I’ve always been in love with the idea of Dwarf Fortress, but the actual act of playing the game, both in dealing with the game’s visuals as well as the control scheme, have stymied my attempts multiple times. I’ve tried other games over time that attempted to give the same epic feeling while improving both the graphics and the interface, but nothing really ever held my attention for very long. A few of those games had reached a limbo of almost, but none has really provided enough to tell the kinds of grandiose, memorable stories that seem to be so common in the Dwarf Fortress community.
When I first heard that Gaslamp Games, developer of personal all time favorite Dungeons of Dredmor, was making Clockwork Empires I was very excited. I’ve tried to keep my hype meter from spinning out of control, and I avoided the game entirely while it was in Early Access as I knew that the level of depth that Gaslamp Games was going for was going to be difficult to achieve. I’ve spent twenty-five hours with the game post release so far, and I can say that Clockwork Empires has successfully landed smack dab in the middle of almost-limbo-land.
There is already a lot to like about Clockwork Empires. The steampunk meets Cthulhu setting combined with an excellent sense of humor make for an inviting experience, and the interface is relatively easy to navigate. The music is enjoyable, changing based on in-game situations and turning ominous when something bad is happening in your colony, although the rest of the sound effects are pretty minimalist. It’s satisfying to build an efficient colony up from nothing, and different biomes can be unlocked that require different approaches and present you with varied environmental challenges. Colonists change over time and keep journals of what they’ve been up to. There are numerous factors that effect their quality of life, such as food, a place to sleep and the status of their workplace.
Unfortunately, Clockwork Empires still has some serious technical issues. The game crashed to desktop a handful of times, and even though the foundation appears to exist for some truly complex interactions, they don’t happen very often, even when you ignore all of the warnings. Occasionally, a few colonists will sneak off and join a cult, or a few fishpeople will attack your colony, but, as it stands, all of those situations are extremely easy to deal with. Even when you intentionally let the worst outcomes come to fruition, they aren’t all that negative.
I had one situation where a colonist awakened a tentacled obelisk-monster named Quag’garoth. The massive black monstrosity shambled over to my colony and began attacking buildings. My militia tried to fight the monster off, and a few of them died, but before any real damage was done the monster turned and walked away, leaving my colony and going off the map entirely. I was confused, but thankful, as I didn’t want to lose my entire colony. As it turns out, that’s about how it goes when bad omens arise, whether it’s a giant monster, a swarm of fishpeople, or a foreign nation that’s pissed off at you. Whatever the trouble, it causes a little bit of a stir, and then it’s back to life as normal. These moments are where the game really needs to shine, but it’s very rare for any of these events to play out any differently than you’d expect.
In its current state the game just feels too easy and, unless you are actively trying to sabotage yourself, there doesn’t really appear to be any way to outright lose an established colony. Even the hardest biomes are easy to handle, they just take more time to get completely established. There are a lot of events that happen, but the outcomes of the events just aren’t that exciting because they usually end up being small blips that you forget about mere minutes after the fact.
Clockwork Empires does have different difficulty levels in the form of three biome tiers, but in my game I was only able to unlock two. The mid-tier is supposed to be available when you get a colony up to a population of 30, while the most difficult tier unlocks once you’ve reached 100 population. I have the easy biomes, and the difficult biomes, but the 30 population biomes remain locked. Even still, the cold, ‘difficult’ biomes really aren’t that much more difficult, but they do take longer to civilize. The different biomes also have different resources available, such as the crops that you can grow by default, and so they do require a slightly different approach to be successful, but you won’t need to change your playstyle radically to succeed.
The game has two speed settings, normal and 2x speed, although after you get used to the controls and figure out how to get things running smoothly it becomes excruciating to play on the default speed setting. As I continue to play I find myself wishing that there was a 4x or even 8x setting, even with the amount of micro-management that the game requires. On my computer, the game begins to gradually chug and slow down once a colony starts to really grow and sprawl, generally when I get to about 100 population, to the point that even on 2x speed things play out pretty slowly.
Speaking of micromanagement, depending on your disposition, the level of player involvement with the moment to moment happenings in the colony can become very high. As with other games in the colony management genre, you dictate jobs that you’d like performed and then the members of your colony will perform them as they see fit. Things get more hands on as you begin to assign Overseers (the personalities of the game, and the managers of the workforce) to the various shops and factories in your colony.
Each location that you build has various modules that can be placed in it (ovens in the kitchen for example), and you have to specify which product is produced on each module. While you can set production queues, you can only queue one type of item per module, so you need to constantly bounce around changing build orders, or build so many modules that you can have a bit of everything queued for use as needed. For me, the constant micromanagement is the best part of the game, and it helped me keep busy while playing, which is necessary due to the relatively lackluster external conflict that the game serves up.
There are times when your build orders don’t get followed, and it can be very difficult to determine why, even to the point that it feels like a bug or a glitch. To date, every time a build order hasn’t been followed I’ve been able to discover the issue and resolve it. Most often, the culprit was a misplaced module, or an inaccessible ingredient. It took me quite a bit of time to figure out that you can inadvertently cover up goods placed on a stockpile, and completely block a door with careless module placement. As long as you are mindful of where you are placing things, you can keep your colony humming smoothly.
All told, keeping your colonists fed and happy, keeping your relations with foreign nations high, ensuring a steady source of raw materials, and moving up the tech tree in order to produce more and better goods is fun, but the whole of Clockwork Empires can feel a bit too easy. In its current state the game is more of a relaxing colony management sim than a nail biting struggle against constant peril and danger that will present you with stories that you will remember forever. There is every indication that Gaslamp Games is going to continue to work on and improve the game after launch, but if you are looking for that game that is easy to play, but still provides those awe inspiring epic emergent moments you are going to need to keep waiting, because Clockwork Empires isn’t there yet.
Clockwork Empires was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by Gaslamp Games
Clockwork Empires has a solid foundation, but all of the events that should be challenging and tell memorable stories mostly end up being small blips on the game's radar.
- Great Theme
- Good Interface
- Visually Appealing
- Great Sense of Humor
- Lack of Difficulty
- Underwhelming Emergent Narrative
- Performance Issues and Bugs