To look at the videos of Colony Survival you might think it a top-down city builder or a blocky management sim. In reality, it’s a Minecraftbut. That once safe and sound (now vastly oversubscribed) subgenre that sees you building a personal castle out of giant blocks from a first-person perspective and fending off nightly monsters, like a really lonely King. But here, you’re not so alone. Colonists in the form of AI-controlled helpers can be recruited to farm crops, mine ore, grind flour and cook bread. This is Minecraft-but-with-serfs.
It’s also a bit Minecraft-but-tower-defence. Colonists can also be assigned to guard duty. These rigid peasants stand on the spot you mark out for them and never move. They do not sleep, they do not eat. They just stand there and, when night falls and the slow-moving zombies come out of the woods, they shoot any enemy in range with a deadly arrow. They are less your servants than they are immovable turrets with a face. I say face – they have two hollow eyes and nothing else. Still, I would have liked such protection on my first attempt at a town. Sadly, I didn’t figure out how to place these guardsmen in good time, which led to some unfortunate consequences.
There are some, er, quirks to learning the game, you see. The tutorial consists of a multi-paged dialogue box (see above) which unloads all the elements and controls on you at once, also accompanied by an honest-to-god PDF that explains how to take your first tentative steps. For some reason you can’t pause to read either of these things (in-game time just continues to pass) which makes stopping to figure out how to build an oven for baking or how to create new berry farms a problem, since if you have some colonists, the zombies will come for them as soon as the moon rises.
That learning process scuppered my first attempt at creating a township. I had made a wheat field and a berry farm and was working on a two-block deep moat to keep the undead at bay (they can't climb more than a single block and will pathfind their way around any such obstacle). But I had failed to place down quivers, the “workstation” necessary to recruit the archer guards. I watched as the poor folk of Pimpleton were eaten alive in their beds by plodding zombies, who then vanished in a whiff of code as soon as they touched our colony’s central flag, rather than trying also to kill me.
The second town, Goitreville, went much better. I put the colony’s flag down in a flat area with few trees and recruited a couple of berry pickers. But the most important task was to get protection, I had realised. A moat was finished and two guards put on stoney pedestals within the first day. They watched over the only entrance to the settlement. Every night the zombos came and were taken out with frightening efficiency by the turretmen. One arrow is enough to fell a single zombie. I have 300 arrows.
What I don’t have much of, though, is food. This is the point Colony Survival is its most compelling. You need a certain amount of food every day, dependent on the number of grubby chattels you have. But it also costs 50 food units to recruit a new colonist. Here the invisible tech tree compels you to add more to your town. “I need bread for the workers,” you think. “But for that I need flour. But for that I need a grindstone, and a pleb to work at it. But for that I need more berries.” So you set to work, planting fields, constructing ovens, slowly adding more people to the village as you go. Running low on arrows, you add a miner to work the bedrock, where all the minerals live. You put a bed and a crate down there, so he never needs to see the light of day. You are a good chieftain.
And then, at a dozen or more workers, that’s it. You’ve built all you can seemingly build. The farms and people are more or less self-sufficient, the miners and the smelters make new iron ingots, the craftsman makes new arrows, the forester provides new logs. There’s even a mint to automatically create gold coins that are only used in your own shop. Where the shop gets its flax seed from, I have no idea.
In other words, the colony is, uh, surviving. The waves of zombies that come at night grow for every new bondsman tilling your fields or baking loaves, but the horde is always manageable. The tower defence infrastructure for Goitreville involved nothing more than the two guardsmen who were placed there on the first day. Later, I added a third, not because the zombies were becoming a problem, just because I had the resources and there was nothing else to do. The only other threat here is starvation and we are hundreds of berries away from that and, as long as I don't recruit a dozen people in a single sweating flash of hubris, we always will be.
The word “undercooked” gets used often in this column. Which isn’t surprising for a column about half-formed things. But this really earns that honour. For the three or four hours it takes you to found your town, dig the moat, create the fields, hire the guards, build an economy (of sorts), add a thatched roof to your sleeping quarters and an archway to the moat’s “bridge” (which is really just a zombie killing zone), Colony Survival is compulsive in a recognisably crafty way.
But once you hit the limit of its technological advances, there’s not much more to push you on. The zombies don’t pose a serious enough threat to rethink your defences. The colonists don’t get sick or sleepy or die naturally of old age. Once everything is running smoothly, there’s nowhere else to go. You could build a giant castle like the ones demonstrated in trailers and screenshots, but aside from fulfilling a sense of satisfaction that would be much better served by any other contemporary survival game, even Minecraft itself, there feels like no reason to do this.
More resources, jobs, enemies and features will likely add to that lifespan. So long as the developer doesn’t take the easy road of simply upping the resource cost of villagers and craftable items – something that would make it more of a waiting game that it can already be. But even then it’s hard to shake the feeling those hours spent building your town will feel aimless by the time you reach the last craftable do-hickey. If you play in multiplayer, you might have more fun designing whole cities with your pal Clancy, but you'll also run out of meaningful things to build twice as quickly.
Maybe the biggest problem is that the threat never really feels monstrous or interesting. Normally, when I feel done with a settlement in a town-building game, I like to take away some key comforts or necessities and watch it fall into ruin. If I remove the archers from Goitreville, the end will come quickly but with yawn-worthy aplomb. The zombies will take the shortest pathfinding route to the beds where my dirty peons sleep and kill each of them in a single blow before marching to the colony’s flag and disappearing into nothingness. They won’t break down walls, there’s no last scuffle for survival. My colonists can’t be woken or forewarned, they can’t fight back for themselves, nor will they try to flee anywhere. I think that’s my biggest complaint. For a game with “survival” in the title, nobody’s trying very hard.
Colony Survival is on Steam for £14.99/$19.99. These impressions are based on build 1916436