Herding skeletons and settling scores in Rise To Ruins

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The skeletons don’t care about the storms I’m lobbing around the place. They’re marching onward, through the maze of walls and gates I’ve constructed, and a little bit of rain isn’t going to deter them. I was hoping for skull-splitting bolts of lightning but instead I’ve just made everyone a bit damp.

Rise to Ruins is a village-building simulator that’s somewhere between the complexity of Dwarf Fortress and the relative simplicity of The Settlers or Banished. I’m currently preparing to watch my latest creation collapse.

Blame it on the zombies. Reading Fraser’s column on the nifty They Are Billions gave me a hunger for some kind of building, management and survival-against-the-odds sim. Rather than doubling down on building steampunk dams against the tides of undead I decided to take a look at Rise To Ruins, an early access game I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while now (it used to go by the title Retro Pixel Castles; I’m glad that is no longer the case).

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It first launched on Steam back at the end of 2014 but I’d barely played it until earlier this week. That means I can’t comment meaningfully on how it’s changed over time, but even a glance at the development blogs suggests lots of major additions and minor tweaks have been made over the years.

I was hoping for something that combined my love of The Settlers’ serene production chains and idyllic scenery with the tooth and claw of a RimWorld or Dwarf Fortress. I wanted villagers with some autonomy, the kind of people who wouldn’t need me to hold their hand every step of the way from humble beginnings to eventual ruination.

The name led me to expect some difficulties. It’s an evocative title that says, “no matter how much you achieve, you’re going to be Ozymandias in the end. Mighty works reduced to ruins and your name filed as an example under ‘hubris’ in the dictionary.

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Rise to Ruins isn’t a game about failure but because there is no goal other than the ones you set for yourself, unless you’re interested in making a settlement that lasts forever, you’re probably going to see all of your people perish eventually. I’ve only played for a few hours but I find that the greatest threat is in the first days, when you’re balancing the need to defend your perimeter, and to expand and put all of the necessary buildings in place for future developments.

The perimeters need to be defended because there are monsters spawning out near the edges of the map. They’re the usual suspects – you’ve got yer slimes, yer skellingtons, yer spectres – and they’ll chew through villagers with ease if they get close enough. So you build a wall. And then they break down the wall. So you build guard towers and that works for a little while but eventually there are too many monsters and they break down the walls again.

That’s when, if you’re anything like me, you turn to the dark arts. I figured the lightning storm would be a devastating spell with a fairly large radius. What I’ve learned since is that it’s mostly useful for topping up water supplies during periods of drought, or for extinguishing fire elementals. The villagers do seem to run away from the flashes of crackling lightning though and that amuses me, so when the skeletons were chopping everyone to bits, at least I was laughing.

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Reading around some guides and watching tutorial videos taught me something that would have been obvious if I’d pay attention to the Steam store page. Rise to Ruins has “some tower defense” elements. So instead of fortifying the village perimeter, what you really want to do is create winding paths lined with guardposts and turret-like towers. As soon as I started to concentrate on that part of the game, snaking elaborate enclosures across the map, I felt like a mad mayor (or god? I think I’m technically a god). Previously I’d been trying to make a handsome settlement for everyone to live and die in, but now I was forcing my people to build walls in great abstract patterns.

They had utility, these mazes, but anyone finding the ruins would probably assume there was some religious or arcane significance to the labyrinth constructions. In truth, the AI is designed to take the path of least resistance so funnelling mobs into elaborate architectural arrangements is the best way to take them out of the picture. It’s a bit like redesigning your home to resemble the Winchester Mystery House in order to deter burglars, and even though I find the process of building these elaborate traps quite satisfying, while I’m doing it I feel disconnected from the other part of the game.

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That’s the part that initially drew me in: a small-scale settlement management sim with enough intricacies to keep me occupied, but not enough complexity to make playing a chore. I’m not sure there’s as much freedom as I’d like, thanks to what I’ve found to be a fairly rigid build order in the initial phases, but Rise to Ruins is charming. That counts for a lot since the underlying processes of gathering and building are quite repetitive.

Maybe as I play more I’ll start to reconcile the tower defense spaghetti masonry I’m building out in the wilds with the well-ordered and aesthetically pleasing villages I’d like to devote most of my energies to. Right now, the two areas feel at odds with one another, which is why I’m mostly playing in Peaceful mode, which lowers the spawn rates and lets me concentrate on construction.

There’s plenty to admire here and the prolonged early access period is a symptom of the one-person dev team rather than of neglect. Last month’s update added a new race, The Catjeet, who will trade with your village, and can even be hired as labourers. There are also significant upgrades to the socialising systems, determining when villagers chat with one another, and when they’ll pair up and make new villagers.

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It’s an odd game. Initially I found it frustrating because even as a veteran of Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld, I didn’t get to grips with the interface very quickly. Once I’d got my head around its idiosyncrasies, I started to enjoy myself. And then I really started to enjoy myself when things went wrong and the world felt alive with danger.

Now the dangers feel a little blunted, or at least a little less lively. It’s the combat and survival aspects that feel a little dull rather than the placing of farms and housing, mostly because the optimal solution – those great, many-angled paths – clashes with my desire to build pretty things.

I’m still enjoying myself enough to persevere though and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if I find a happy medium one day soon, and realise that I didn’t need to build a thousand winding roads after all. You can find out much more on the forums and news sections of the official site.

24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Building stupidly long pathways is optimal in a lot of games, and it’s always stupid and ugly.

    I wish games would stop relying on it.

    I think I actually own this title. I played it back when it was named somewhat worse, and found it dull and tedious. It sounds like it has gotten a bit better but not better enough.

    Oh well, it’s a single dev, and he’s done a ton more than I ever have, so what can I really say?

    • modzero says:

      In many it’s actually an unfortunate side-effect. It was a thing in Rimworld for a bit as well – then came the killboxes, which make a bit more sense, and now there’re enemies who will breach that too.

      • Jeremy says:

        That was the thing in Rimworld that I always had a hard time configuring correctly. I wanted there to be risk, and attacks, but after a while a fully decked out SWAT team appearing on my planet every few months became absurd.

    • GepardenK says:

      To be fair stuff often gravitate towards “tower defence tactics” because it is the natural result of, well, physics. You’ll even see those stupidly long pathways in RL castels – those big enough for such a expansive wall formation least.

      Obviously there are ways to avoid this issue. But you’d be surprised how easily tower defence mechanics can sneak into a strategy/management game even when they’re not intended.

  2. Tiberiumkyle says:

    Love the article! Wanted to pop in and say hi, mostly to point out that the defenses can actually be fairly simply, just takes some time to learn the mechanics. Example, from my current in progress village: link to i.imgur.com

    The steam forums and especially the official discord are pretty active, welcome to anyone that wants to hang out, chat about the game, get help, etc. Even the dev is active on both.
    link to discord.gg

  3. sagredo1632 says:

    Saying a game is relatively simple compared to Dwarf Fortress is like saying 50 is relatively small compared to infinity.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Screenshots look remarkably similar to Creeper World 3. Overall the art style, also the palette of colors and the differentiated color topographical terrain. And no smooth lines. It’s so disconcerting I almost wonder if this started as a mod of CW3. It would make some sense give the operation of the tower-defense aspect, and the “path of least resistance” scripting. Not a bad thing if it is, marginally surprising if it isn’t.

    • Rayvolution says:

      Dev here,

      Believe it or not, when I started development in 2014, I had not even heard of the Creeper World series somehow. It wasn’t until after the game launched into Early Access on Steam some people mentioned the visual similarities.

      I still have never played it though, so I can not attest to how similar the mechanics may be. :)

      • Artist says:

        Starting a statement with “believe it or not” makes it always so much more…believable…

        • poliovaccine says:

          I donno, would be pretty unnecessary to lie about it. Citing it as a direct inspiration would have been fine, so I don’t see what possible motive to lie they could have. Quite a small, weird little thing anyway.

      • Premium User Badge

        Nauallis says:

        Thanks for the response – Creeper World is definitely worth playing if you like TD games, as it offers a different take on that subgenre of RTS, but be cautioned that Creeper World is a time sink. A single level will take a typical player 30-45 minutes to complete. It’s a bit of a niche game as well.

    • Kolbex says:

      Thanks, I was trying to remember what other game these screenshots reminded me of, and yep, that’s it.

      • hprice says:

        I thought Factorio … seeing the first screen shot. But I’m sure there are a few games with that kind of aesthetic … or am I?

    • treat says:

      I had an immediate reaction to the art for that very reason. Both this and creeper world evoke a “warm” sort of feeling in their presentation, probably due to some of the relaxing evenings I’ve spent lazily pushing my way through the pink clouds of Creeper World 3 in the past. Sadly this doesn’t look at all like my kind of game, but it sure does look outstandingly okay.

    • Alberto says:

      I think this is a look some more games have explored / arrived to, because it’s functional, readable and pleasing to the eye. You can see the topography, elevarion and biome in a single look.

      I guess there’s a coding / design reason behind, too, but that’s far beyond me.

  5. MrEvilGuy says:

    Why didn’t castles in real life historically use tower defence schemes with windy pathways?

    • Beanbee says:

      They did, or rather ring walls and the like. Problem is that humans will try attack where it’s weakest. Also building cost a lot more effort than any RTS, or game for that matter, would have you believe.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Here’s one example, the straight line from the keep to one gate is 130m, but the path for attackers is 325m surrounded by holes for archers etc.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Mostly because humans aren’t as stupid as vidyagame creeps, and when faced with an obvious deathtrap will usually try find a way to climb over, dig under, smash through, or go around rather than cheerfully marching to their deaths.

      Also because people actually had to live in castles, and making everyone coming in or out weave through a maze for 10 minutes would get really old any time you’re not at war.

    • GepardenK says:

      Oh they did. It’s usually less elaborate than what you find in games because walls are expensive and the castle needs to be practical too, but the basic concepts are all there. Like pathways that force you to take an entire loop around the fortification to reach the second gate after breaching the first one.

      It’s mentioned above that humans are smart and will always attack the weakest point. This is true of course but if your walls are strong/high enough the weakest point will always be the gates, so castle defenders could pretty reliably control where attackers had to go (assuming they had a big enough castle in the first place).

  6. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    This looks like an interesting little colony ga-
    *sees zombies*
    Never mind. Every game is more boring with zombies.

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