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There’s a question that I see asked less and less often in the building sim genre, and that’s how you want to build things. I don’t mean where you want to put buildings or even if you want to do modern or classical or sci-fi cities. What I’m talking about is how you tackle problems of growth. The cornerstones of the genre like SimCity and Anno offered you options that allowed each of your cities to feel like distinct places shaped by their circumstances, whether they be clean, high-tech metropolises or filthy industrial hellholes. Newer indie builders like Depraved don’t seem as keen on offering similar options to players, instead forcing them to follow the same paths of development on every map, and leaving the challenge to fitting those same paths into different spaces.
Before you ask, no, I don’t know why the game is called Depraved. There’s nothing depraved about building a burgeoning frontier town in the old west, at least until you start encroaching on Native American territory. Starting from a single well-stocked settler wagon, you must construct a town for pioneers and gunslingers, providing them housing, services like doctors and saloons, and the production facilities to keep everything running. As the town grows you’ll expand from hunting wildlife to farming, baking bread, and brewing booze, open mines and smelt ores, and eventually start new towns of your own to trade with. But the frontier can be a harsh and unforgiving place, with vicious wildlife, foul bandits, and the land’s original inhabitants, none of whom are going to be very welcoming.
When you start a new game you’re given the option to turn off all those threats, and I heartily encourage you to do so while learning the game. Depraved isn’t a complicated building sim, and the camera controls, building hierarchy, and resource management is going to be immediately familiar to anyone who’s touched the genre before. The learning curve here is really based on some of the quirks of the economy, like how essential buildings are sometimes locked behind population requirements or how a key resource for all buildings is one of the last things you can produce yourself. You may need a few practice starts to learn all the specific pitfalls here before you really get going on a town, but it’s mostly an intuitive process.
Once you get your little hamlet humming, you’re certain to notice limitations cropping up as you expand. The first is at your town hall, as you can only build within a limited radius of this original structure. You can pay hefty, increasing sums of money to expand that radius, but it won’t always be easy to save up the cash within the confines of your current borders. Money flow is probably the biggest hurdle in Depraved, as you need to build residences to bring in money, but larger populations need more services, which will cost you in upkeep. You may find yourself in situations where you need to leave the town running in a stable state for twenty or thirty minutes to save up the money for your next building spree. I’ve been working hard to gain access to the second of three citizen types, but the limitations of land and money have been holding me back as I keep expanding my current homes and services just to improve my cash flow enough.
It’s in these moments of waiting to play the game again that you really start breaking down what it is you’re doing here. There’s a very clear progression to the buildings in Depraved, with new structures like butchers and bakers unlocking when you have enough citizens to need them. But there’s no alternatives to any of these, no options to skip the pig ranches or potato farms on a particular map. You need every building to grow your cities, always in the same order and always arranged the same way for maximum efficiency. The randomly-generated maps will sometimes demand some clever placement, due to mountains or rivers or bears in your way, but ultimately every one of your towns in this game will have the same features and grow in roughly the same way.
Is it fun, building cookie-cutter Wild West towns like this? It is, honestly. If you want to compare it to something like Banished, it’s probably got even less variety but more character in the setting and details like little shootouts with bandits. There’s the loosest of RTS aspects to the game if hostile entities are turned on, because you can direct your citizens to move and attack directly. Also, enemies will torch your buildings if they get the chance, and in fine RTS tradition, if they burn down your town hall, your whole town self-destructs. Honestly I don’t normally play builders for conflict, and the foes in Depraved are particularly aggressive, which can really put a damper on your construction plans. On the other hand, turning aggressors off seems to completely eliminate the need for some buildings, so it’s hard to say which way you should go on this count.
More than anything else, it’s the lack of variety that hurts Depraved the most. Your lack of options in how you build your town is going to become very apparent on your second or third attempt. And there’s no campaign or scenarios, just random maps to play on, which only exacerbates the problem. It’s a decent enough builder at heart, with a dozen or so hours to really see everything that your town is capable of. Once you’ve seen that, though, you’ve seen it all. In terms of variety, there are far better builders out there than Depraved, but if you want that particular Wild West flavor, this isn’t all that bad a place to find it.