Strategy and survival games have a lot of similarities. Both Starcraft and Rust have an emphasis on collecting and managing resources. These materials are often sparse and you’ll probably have to fight for them. It was only a matter of time before a game came along trying to blend these concepts together. They Are Billions merges a strong RTS foundation with tense and rewarding survival elements to create an experience that could eventually be fantastic.
Building a settlement and defending it from endless undead hordes is a compelling and addictive loop. The gameplay is fast and responsive and the depth you want from a strategy game is all here. There’s just not a lot of reasons to keep playing. Spamming survival mode - which challenges you to last as long as you can in a randomly-generated map - is fun. It's just not going to keep you coming back for long. The game’s unforgiving difficulty is what encourages replayability the most, enticing you to learn its systems intimately. It’s possible to win if you can last long enough. However, I’ve yet to see that in my 12+ hours of playtime.
Base-building is satisfying and rewarding
The reason They Are Billions is so challenging is twofold: absent tutorials and a tiny margin for error. The first issue is pretty self-explanatory. The game just does a poor job of setting up its systems, throwing you into the deep-end in a way that’s initially pretty off-putting. They Are Billions’ traditional RTS gameplay makes it intuitive to anyone with experience with the genre, but it could do with some quick pointers explaining what the various resources - food, energy, wood, stone, and iron - are used for.
The second half of the game’s difficulty - its small margin for error - is what makes it so addictive. It’s what encourages you to strive for perfection because any less just isn’t good enough. The undead are always present, always closing in on you in a claustrophobia-inducing way. It's as frightening as it is inspiring. If a small swarm penetrates your perimeter (which needs to be sturdy and secure) it’s probably game over. Your structures become infected if they take enough damage. Basically, that nice little cottage you just finished building could start spitting out nightmares at an alarming rate.
This is where They Are Billions gets tense and complicated. You can pause and you'll probably be doing that a lot. It's essential when you're trying to keep on top of everything. You have to manage the constant acquisition of resources, build up defenses and maintain an army to go with it. All the while, there's an endless need to expand to outpace the hordes. This is a multi-tasking simulator the way every great real-time strategy game should be.
They Are Billions is loaded with a lot of charm. There’s plenty of personality in the eye-catching steampunk art style and the quip-laden voice lines that units spout. The bombastic music flares up into intense arrangements whenever a swarm approaches. The world of Billions could evolve into something quite unique, but it's not there yet. Numantian Games has outlined a promising future despite delays, including a campaign boasting 40-50 hours of new stuff. There’s no telling how long we’ll be waiting for that, though. If they can put together an engaging story, add some more variety, and flesh out the onboarding process then They Are Billions could become something quite excellent.
For the moment, though, the game’s rather thin. It’s been in Early Access for two years and still feels like a proof-of-concept. The concept is a resounding success, but there’s still not a full game here. Although you can check out the cool stuff people are working on in the Workshop-supported level editor, the Survival mode is the crux of the experience and it gets old pretty quick. There’s a captivating experience here that seamlessly blends strategy and survival, but some major updates are in order before They Are Billions gets a confident recommendation.
TechRaptor previewed They Are Billions on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.