What is it? An RTS/city builder hybrid with a once-beloved franchise name.
Release date Feb 17, 2023
Expect to pay $60/£50
Developer Ubisoft Blue Byte
Reviewed on Core i7 9700K, RTX 2080 TI, 16GB RAM
Steam Deck N/A
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
The Settlers’ raison d’etre, back in the series’ ‘90s salad days, was to make building cities and armies fun and accessible. In a period when Command & Conquer was as ubiquitous as COD is today and Age of Empires was life itself, it made sense to see cute characters in chocolate box towns offering an alternative to younger or less experienced strategy players. I was one of them—happily building up Roman cities in 1998’s The Settlers III without the faintest clue about supply chains or damage stats. It was a foot in the door to the harder, more thoughtful stuff.
Unfortunately for The Settlers: New Allies in 2023, once you’ve walked through that door and spent any amount of time with the harder and more thoughtful stuff there’s really no going back to this. 13 years after the last Settlers release, Ubisoft Blue Byte, a talented studio with many fastidiously crafted Anno games also to its name, can’t seem to find a way for the cutesy aesthetics, paper-thin combat mechanics and city building to all come together in a modern context.
I spent a long time lamenting the absence of a fast forward button in this game. It’s a puzzling omission given that previous Settlers did allow the player to speed up time as they pleased, and perhaps the intention behind it is to force you to focus on your production chain instead of swanning blithely along without noticing that your sawmill’s been without lumber for days on end. But if that is the case, it’s a misguided bit of design.
Instead of sharpening my focus on the minutiae, watching everything play out at the pace of a tectonic plate only led to festering resentment. The production chain from raw resources to units and items ought to be this game’s best bit, a chance to carefully plan the placement of all the beautifully modelled buildings and cast a benevolent eye over each of their roles in turning, for example, stone blocks into hammers for engineers. Or iron ore into iron ingots into axes for soldiers. As you dig deeper into the campaign and your settlements become more complex, there is enjoyment to be found here, building efficient little clusters of buildings and watching people run resources between them in well-drilled fashion.
In these moments, when it’s all working, The Settlers: New Allies does a convincing impression of a game that newcomers to strategy and city-building would enjoy. There’s something about the bright colours and the string section in the soundtrack that just relaxes you. Something about the way residences snap together in little terraces as you place them, with bridges over roads, that scratches your itch for order and even quaintness in this cynical, chaotic world. It’s wholesome. Friendly. Easy to read.
Six hours later, though, ‘easy to read’ has turned into ‘frustratingly shallow’. When a problem pops up in the logistics of your town, the root cause is almost always that a quarry or lumber mill has run out of harvestable stone or wood. There’s a clear solution to that, and it’s placing a quarry or a lumber mill near some more stone or trees. But from the point at which you realise you’re out of iron to the moment warriors start walking out of your barracks again, several eternities feel like they’ve passed. It’s not a meaty logistical challenge to solve, just a long-winded one.
And that would be acceptable, just about, if the RTS half of the game was deep and engrossing. But this is The Settlers—even in its MS-DOS pomp, all you ever had to do to achieve military supremacy was recruit a throng of warriors and right-click on an enemy tower. So it proves here, too. You can zoom in on the fracas and observe each axe-swing in more detail now, but it’s hardly Total War happening down there. Health bars deplete with little to no regard for flank angles, unit fatigue or elevation advantage. The tactical element of combat only reaches as far as your army composition—high-health, low-DPS guardians, high-DPS warriors and ranged archer and arbalist units—but even then, I suspect that simply having an overall numerical advantage is all the ‘tactics’ you need to win most fights.
There’s worse news on the technical front: a sturdy fortress this is not. In multiplayer skirmishes lag issues are the fiercest enemy of all, causing settlers to stand stock still and utterly refuse to be selected. It’s a smoother ride in single-player, but I did still have several loading screen freezes and just a couple of crashes to desktop just after loading a save.
No redemption can be found in the campaign’s surprisingly dialogue-heavy story, either. You’re journeying between the islands of a beautiful tropical archipelago, fending off bandits and searching for stolen treasure and artefacts, but doing so looks a lot like building settlements repeatedly and then clicking the cutscene icon above your base’s headquarters after hitting certain objectives. Like everything else here the characters and dialogue are endearingly naive and wholesome, like a European chocolate advert dubbed in English, but that’s not sufficient to get you invested in the plight of your people.
A good RTS campaign should pose a very specific challenge in each mission, the way Starcraft II’s original campaign does. You rip up your previous playbook and stroke your chin about how to navigate a new environmental obstacle or resource constraint. There isn’t enough of that here. The scale of the operation you’re managing grows, but it doesn’t feel fresh from one act to the next.
There are very specific terms upon which you can enjoy this game, however. Every fibre of it seems intended to relax and comfort you, from the painterly and bucolic scenes that Ubisoft’s Snowdrop engine conjures up to the utterly forgettable but nonetheless tranquil campaign plot arcs. For a game in which you’re regularly sending scores of humans to their doom or massacring enemies in their dozens, it’s oddly peaceful.
And there is some value for genre newcomers and younger players, too. What might seem oversimplified to one player might be a handy entry point to another, although those aforementioned technical issues don’t discriminate by experience level.
Maybe I’m looking for positives this hard simply because it’s so difficult to kick a game that seems so earnest, and so keen to make you like it. It feels like shooing away a dimwitted and badly behaved but extremely cute puppy. Longtime Settlers fans are perhaps better served by the upcoming Pioneers of Pagonia, whose developer Envision Entertainment includes founders of the original Settlers games. But for greener strategy players who don’t want to be subsumed by complicated mechanics, or just nostalgic armchair generals in dire need of relaxation, there’s something here. If you have the patience.