Review: Settlements

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This game was selected as our December 2018 Reader’s Choice Review. Learn more on our Patreon page.

Management sims aren’t really expected to have the best user interfaces in the world, and that’s always surprised me. After all, you’re spending more time with the UI in games like these than almost any other, scrutinizing resource charts or assigning groups to tasks. Somehow really clunky and awkward interfaces still get a pass, as long as the core simulation is good, and Settlements is one of those titles that really puts that notion to the test. It’s a clever, creative game with incredible depth, all hidden within a UI pulled straight from Windows 3.1. And if the first part of that sentence matters a lot more than the second, you’ve got dozens of hours of adventures and challenges ahead of you.

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You’ll be unsurprised to learn the world has ended again, and while the means aren’t specified up front the ends certainly are. This brave new world is covered in a thick layer of tough brambles, rendering the land uninhabitable save for small clearings amongst the vines and thorns. It’s in these pockets that you must foster your titular settlements, building homes and workshops, tasking your people with construction and research, and eventually forging back out into the world to find more clearings, survivors, and answers. As you recover the technological progress of the past you’ll also learn the truth of what brought the old world to its knees, and contend with that same threat yet again.

You might have visions of Banished or Rust floating through your head from that but Settlements is a purely menu-driven simulation, right down to some unexpected restrictions. For starters, each of your settlements can only contain six buildings. This is constant throughout the game, and provides the main impetus to expand to additional settlements. At least two of those precious slots always needs to go to houses as well, leaving just four for your resource gathering and crafting and such. All resources are shared across your settlements, at least, and while residents don’t transfer between them for work they can all be used to scout or battle or adventure when the opportunities present themselves.

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Settlement management is fairly straight-forward, with resources to turn into items or research and upgrades to buildings and defenses as you tech up. To find new settlements and advance the plot, though, you’ll need to send your people scouting. Based on their prodigious list of stats and skills they’ll have chances to make progress towards a new settlement, find treasure or optional battles, unlock new quests and mini-dungeons to explore, or get ambushed. Combat is turn-based, pitting four of your settlers against up to eight foes at a time, beasts like rats and wolves and madmen. Properly equipping your folks is the main concern, as you can often overpower enemies with preparation. Groups on both sides can include reserves that do ranged damage and can be swapped in for wounded units though, so there’s some strategy to consider in tougher battles.

Building up your settlements will advance you through ages of development, from the stone and bronze ages all the way up to and past modern tech. That means that your survivors, originally clad in furs and wielding clubs, will one day be running science centers and manning missile batteries against your foes. That assumes you can last long enough against the massing enemies that attack your settlements more and more frequently. Your failure state is a “doomsday” counter that increments with certain events and losses, and must be battled back through other actions. Still, this isn’t a pressing concern for most of the game as long as you keep your settlements developed and your people properly outfitted.

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Settlements is a game of impressive scope and content, one that can easily last you dozens of hours for a single playthrough. The only problem is that it’s hidden behind one of the most hideous interfaces I have ever seen for a game. This goes far beyond programmer art or even placeholders, with inconsistent resolutions, confusing layouts, and even Windows system prompts for important notifications. There are aspects of the main interface that won’t even be used for your first dozen hours, while key information is hidden in random windows elsewhere. Your resource trackers must be manually configured, and every resident has to be manually equipped and assigned to tasks. And some windows like the task list load so slowly you can watch the contents be drawn in real-time.

It’s a testament to how engaging the gameplay is that the UI wasn’t an immediate deal-breaker for me. Game feel and quality-of-life are huge aspects of gaming for me, and everything about how Settlements is presented is an absolute affront. But it’s a very different kind of survival sim, both in structure and in plot. The revelations I’ve come across in the first ten hours or so are tantalizing, and the challenges I’ve overcome have been compelling. You’ve really got to consider how big a difference the UI in a game can make for you, but if it’s something you’re willing to be flexible on, give Settlements a try. With so much to learn, explore, and conquer, this is a title that can utterly consume your time if you let it.

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