says:

        A shame. The Victorian era has a lot of potential for this kind of games. Emperor’s military and inter-city sides weren’t particularly complex, but they did add a couple of nice layers to the usual management gameplay. Trade was vital to acquire all the resources necessary to achieve the highest level of development, as your city plot only features a portion of those. The military aspect was tied to development, served to protect your city from belligerent neighbours, and eventually to subdue and vassalize them.

        It’d seem Lethis dropped the ball there, which could be made worse if they intend to implement similar features as part of a paid DLC. Time will tell.

  5. Jimbo says:

    Unfortunately, I think you’ve seen more or less everything the game has to offer by the end of the tutorial missions.

    It’s not especially well made (loads of very obvious places for improvement, but it’s by no means a disaster either) and if anything it suffers from being too faithful to the games it’s directly copying.

    It’s ok as something pretty to rest your eyes on while listening to music or whatever, but there are signficantly better city builders out there if that’s what you’re looking for, eg. most of the games it’s copying, all of the Anno games, Skylines, even Grand Ages: Rome…

  6. dsch says:

    I’ve looked forward to this for a long time, but it’s really quite disappointing. All the mechanics feel exactly the same as the Impressions games, but somehow arbitrary. It might be the setting, for which you get no real context, and the whole thing just feels kind of dead. The art style is charming at first, but it’s just plastered over a pretty heartless game. Also, it feels a bit amateurishly put together. I spent a good few minutes looking for how to advance the tutorial message and wondering if the game forgot to draw the button or has frozen. (It’s a little down-arrow at the bottom of the message, if anyone’s looking.)

    I just can’t recommend this, I’m afraid. I’d recommend Pharaoh (for the flooding) or Emperor (for general charm).

    • Jimbo says:

      “I spent a good few minutes looking for how to advance the tutorial message and wondering if the game forgot to draw the button or has frozen”

      I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it took me several restarts, a complete reinstall and a trip to the Steam forum before I could get past it.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Damien Stark says:

    Can Alec or anyone else comment how it compares to recent Anno games?

    I love those dearly, having sunk more into Anno 2070 than any other games in my Steam library, and most of the complaints in here sound like they could be leveled at Anno as well…

    • Nova says:

      I haven’t played it. Just from reading the review and the comments I’d say that Anno is still more interesting. You have a lot more variety. AI opponents, neutrals, trading + trade routes, the ever more demanding citizens, factions, etc.

    • Shadow says:

      It looks like Lethis could only be compared to Anno if the latter was set on a single island, had minimal trading, and you had neither ships nor enemies. Not very interesting.

  8. bill says:

    Wow. The screenshot at the top of the post (and the previous posts) doesn’t really do it justice.
    I thought it was a really dull flat looking pixel art game, now I discover it’s a lovely ghibli-style animated game.

  9. Joshua Northey says:

    Why oh why are games still using the terrible terrible walker mechanic…I mean I LOVED Pharaoh and Caesar, but that mechanic was terrible and led to every single development being exactly the same if you knew what your were doing because there was typically a single “best” configuration.

    It 2015, just simulate the walkers going in all directions and their catchment areas.

    • xfstef says:

      So what you’re basically saying is: Why don’t we just make all city builder games the same (just like SimCity & co) ?
      I don’t like you. Please don’t get into game development.

      • Stardog says:

        No, he’s saying the walker mechanic sucks. It existed for performance reasons back in the day. Now we can calculate paths easily. It leads to repeating the same city layout on each level because the walkers can’t even deal with intersections.

        Caesar 4 switched random walkers for walkers that would go directly where they were needed. It was much better, although the game itself wasn’t well made.

        • xfstef says:

          The argument that you are trying to make is a bit silly. The walkers are great and I agree that their algorithms should be enhanced. I don’t agree with throwing them away. They are one of the hallmarks of the Caesar series.

  10. davethejuggler says:

    I enjoyed what i could of this game. It does seem a bit shallow, but very pretty. However i constantly get crashes to desktop so i’ve stopped playing it. The devs sound like they’re on it for fixes, but if anyone’s considering it you might want to check the steam forums first to see if the crashing is still a problem. I guess it doesn’t affect everyone, but it’s happening every time i play after about an hour.

  11. xfstef says:

    “It’s a brief joy to watch the animations on each new structure you place, but then the clockwork loops become apparent and the spell is broken. No-one lives, no-one dies, all is puppetry.”
    Well that’s the whole point of managing a city, you don’t have time for every characters’ story. That’s not what managers / leaders are supposed to do. It is a completely irrelevant point given the genre.

    *facepalm* … Alec … why are you the one doing the strategy games reviews for RPS ? I didn’t like the games you picked for best strategy games, most of them were either awful of unheard of and you even forgot to mention some huge titles that no true strategy games fan would have forgotten. Then I looked at your stream from Cities: Skylines and you were almost horribly bad at playing it. You are not the sort of person that really gets into strategy games, it’s just painful seeing you discuss / play them.
    I’m sorry, this is my honest opinion and I’m not trying to start a conflict, I just feel like this is not your genre.