It’s funny, isn’t it, the things which make you fall in love with a game? I’d first heard of early access colony sim Going Medieval two years ago, at the very start of its development. It looked promising enough, for sure. But pre-alpha colony sims are like the planktonic larvae of crabs - there’s millions of them, and most of them get eaten by fish, so I don’t tend to pay attention to them until they’re big enough to nip my fingers.
Even when Going Medieval did scuttle into early access at the start of the month, I have to say it seemed a blunt-clawed specimen. It was the same as RimWorld, basically. As in, identical, save for a medieval setting and a ton of missing features. After a moment or two to get used to the UI, I was playing my first game on autopilot, and all it really did for me was make me want to play RimWorld. And then I discovered the wooden beam.
The wooden beam is one of the first technologies you can research in the game. It’s nothing much by itself; just a fat stick, really, which spans the gap between two facing walls. It looks pleasant enough, I suppose. But the wooden beam unlocks the singular piece of magic which marks Going Medieval out as a competitor to the game it otherwise imitates: the third dimension.
Yes, that’s right. You can build multi-storey constructions. That’s Going Medieval’s killer feature, and I’m saying that with a completely straight face.
Honestly, it spanners my brain to think that it has taken this long. Dwarf Fortress, the game which RimWorld itself took inspiration from, was originally played in a flat, one-layer world. It gained its so-called z-levels at the end of 2007, and the effect was transformative. Even so, to the vast majority of humanity still stuck on the steep side of the famous Dwarf Fortress learning curve, the pleasure was entirely inaccessible. Indeed, so were all of the rest of its pleasures, until RimWorld appeared in 2016
But RimWorld, for all its accessibility, had taken the step back into two dimensions. And despite all the marvellous complexity it would go on to acquire in other respects, its flatness would remain hardwired into the foundations of the game. Dwarf Fortress had three dimensions but wasn’t accessible; RimWorld was the other way round. As such, the world had no choice but to wait another five years to get it a man that could do both.
Going Medieval is that proverbial man. And yes, I know. What about 2010’s Bum Forts, Nate? Fuck’s sake, man, how can you ignore 2014’s Skyscrapers Of The Dogmen? Actually, Nate, I think you’ll find 2012’s criminally overlooked Goblin Slumlord did both things magnificently. OK, sure. I know other games have reached for this particular grail, over the years. But they were either shit, or abandoned, or simply unlucky, wizening instantly into skeletons under the pitiless gaze of the immortal Steam Knight. Through a combination of luck and judgement - and assembling the triforce of colony simulation, multiple z-layers and an easily comprehensible interface - Going Medieval has shot the Steam Knight right in the bonce.
What’s it like to play? As I said, like RimWorld. Just imagine RimWorld, but with lutes and stuff, and you can build things on top of each other. That really is a big deal, though. I’m almost embarrassed by how huge a difference it makes to me, to be able to build proper halls with thatched roofs, stone keeps looming over forests, and cellars packed with smoked meats and hay.
Also, to be fair, while Going Medieval is still in that fairly barren, aimless state which all early access sandbox games are born into, it’s a much more solid play than RimWorld was at the same point in its lifecycle. But to be even more fair, it owes that head start almost entirely to RimWorld. Developers Foxy Voxel have cherry-picked bits and bobs from all over that game’s lifespan to populate their day one feature list, while also building in a bunch of the quality of life fixes which RimWorld dev Tynan Sylvester patched in as he went along.
It’s very competently done. I was impressed with how rarely my little yokels acted with disastrous lack of foresight, and how little time I had to spend either micromanaging them, or working out why the hell supposedly basic things weren’t happening. It helps that I already know RimWorld back to front, I suppose. But the fact that my instincts translated across so effortlessly shows what a robust job Foxy Voxel have done.
The flipside of how smoothly Going Medieval’s little settlements run themselves, however, is that I found the game almost devoid of challenge. That wasn’t entirely unwelcome, as I do think there’s room for a colony sim that doesn’t adhere to the brutally unforgiving “losing is fun” mentality. But I rather suspect that Going Medieval thinks it’s a bit harder than it actually is. There’s a bit of ye olde ludonarrative dissonance as a result, with the game’s “survive against the odds” tone let down by the cakewalk of actual survival. I didn’t lose a single villager in a weekend of play, and after spending hours building impregnable castles, I felt somewhat let down that they were never assailed by anything more than a few oaves with bludgeons.
I would also say that Going Medieval lags most behind its inspiration when it comes to a pretty key part of a colony sim - the colonists themselves. At the moment they just don’t feel particularly different beyond their raw competence at various tasks, and they don’t have any real identity as characters. I only thought of mine as “the research woman”, “the stabbing man”, and so on.
Given that there’s also very little going on with random events and the like, Going Medieval really struggles to achieve the kind of self-seeding story generation which made Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld almost magically compelling. It’s a particular shame, given that Grey Alien’s excellent Helen Carmichael is working with Foxy Voxel as the game’s writer. Where her output is used, it adds some much-needed flavour to the game, but it doesn’t have anywhere near enough time in the sun.
All this is easily tweakable, of course, and that’s what early access is for. But I’m inclined to think the progress made by Foxy Voxel this summer will make or break the game. Going Medieval has sold extremely well in its first week, but if its buyers are anything like me they'll have run out of things to do in the first six or seven hours, and will even now be seeing the limits of the satisfaction provided by multi-storey stockading. With the right embellishments made now, this game could well survive to outclass the very game that inspired it. Without them, however, it may yet end up languishing along with Bum Forts and Skyscrapers Of The Dogmen.