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Pharaoh A New Era review: the venerable city builder king has never looked better

Ptolemy something I don't know

Loathe as I am to become one of those "want to feel old?" types of posters, this review requires me to point out that the original Pharaoh came out in 1999, almost 25 years ago. It was one of that era's City Building series that included Zeus and all of the Caesars, a run of games so good that they earned the capital letters. Pharaoh also happens to be one of my foundational video games, and I played it when I was knee-high to my big brother's desk, at a time when family homes had one (1) yellow-grey computer with a CRT screen. And now it's back, baby.

Pharaoh: A New Era means I can play that game of my childhood on my shiny black RGB-lit bastard. Honestly though, the "A New Era" part is a bit much. Sure, the updated graphics are fabulous and the quality of life changes mean it plays like smooth peanut butter to the 90s' extra crunchy. It's a good remake of a solid game, but the mummy in the casket is fundamentally the same.

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If you didn't play Pharaoh the first time around (and there's a statistically significant change that you didn't), it's a city-builder, with the associated trappings. You splot down houses, and ensure that your new citizens have everything they need to keep upgrading those houses and thus maintain a stable population in as efficient an amount of space as possible. You need to build supply chains of food and goods to do this, which all need employees, and so on and so forth. The city is the point, and this is an isometric one, where you can look down on two walls and the roof of your buildings with immense satisfaction.

A level selection screen from the main menu of Pharaoh: A New Era, open on a mission called Pharaoh's Navy
Pharaoh has had some of the best tutorialising campaign missions I think you'll find. They're great at easing you in from fundamentals to more advanced city planning. If you just want to get in and play, you can pick any story mission you want from the home menu, or play in a sandbox.

Pharaoh's main hallmark is that it's set in Ancient Egypt, so your citizens want things like beer, pottery, entertainment in the form of jugglers, and apothecaries and priests strolling the sunny streets. In this remake you can zoom in on them to see the painstakingly redrawn assets in detail. The priests wear different things depending on which deity they serve (and, by the way, that's something to keep an eye on: Ra wants his fair share of temples, but it doesn't do to neglect any regional favourite gods, and they can all make their satisfaction or displeasure known with different blessings or curses). If you're good enough (I am not) you can build yer actual pyramids, and work your way up to Alexander The Great's time.

My favourite Pharaoh-specific feature is the Nile. In other city builders you designate areas for farming, or plonk your farms down on fertile areas marked by the fact that they're a bit grassy. In Pharaoh you farm on the river's flood plain, the workers feverishly harvesting before the waters rise and deposit more rich silt. You find yourself naturally setting up supply chains to work in rhythm with this rise and fall. A New Era adds a nilomter indicator so you can track the flood season and how fruitful it's going to be, allowing you to plan for lean times.

There are other small changes that make a surprising difference to how the game feels. The new UI makes it easier to navigate all your build menus, but the ability to copy-paste buildings is a blessing. Freed from worrying about some of the unnecessary minutiae, you can worry about the necessary minutiae. How much room is there on the flood plain for more grain farms? Is Osiris mad at us because we threw a festival for Bast but not him? Are we importing enough bricks for our monuments? Do we need another work camp so we don't take those workers away from the farms? It's a game that doesn't have as many layers as something made in 2023, but the ones it has are decent, and have an endlessly pleasing theme. It's nice to be mining clay and gathering reeds to make pots and papyrus.

Farms in the flood plain of the Nile in Pharaoh: A New Era
A nilometer prediction in Pharaoh: A New Era. it's going to be a good year

The most significant change in A New Era, at least in my mind, is that you can now choose to have your industry and service buildings pull workers from a global pool, rather than using recruiters. The recruiters are still there, a process by which a little dude wanders towards your population centres and knocks on doors looking for unemployed people, but I've never liked it for a very specific reason.

In Pharaoh you control the patrol routes of vendors by putting roadblocks at intersections - so, for example, your water carrier doesn't wander half way accross the map and miss out all the houses - and it's possible to create The Sims-style traps by putting a roadblock behind and in front of someone. In general I like the roadblocks; they don't stop any citizens with a goal, like taking goods to and from storage, but they force you to plan your cities in elegant district loops. The problem is that recruiters, for some reason, don't count as having a specific goal, so unless you do a quick bit of deleting and rebuilding your roadblock he'll never recruit anyone. The global worker pool just means that you cut out the middle-man.

A busy storage and industry section in Pharaoh: A New Era, will several full storage yards, granaries, and workers busy making papyrus, beer, and pots

That's long-winded, but it's a decent example to illustrate A New Era as a whole. It smoothes out the rough edges of a now-retro game to make the experience of playing it more fun. If you're a seasoned Pharaoh-head it's lovely to play, especially with the recreated soundtrack and the dedication to the look and feel of the original. Special props should absolutely go to the devs, who've obviously been at great pains to enhance what was already there and give nice licks of their own paint where they could. It doesn't just look like you remembered Pharaoh looking, it looks better. If you're new to it, A New Era is the definitive version of a stone-cold classic.

Has the world moved on from Pharaoh? You bet your dynastic ass. It doesn't have the complex AI interactions of storybuilders like RimWorld, you don't have loads of different advisors relaying tensions around the city, or worries about public utilities in the same way as a Cities Skylines, and it's probably not as inventive in some ways as the new class of city builders like Timberborn, Foundation or The Wandering Village. In 2023 any kind of Pharaoh, even one with an impressively rebuilt tomb, is still a very well preserved old king. But what a king it was, and A New Era preserves it very well. How can you not feel a bit magic building a giant statue of a cat in the middle of your desert city?

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