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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.