The Universim is a city-builder/god-game from Crytivo that is reminiscent of Black and White from the early 2000s. The game has been in development since 2016 and only recently entered Beta, but after seeing all Universim has to offer, I fully understand why the developers are taking so long to finish it.
The Universim gives you an entire planet as your canvas and you start with only a single pair of Nuggets, the game’s pet name for people. From here you have to research your way through the ages, gather resources, build a city, and survive Mother Nature. Unlike most city-builder games, you don’t just plan your city and let your Nuggets do all the work. You are also capable of performing miracles like sprouting trees from nothing, calling a meteor shower, or “encouraging” your Nuggets to fall in love and procreate. Miracles are essential to keep the faith and ensure your precious Nuggets don’t stray from the narrow path.
The Universim is currently available on Steam and GOG.
Being in Beta, you can imagine that I found my fair share of bugs and issues. However, I was staggered by the sheer amount of detail that went into this game. As mentioned, this game is similar to Black and White from Lionhead Studios, a game I absolutely loved, but The Universim offers so much more.
Things start off simple with just two Nuggets and a few available buildings. Early resources include only wood and stone which your Nuggets can gather by hand, or you can assist with your Telekinesis ability. Once you get started on the massive tech tree, new things will unlock and your quaint little village will start to expand.
Resource management is a big focus in this game. While early buildings only require rough wood and stone, you later build refineries that turn these raw materials into planks and bricks. Iron comes in later along with gas, and oil and further refinement will provide you with plastic, fuel, glass, cement, electronics, fiber, and chemicals. Every resource requires a certain building to be built and each building needs to be unlocked with a specific technology, of which there are many, so it’ll be a while before your Nuggets trade their clubs for power tools.
Your city also requires water and later, electricity. Water pumps will move water from the lakes to reservoirs but if you add too many to a single body of water, you’ll pump it dry. You can make it rain over these lakes to fill them up again but it’s better to space your pumps more evenly. When electricity becomes a thing, you can decide what kind of method you want to use to generate it. I selected wind power, which is not very effective but is kinder to the environment and will make the late game somewhat easier. Electricity is stored in batteries that will need to be recharged by your power sources but can also be charged by supernatural lightning when the winds die down.
The Universim offers some form of automation as the game progresses. Residences for your Nuggets are automated from the start and you have no say in where they go, but later you’ll appoint ministers who take over other aspects of city management. For example, a Water Minister will add new wells where no drinking water is available and the Defense Minister will add watchtowers at the edge of your city. This works brilliantly because as the game progresses you’ll have more things to concentrate on and this mechanic ensures it doesn’t become overwhelming.
Happiness and Crime
Your city needs to be efficient in its production, but your Nuggets are not without feelings of their own. If your people are unhappy, the crime rate will rise and eventually, they’ll riot and burn things down. There are certain buildings that directly impact your Nuggets’ happiness, either in a positive or negative light, so you need to make sure the scales are always tipped in your favor.
Your interaction with your Nuggets is one of the most important aspects of the game. Performing miracles require Creator Points which can only be generated by the faith of your followers. Faith is easy to manage when you have 20 Nuggets, just pick up a rock or sprout some trees in front of them and they’ll be in awe of your majesty. However, with 400+ Nuggets, it becomes increasingly difficult to spend a sufficient amount of time with everyone and so their belief will start to wain.
Keep in mind that the circle of life will also claim your Nuggets with time and new Nuggets won’t always inherit the belief of their parents. If you need some instant Creator Points to take care of something urgent, you can always sacrifice a few Nuggets by tossing them into a giant grinder. This grants you instant Creator Points and could also add some believers. Do this too often and you’ll turn evil, although apart from different styling on your temple, this doesn’t seem to affect the game in any way.
Throughout the game you’ll be notified of issues that require your attention. I was once informed of a child that wandered into the woods and had to fly through the trees to find it. Mostly though, your city will be attacked by wolves and you’ll have to defend your Nuggets. This can be rather fun and you have several options for dealing with these pesky pooches. Mostly, I just picked them up and flung them around but you could also strike them with lightning or set them on fire. Just be sure not to burn down your city in the process. However, as technology progressed my Nuggets were able to arm themselves and eventually ravaging wolves were no longer a threat.
Eventually, a new village will spawn somewhere and, in my experience, will most likely be aggressive toward you. If they are close enough they might attack or send their priests to convert your followers but mostly you’ll receive the occasional request to trade. Trading was very useful since it gave me access to resources I was not yet able to produce myself. They never grow larger than a small village though so they never pose a real threat, and while trading is useful, you aren’t able to initiate it yourself and instead have to wait for them to need something. Unfortunately, because of these limitations, rival villages don’t affect the game in any significant way.
While waiting for things to be built, you can spend some time exploring the world and take in its beauty. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a fallen meteor that could contain blueprints from an alien race. Collecting these blueprints allow you to build special buildings like the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower. They do require an obscene amount of refined resources though so these will only become relevant in the very late game.
When you unlock the Cosmodrome, you are able to start work on a satellite. Currently, only the defense satellite is available with discovery and communication satellites still locked. However, it would seem that this points to life beyond earth and perhaps once the game is fully developed, you’ll be able to start a colony on a foreign planet. This is purely speculation at this point but the ability to build various satellites feels almost like a cliffhanger at the end of a movie that gives you that innate feeling that a sequel is just over the horizon.
The core gameplay mechanics already provide so much for you to do but the developers weren’t satisfied with just another city builder and so spent a lot of time adding fine touches that really make The Universim stand out.
Occasionally you’ll have 3 candidates running for mayor, each with their own agenda. One might want to focus on healthcare and will reduce the time it takes to prepare medicine, another might be pro-gun and will arm your citizens while increasing the accident rate, and another still will prioritize science over religion or visa verse. While the candidates are running for election, you can select which one will benefit you most at that time and “influence” the result in your favor.
Along with the day-night cycle, you’ll also see the seasons change. This holds more potential that may be unlocked as Winter is currently the only season that affects your city by freezing the water sources. This means that your water pumps and fisheries stop functioning so you’ll have to ensure you have enough resources stockpiled. If not then you can use your godliness to turn Winter into Spring and all will be right with the world again.
In the early game, you’ll need to build an archive. I didn’t see the use for this until I realized that only after doing this can you actually save your game since it’s only now that your Nuggets can “record their history”. This may not be the most practical mechanic but I love the fact that the developers thought of this and decided it should be in the game.
Every so often, a flying saucer will arrive and scout your world. Left unchecked it will eventually abduct one of your Nuggets and run for the hills. It was rather satisfying purging these green-faced thieves from my planet with lightning.
Near the end of the tech tree, you’ll unlock the Cloning Center. This allows you to design your own Nuggets from a number of hair, body, and accessory choices, and have them created from scratch. This is a slow process so it wasn’t really practical to do but it was fun nonetheless.
Graphics and Audio
The visuals are by far the best part of this game to the extent that it almost feels like the developers had the visual concepts done and then built a game around that, instead of the other way around. Even the UI is beautiful, you get the sense that an extensive meeting was held to discuss the design of every single element, nothing was just thrown in.
The majority of buildings have various templates they switch between as you progress through the ages. Residences probably have the greatest number of templates ranging from various stone huts to massive modern highrises. You even get a little shaking animation on the houses when baby Nuggets are being made, complete with little hearts shooting out and a “Do not disturb” sign on the door.
Watching the sun rise and set over your city is an experience in and of itself, which is even better when scrolling around the globe and watching the various lighting effects as you move. But it’s not just the big stuff that caught my eye. During winter the trees even bend over slightly because of the weight of the snow and when winter passes you’ll gradually see greenery appear again, it’s not an on/off kind of effect. Should you be focussing on a patch that’s currently receiving rain, then you’ll see the droplets rolling off your screen. Finally, when your buildings start reaching for the sky and you try to move through them, you actually get knocked back and your screen gets a few cracks like you actually flew into a solid object.
Honestly, I could probably spend an hour or more just scrolling around the map, gawping at everything.
The sound department deserves equal praise. The various sound effects were brilliant from the construction sounds coming from structures being built so the rushing wind when you move the camera around. The narrator was particularly entertaining with the best comments I think I’ve ever come across like “Your people are called Nuggets, partly due to their inability to keep their bodies in one piece” and “Aren’t they cute when they’re young? Don’t get too attached though, they’re still mortal after all. Besides, soon they’ll be old enough to have an opinion and make questionable life decisions. Let’s see how much you like them then.” His arsenal of comments is quite extensive and you hear from him less as the game progresses so he never becomes an annoyance.
My only complaint here is that while the in-game music works well, it often disappeared for extended periods and the silence was noticeably eerie.
The Universim has numerous great features that truly deserve to be recognized. However, there are several things that kept this game from completely stealing my heart. Some of these might just be due to the incomplete state of the game, while others might be conscious design decisions that I hope will get reconsidered.
First is the semi-working notification system. You get a lot of notifications throughout the game since you are notified every time your Nuggets decide to get married, have kids, die, or get arrested, even after I turned most of these off. You’ll also receive notifications when something significant happens like a building is about to collapse or a tornado is spotted. Unfortunately, while some notifications allow you to zoom to the event, you don’t always get that option and you’ll sometimes spend way too much time slowly combing through your city to find the thing that requires your attention.
The game has a large number of resources to manage, which isn’t that difficult in itself. For some inexplicable reason though, they included several different icons for each resource depending on whether you’re looking at your inventory, the requirement list of a new building or the trade screen. The resources are usually not named and sometimes you really wonder exactly what each resource is when the icons don’t match.
I mentioned previously that some of the construction is automated from the start and expands as you progress so you can focus on more important things. This is a great feature to have, however, it also means that you constantly have more buildings in the construction queue than you think which slows down construction of the buildings you feel are more important. This is not such a big deal but it is further exacerbated by the final, greatest flaw of The Universim.
The game speed… In some instances, the game speed is painfully slow. You have a speed multiplier which goes up to 1.5x but that simply isn’t enough. To see if this really is as bad as I thought I once left the game running while I got in my car to pick up my son from school, I then picked up my wife from work, headed home, and still did some menial things around the house before returning to my computer.
Some of the buildings I queued still weren’t completed and the only noteworthy difference was that my Nugget population went down a bit, so I’m guessing there might have been a wolf attack or two in my absence. I later realized that the reason the buildings in my queue weren’t being completed is that all my warehouses were full and I couldn’t get in the necessary resources to finish construction but due to the fidgety notification system, I never realized that I had run out of storage space.
Honestly, the slow pace nearly had me give up on this game several times which would have been a real shame.