Most of us, in our day-to-day lives, don’t have to think about how our cities are put together. We’ll pay enough attention to know where our local shops are, where our friends live, and how to get to work or school, but outside of that, the structure of the civilisation around us is largely irrelevant.
Not so for anyone booting up Estudios Kremlinois’ Urbek City Builder. Released earlier in July, this game puts you in a position of total power over your very own city. You’re given control of road layouts, building placement, and legal policies. To mark your success, you’ll keep track of your material resources and the happiness of your subjects. Unlike some other city simulations that feature wild and unpredictable tragedies afflicting your populous, this game centres on providing players with a relaxing and creative experience that doesn’t offer too much challenge, while delighting with its charming voxel models.
Urbek City Builder is currently available on PC for £13.50.
Story – Who Needs One?
Most city builder titles don’t bother with much of a story beyond the standard ‘you’re Mayor of this city, make it great.’ In this, Urbek City Builder is no exception. In fact, you don’t even get that. There are no characters in this game. All information in the tutorial is given to you in simple, text-only dialogue boxes in the bottom right corner. The player is not so much a character in the game as they are a strangely-omnipotent and all-powerful cosmic force.
This isn’t, strictly, an issue. Most people going into city sims are not looking for a thrilling, overwrought narrative. Instead, the developers are clearly looking to appeal to the more hard-core players invested in resource management and city planning. They haven’t wasted development time implementing a story that will only appeal to a small section of their audience.
If you are in the market for a city builder with some kind of narrative to move you along, then you should be looking elsewhere. Urbek will not be the game for you.
Gameplay – Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day
So, if gameplay has seen the majority of the development focus, what have we ended up with?
It’s important to understand what you’re getting into before starting playing Urbek City Builder. More than almost any other game in this genre, Urbek is about city planning, more than management. You won’t be facing natural disasters like in Sim City and you won’t be worrying about the human element like in Banished. There is certainly challenge to be had in balancing your wide variety of resources, but once your city is well established, these generally start to manage themselves.
Instead, the core of the game is putting your city together just as you want it to be. Certain buildings have zones of influence that affect the infrastructure around them. For instance, having a lot of parks and food shops in a neighbourhood will lead to more expensive housing. In contrast, housing near polluting factories will regress into shanty towns and, if there’s no police presence, rebel houses. As a result, you need to put quite a lot of thought into how you organise your city. Furthering this complexity is the landscape itself. Deserts and tundra prevent you from building farmland, for example, and certain industrial buildings require proximity to resources like forests or iron deposits.
As you might expect, Urbek City Builder has a tremendous variety of building types to work with. To a new player, the sheer variety might be confronting, but the built-in tutorial does a masterful job of slowly revealing new mechanics in a way that is fast enough to stop the game from becoming stale, without becoming overwhelming. In what can feel like no time at all, you’ll progress from managing a handful of building types and three resources to monitoring an entire city with all the diversity that implies.
Not For Everyone
Where Urbek excels is creating a calm, reasonably-low stress atmosphere that lets you explore the building interactions on offer. If that’s what you’re looking for in a simulator, then this game absolutely fits the bill. That said, it’s not entirely without fault either.
While resources typically start to manage themselves after a while, it is possible to get stuck in a loop. To build almost anything, you’ll need unskilled labour which is supplied by housing. At the same time, in order to build new housing, you have to first implement a solid farming supply chain or you’ll run out of food very quickly. Most of the time this is relatively simple. However, due to the way in which building proximity works, you may find that placing a single new building can cause an entire neighbourhood to spontaneously upgrade all at once. This causes a sudden, massive drain on resources without the additional unskilled labour bonus provided by all-new housing. The result is that you can’t build more farms, as you don’t meet the labour requirements, but you’re also struggling to build housing as there’s no food available.
It’s a minor issue, but it feels more like a design oversight than an intended mechanic to challenge players.
What’s more likely to turn away players is that unless you’re invested in the chilled atmosphere the game is going for, you’re likely to get bored reasonably quickly. The building mechanics are impressive, but the lack of story or objectives available can make the experience start to feel stale pretty early on. This won’t be a problem for all players, but it should definitely be a consideration before purchase.
Audio and Graphics – An Ever-Changing Landscape
With the primary focus of Urbek City Builder being on city planning and design, it’s no surprise that the developers have gone to great lengths to make the building design as appealing as possible. In this regard, the game truly excels. Buildings morph and shift depending on where they are placed and what other structures are nearby. Making a small change such as placing a new food market can see entire neighbourhoods rejuvenate in new designs. The result is that even with the same basic structures, no two cities are likely to look the same. While it may seem like a small touch, this variance helps to keep the game fresh a lot longer than it otherwise might.
One visual aspect that can be a lot of fun while not having any real impact on gameplay is the ability to explore your entire city in first person. At any point you are free to switch to a pedestrian POV. This allows you to view the buildings much more closely and really get a feel for all of their unique details. Doing so has no impact or influence over gameplay, but it is a nice touch for examining how your city changes over time.
The audio is likewise polished. As a reasonably relaxed game with minimal sound design outside of the music, players are going to find themselves primarily listening to the soundtrack for long stretches of time. For this purpose, the music is well designed; none of it stands out as particularly memorable, but that allows it to fade into the background so you can focus on the rest of the game. Combined with the generally laid-back gameplay, this approach really facilitates you sinking into the game without getting distracted for hours.
Urbek City Builder was played on Steam with a key provided by Estudios Kremlinois.