It's funny how we often use games to reaffirm a perception of the scale of where we are in our lives, especially a game like Sapiens. Our existence is often tied to one location, one area we call home, and the surrounding community. For many that is their entire life, and it can be a peaceful, simple life or a complex, fast-paced one depending on where we live. For others, it becomes a question of wanderlust; simply put, where do you want to explore next?
Sapiens, from developer Majic Jungle, really puts that perception into focus. It is another indie survival simulation game, but it is one that is ambitious in its vision of not tying down the player. Instead, it is about connecting them to the world around them, showing how small and insignificant your little community is in the grand scheme of survival.
The objective of Sapiens is to build up your tribe from simple hunter-gatherers into a stable, powerful civilization on a large, earth-like map. Like most survival-sim games, the overall goal is to slowly build up your civilization by gathering resources, growing food, and building shelters. The more successful you are, your small tribe will likely flourish into a small settlement.
The real star of Sapiens is its use of scope. The world is massive, procedurally generated, and filled to the brim with various ecosystems and biomes. A major draw for Sapiens is that infinite possibility that is out there. At the game's start, you pick which tribe to start with on your little corner of the map with the likelihood of you never reaching the other end is equal parts exciting and daunting.
The world also serves as a primary motivation; Sapiens is a survival sim where exploration and literal world-building are important factors in the game's overall growth. As you build up a stable settlement for your chosen tribe, you can connect with other smaller tribes, go out on major expeditions, and even set up trade and hunting routes between settlements. This is a long-term goal of course, but a viable mechanic that provides vast amounts of replayability.
A lot of gameplay also revolves around that exploration. Of course, the plan is to build up a settlement, but the location of your settlement often dictates the abundance of resources available to you. So if you are near a forest, you have plenty of lumber, while a water source can give access to branches and fish. You need to select your starting tribe carefully, as they are tied to a location that can make the difference between survival and death quite easily.
This also ties into your investigation skills. Your tribe members essentially learn in almost real-time, combining their known skills and knowledge by investigating an item, which fills up a meter that unlocks a new crafting material or skill. If you stare long enough at a bale of hay, you come up with the idea of a thatched shelter. You have a fairly standard progression tree to follow, but your tribemates can cultivate their skills fast, unlocking investigations on items with relative ease.
The scope of Sapiens is vast and impressive, but where it falters a bit is through gameplay. The controls are currently not as intuitive as they should feel. For one, you must go through several radial menus to perform tasks, like gathering resources or building and preparing tiles. The radial menu has a lot of options that you can follow but it suffers a bit from mediocre design.
The iconography is not well explained either, even with tooltips. Over time most of the actions will become easy to recognize as you get used to the images, though at first no real explanation is given as to what the images mean. The bigger problem is access through the game's controls. Several actions require a specific keystroke or the clicking of a specific icon, sometimes that icon is buried or hard to find in the radial menu due to size or simply because it's behind another action. So say you want to bulk move or collect branches, you need to click a double plus sign that is smaller on the radial menu, then select the size of the space you want to collect items from, before going back to the radial menu for your normal actions.
The issue with the UI seems to be one of design. Majic Jungle seems to have wanted a simple and elegant UI to compliment the game's minimalist tone, but it comes across as clunky and unintuitive more often than not. It feels like a UI built for a controller, especially with the radial menu options. The problem is the added (and arguably unnecessary) complexity of commands for various tasks gets in the way of any meaningful progress. Even with tutorial support, it is difficult to navigate and plays poorly.
The control issues are a major hurdle for overall enjoyment, which is a shame because what Sapiens does offer is pretty solid overall. Visually the game is impressive; there is a lack of full-blown textures, giving everything a late 90's polygon feel, but the sheer size of the game makes this forgivable. In high definition, the lighting and bloom effects enhance the simple aesthetics to make a game that looks gorgeous in the right settings.
That scale is also present in the ideas you can uncover. One of my favorite extra bits in Sapiens is how you can eventually create roadways and set up mapped trade routes from tribe to tribe, provided you survive long enough to grow in that size. Setting up ideas, creating new innovations and technology, and even going through the standard progression of the life cycle all lead up to trade routes being established, and your tribes becoming civilizations. That long-term goal for Sapiens is really rewarding to be sure, but when the most difficult challenge is wrestling with your control scheme, it feels somewhat hamstrung.
It is clear Sapiens has a lot to offer if you are patient enough with it. The sense of scope is massive, the presentation is minimalist but impressive in its scale, and the gameplay does work and follows some logical progression. It is just such a shame that the game's controls currently hold it back from being better than it can be. Thankfully, there is still plenty of time for improvements, so I am sure Majic Jungle will continue to improve Sapiens to be the best version of itself, one worthy of its ambitious scope.
TechRaptor previewed Sapiens on PC with a copy provided by the developer.