The cosmos, despite its infinite beauty and wonder, can be an uncaring and deadly place, which we have chosen to explore by cramming men and women into rocket-propelled tubes, inside which they uncomfortably bob around as their bones and muscles deteriorate. The space-faring people of Beyond These Stars, an upcoming city builder from the creators of Before We Leave and publisher Hooded Horse, have a better idea: they've set up shop on a huge space whale known as Kewa.
We have undoubtedly reached peak city builder, where we now have at least two of them letting us build a civilisation on the back of a massive, fantastical animal. Beyond These Stars shares a few things with The Wandering Village, but there also seems to be quite a lot that sets them apart, and the space setting is one of the big ones. You'll travel through a procedurally generated galaxy, one with planets that can be discovered and exploited, letting you establish new outposts and gobble up lots of resources, but only for as long as Kewa decides to hang around.
"Kewa is an intelligent being with their own desires and agenda," Balancing Monkey Games creative director and lead developer Sam Barham tells me. "When the player wants to travel around the galaxy, they have to ask Kewa to take them where they want to go. While the player will always be able to reach their destination, if their relationship is poor then Kewa might choose to take a different path—perhaps through the cold depths of space or past a dangerous asteroid field. Also, the player's ability to find new places while exploring is partly linked to their relationship with Kewa—the better the relationship, the further they can see."
City builders often throw wrinkles like disasters in your way to spice things up, but most are defined by the tight control you have over your surroundings—every lever you pull creates a logical reaction. So giving your city, or at least the creature you're building your city on, agency is a fascinating curve ball, feeding into the tension created by resource scarcity. If you take advantage of Kewa, you are going to be giving up control over their route through the cosmos, potentially putting your vulnerable civilisation at risk. If the relationship deteriorates completely, it's game over. But if you don't, what then? You need resources to survive. It's a compelling conundrum.
Those of you who played Before We Leave will spot plenty of similarities, as it's a direct sequel. At the end of the last game you would have constructed a Whale Charmer, after which all your "Peeps" would have boarded it. And like Before We Leave, it's a hexy city builder, where adjacency bonuses will inspire how your settlement develops. You'll also be constructing wee spaceships again, and ferrying resources between different places on the whale's back.
Before We Leave encouraged exploration, and Barham says that's a side of things that's been greatly expanded in Beyond These Stars, as evidenced by the solar systems full of planets where you can plonk down those aforementioned outposts. Other new additions include terraforming, and multi-tile bridges, "which will increase the options the player has for constructing interesting towns".
Beyond These Stars is heading to Steam and the Epic Games Store later this year, initially in early access. The first build you'll be able to check out will give you a sandbox mode that's expected to keep you busy for around 10 hours, at least in a single playthrough.
You can expect the city-building basics, as you unlock new resources and buildings, lay out your settlements and fiddle with logistics. Through mining and terraforming you'll be able to change the shape of the land, and challenges will include things like making sure you have enough air and water to survive. The outpost system will already be in the early access build, as will the procedural generation. "The player chooses the general layout and settings," says Barham, "then the rest is filled in procedurally."
As for what's to come as the early access phase progresses, Barham teases alien races, which you'll be able to trade with and go on quests for; a "more interesting" simulation of your citizens' lives; lots more buildings, resources and "things to discover"; and a story campaign that will let you "explore the history and future of the Peeps and Space Whales".
We're really spoiled for choice when it comes to city builders at the moment, but Beyond These Stars definitely seems like one we'll have to keep an eye on.