Review: Cliff Empire

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Review copy provided by developer

The eternal struggle with reviewing Early Access games is focusing on what’s there, and not what’s promised. It’s easy to be lured by plans of sprawling features and endless updates, but you can never be sure how it’s all going to pan out. I say this because Cliff Empire is an extremely promising start, a very solid foundation on which to build a complex and engaging city builder. And it’s plenty fun for what it is right now, enough to spend a few hours building improbable metropolises in the sky. It’s just not going to last you much longer than that.

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Yep, it’s the post-apocalypse again, this time brought on by nuclear war leading to a permanent radiation layer blanketing the surface of the world. The lucky ones up in the space stations got the bright idea, then, of dropping giant artificial cliffs (or mesas, or buttes if you like) onto the Earth that tower above the deadly fog. You can build rather lovely post-modern cities atop of them too, and that’s exactly what you’re tasked with doing here. However, every cliff has its own particulars in terms of resources, and to cover the gaps you’ll be developing several skyward societies in parallel.

The game starts with you picking a spot on one of your cliffs for a storage depot, which is dropped pre-built and pre-loaded with resources and drones from orbit. From there you have a fairly specific building order (explained by the fairly comprehensive tutorial missions) to get your first city running: You need a power source, residences, landing platform, food and water, battery charger, and portal for selling things back to the folks in space. After that you can start experimenting, though the tutorial goes on to explain plenty more, but it’s possible to get yourself into a death spiral if you don’t get the essential services and a portal to make money from going.

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Some of those features may sound oddly specific, and that’s because Cliff Empire has some pretty unique conventions to deal with. Batteries, for example, are used to keep power running in your city when your renewable sources falter. Solar panels don’t work at night, obviously, and wind can change from day to day. If you’re over-producing on power, the excess can be shunted into batteries that keep the lights on, or are used to build vehicles like drones, or can be sold for profit. Drones are how all your goods are moved around, so expanding you fleet from the airport is important as your city grows. They also move goods to the portal when it’s open, so the more drones you have the more goods you can sell per visit.

You’ll learn the basics of these systems, but not the specifics of balancing or manipulating them and that’s nowhere more apparent than in attracting new citizens. That landing pad I mentioned is the only way to get folks to move in, and they only show up when a full pod of 25 are willing to join your great society. You have several bars monitoring this, including current population, max population (based on residences available), number of people who want to live there, and jobs available. You need to grow that third metric but the game is never clear on how exactly, meaning you can have tons of empty apartments and offices without any idea how to fill them. It doesn’t help that you have fourteen different needs to satisfy (shown at the center bottom in unincremented bars) which add to a nebulous prestige number that probably affects who wants to move in?

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I’m diving into all the pitfalls of the game up front because you need to be ready to experiment and start over to get how everything works together. The interface feels very much like a work in progress, with some easily mis-clickable buttons and terribly unhelpful resource counts that don’t seem to reflect your full stocks or actual production capabilities. A lot of what you do is going to be based on feel as you get more comfortable with the game, which can be frustrating with a simulation this technical. It is forgiving, though, even if your prestige dives and people move out you can recover once things stabilize. Money will always be the greatest concern because you can’t really save yourself if you go broke, but after a few tries it shouldn’t be too hard to build a profitable city.

And that’s when Cliff Empire really sings, when you’ve got your farms running and your pumps pumping and the nuclear power plant making stable power, because then you can start testing the limits of what you can build. 3D printer factories can build consumer goods for your citizens and engines for your drones and zeppelins, the latter of which provide transportation and tourism between cliffs. For more direct travel you build huge suspension bridges that allow trading between cities, which really opens up the optimization possibilities. There are all manner of services to provide your people like health care and entertainment, and a research system that can improve just about every facet of your cities.

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There’s a lot to build, and a lot to learn about building, but you should get a grip on it all within the first half-dozen hours or so. All you can do is build at the moment, across a trio of neighboring cliffs, but their resources and layouts are randomized every time you start a new game. And the randomization here is no joke, because you can get cliffs with virtually no uranium or solar generation or even water sources, forcing you to connect your cities and trade goods in new ways every time. Once you get through the tutorial missions you’ll start cycling through random events like droughts and storms, and be tasked with supplying the orbital stations with specific goods. At that point, all that’s left to do is fill up your cities with a careful balance of people, goods, and services.

Overall the concepts are strong and the building has quite a bit of strategy and balancing to it, but you can more or less solve it pretty fast. The hardest part will be fighting the interface to get the data you need, but fortunately that’s the only weak part of the presentation. The art style is an impossibly clean, impossibly white contemporary look that resembles an architectural model brought to life. Coupled with the camera effects you can conjure some striking images, a surreal vision of a sterile tech-heavy society of the future. The sound design is nice and soothing as well, though without anything particularly memorable about it.

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Is it worth it right now, then? I would say yes, if you’re looking to get a few hours of unique building and trading out of it. Like I said, this is a solid foundation for a truly special sim, but just not a whole lot to do with it at the moment. The random starts can get you some mileage out of it and optimization is a real challenge given the limited data feedback, so there’s at least as much to do with it as there is something like Banished. If anything, it makes me particularly excited to see what’s in the future for these strange cities in the sky, because I really quite enjoy what I can do with them already.

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