From Cities: Skylines to Urban Empire – The market has quite a few City Building Simulators out and about, each with their own little gimmicks… And yet CityState still manages to bring a new angle to the table – But how well explored is it?
As the title might suggest, players of Andy Sztark’s PC title take on the role of forming a city state, ala Singapore or the United Arab Emirates; and whilst games like Tropico have treaded similar ground before, CityState takes the political suggestions of that title to a whole new level: You want to create a Libertarian Anarchy? Doable! A Liberal Democracy? Can do! A Communist Dictatorship? Yep! By answering a questionnaire at the start of play, mayors can quickly lay the foundation of their city’s values and ethics by which all future decisions will be judged.
…And it’s not much more complicated than that when starting a game. Lackluster tutorial aside, you have the option to play in either a standalone city (Custom Game) or create a new region for multiple cities to inhabit (ala SimCity). Custom Games will first provide you options on map size and difficulty, whilst Region Play will provide you with a pre-set continental world to plonk your state into. You will name the region, select the dominant ethos of it, it’s currency, and emblem – And edit it very slowly with a tiny paintbrush, should you so wish.
After you make your state flag in a basic but still appreciated pixel-painter, and answer those aforementioned questions regarding ethics, you’re good to go. And it’ll hit you straight away you’re playing something of a Sim City clone at its core. The graphics, with that distinct nice-but-slightly-blurred art is incredibly reminiscent of Sim City 4, and the fact that everything is buildable in broad zoning and squares will recall the original Sim City itself. Indeed, the game does feel oddly basic like that old one – Industry are those big polluting factories, roads are strangely thick and take up a whole square by themselves, and special buildings are earned through unlocks (Yay, museum get!). You’ll soon be plopping squares of green, blue, and red like it’s 1989!
You will notice a few changes though, even aside from the political additions; for starters, there’s no Police or Fire Departments, Schools, nor Hospitals to be built. Those needs are instead taken care of in the general budget, where you’ll set your Justice, Safety, Education, and Health spending per thousand people. It is also in the budget you, of course, tax the three major classes. The classes – low, middle, and high – all want to be a part of your city to one degree or another, with their interest shown in demand bars next to their icons. This demand grows and shrinks in reaction to your city’s state – Low land value places with jobs will attract a lot of lower class; the higher the land value, the wealthier your tenants will be. Each time a building related to a class is built, be it residental, commercial, or industrial, the demand bar will decrease – A bit of a change from the old RCI scales we may be used to, and a change requiring a little more awareness so you don’t waste demand on homes when there may not be enough jobs nearby.
From time to time, you’ll be interrupted by a pressing political issue at the upper left of your screen – The main gimmick of the title. These issues don’t really relate to what you’re doing at that moment, so you could be presented anything from deciding copyright law to government welfare. You will see the effects on general support and finances before you commit to any policy, and afterwards are informed of larger, unforeseen impacts, like affects on class growth, the environment, or even civil rights. The relationship between cause and effect isn’t always clear, though – Requiring public regulatory bodies to certify goods with unknown side effects lowers education somewhat, but I couldn’t tell you why that is.
The more in-line your civil rights and freedom index are with the rest of your region, the more support you can get from neighbours (Should you have any); the more inline with your government ethics, the happier your people will be. Those two don’t always overlap, depending on your government type, and your decisions may alter your government type and expectations as well. Being able to decide policy is a really nice touch, and entertaining too – It’s nice to think you’re moulding your city state into a world of your desires. Once a choice is made, you can view it in the Policy Ledger up the top left of the screen, and adjust any previously decided needed – Adjusting will destablise your stability, however. And low stability (Or equality, for that matter) will lead to things like riots. Which… Isn’t great, obviously. Riots will go around, blocking roads and destroying buildings, and causing you all sorts of fun until they’re gently dispersed/the issues dealt with.
And honestly, you need all the buildings you can get in CityState. The small variety on offer is kind of confusing, especially for what the title does have – There’s no train station, but you have a monorail; there’s no airport, but you can colonise space. Yes, you read that correctly: After building the Space Centre and sending out a probe, you have the option to found a space colony. The alien worlds do offer different visuals for land and buildings, and new gameplay, too; instead of mining for Gold or Iron, you’ll be mining for Spice, and uh… Setting up clinics and schools. Huh.
The strange choices continue into the music: It’s very late 90’s synth and jazz, and not especially pleasant, so you’ll be muting it super quick. You may as well take care of the sound effects whilst you’re there, too – Sometimes you’ll get some truly odd noises, such as the one I call ‘looming dread’, and there doesn’t seem to be any related cause or that. The options menu is basic, with you disabling some small animated features like clouds or adjusting the revolution. It does what it needs to.
CityState is a very ambitious title, with an awesome hook – Build your own nation on your own ideals. And that aspect certainly is fun… At first. But once the appeal of policy making fades, you realise you’re playing a fairly basic city sim that’s made some odd decisions during its development. There’s missing basics, and some aspects are just really unclear, even if you’ve done the tutorial. This is certainly an amazing achievement for a one-man game, with neat graphics and the like, and it has a lot of potential. But right now, that potential just isn’t fully realised. Keep an eye on this one, though – Even during the writing of this review the game received an update, despite releasing early last year. I think one day it will indeed get there.