Review: Clockwork Empires (PC)

clockwork-empires-box-artDeveloper: Gaslamp Games
Publisher: Gaslamp Games
Genre: Simulation
ESRB: n/a
Price: $29.99

 

The simulation genre is one that I do not intentionally avoid, but I also tend not to gravitate toward them due to the considerable investment in time required to “master” the mechanics and achieve whatever it is that the developers intend to be the “end game.” Gaslamp Games approached us here at GUG with an opportunity to check out their labor of love, Clockwork Empires, which I have read has been in Steam’s Early Access for two years. With a little research, I have found that this game has been in development since at least since 2012, as revealed through a seemingly comprehensive developer blog that I will be reading exhaustively in the next few days. It is always a delight to see indie developers finish their projects—whether or not the product is polished might be another issue entirely. 

Content Guide

cult-shrine

Violence: Besides the natural violence of hunting, there will be encounters with predators of the humanoid kind. During these, it is typical blood to fly in such quantities that cleaning up the bedlam becomes its own chore. I do not know what happens when I intentionally leave bodies to rot, but due to what appears to be some inconsistency in programming, sometimes the skeletons visually hang around without being buried. Additionally, the gore can sometimes overstay its welcome after a raid if there are not enough overseers free to lead the sanitation effort. My wife was watching a session and claims she saw one of my villagers decapitated by a fishman during a skirmish.

Of special note, cannibalism is possible in this game. I do not know what triggers it, but it is listed as a Steam achievement.

war-is-hell

War is hell! I have never left bodies unattended because I have always built a graveyard. Players may be given the option to bury bandits or leave them for scavengers. Fishmen can be butchered for meat if one so chooses.

Language: No concerns detected.
Drugs/Alcohol Use: NOT building a tavern will have adverse effects on the morale of any village. As a history professor once told me, “In every colony ever founded in America, the first two buildings erected were always a tavern and a jail.” Prisons are not an option in Clockwork Empires, but rest assured, every township will be knocking ’em back…or wallowing  in their sorrows.
Sexuality: I am actually disappointed that this is not an issue in Clockwork Empires, as it is family-friendly to a fault here. My wife was first to indicate the silliness of a multigendered colony where nobody is reproducing. Yes, colonial life is hard, but nobody having time to form families and churn out babies is beyond my capacity to suspend disbelief, especially in a simulation. Instead, this game features a “friend” system where villagers will share innocuous hugs.
frontier-justice

Administer a little Frontier Justice? Don’t mind if I do!

Spiritual Content: Somewhere between the steampunk potential in a high-level town and the early 20th century aesthetics lies Lovecraftian influence. Should one fail to establish a chapel, it will be only a matter of time before some villager feels compelled to “hear voices” and pursue them, leading to the formation of a cult, complete with villagers wandering into the wilderness to worship at erected shrines. Sometimes occultist activity agitates oddities that may attack the village.  Clockwork Empires leaves at the discretion of the player how far they would like to explore these elements; I choose to suppress them at every turn.
chapelPlayers should know that even after founding a chapel, there are four doctrines which each can adopt. I have not tried running multiple chapels with divergent dogma, so I know not where that could lead. The person appointed to lead the chapel can be tasked with investigating and foiling cults, but I believe that my game was glitched to the point where that scripted event could not be resolved. It gave me the option of having a villager lead the extermination of the very cult that he was leading. How contradictory!

Review

colony-2

I regret beginning a review with criticism before discussing any of its merits or mechanics, but jankiness for lack of better word is as much a core feature of Clockwork Empires as all the things I imagine Gaslamp Games intentionally wanted its audience to experience. The image above is day 35 of my second attempt at a colony. I was unable to finish this colony due to what I suspect to be a bug related to a scripted event. Much like the despised Realm Divide in Total War: Shogun 2, Clockwork Empires showcases a “check” to ensure that players do not continuing playing bored and unscathed: an inevitable invasion that requires a formidable show of force to repel. My conjecture was that some combination of bandits, fishmen (aquatic humanoids), and the impending invasion froze my game to the point where I could not even exit without a hard manual quit through Task Manager or a Not Responding prompt. Discouraged that I had poured several hours into this colony that could not be revived, I considered abandoning the game and beginning my review because though the game had crashed on me relatively frequently, I was always able to quickly reload and return to where I was. This time however, the glitch was severe enough to corrupt an entire save. I vented about this on Twitter, and a developer reached out to me:
dev-tweet

My diagnosis was close. Via email, I was told that my village spawned at the edge of the map due to a neat river that ran through the usual center position. The scripted invasion “searched” for my village at the center of the map and could not find me, triggering the infinite loop. The coder even thought this bug was neat, and provided a fix so that I could continue my game if I so choose.

From Aurion: Legay of the Kori-Odan to Seraph, I am always encouraged by developers who proactively interact with their audiences (or at least with me when I go off, lol). With renewed enthusiasm, I fired up Clockwork Empires again to restart my colony. Because my previous session was broken before I reached 100 population in a tropical biome, desert, the most difficult setting, would remain unavailable to me. 
colony-3

My second attempt at a colony. To the north of the metalworks (single furnace in its northeast corner) and downhill is a quarry. Here I grow chili peppers for sustenance and bamboo for booze. Soon I will tech up to coffee for trade…if the traders ever make it to my camp without being chased away by fishmen.

Any session of Clockwork Empires begins with the selection of a biome, or setting. By default, only temperate is unlocked, and after achieving certain criteria such as surviving to day 50 or reaching a population quota will tropical and desert biomes become available. At the start of a map, players are given several overseers (yes, I cringe, and would have preferred “superintendent” or even “taskmaster” for historical reasons that should be obvious) and workers. Overseers can be interpreted as “hero” characters as they are the units that are automatically assigned tasks such as cutting trees, foraging, mining stone, building structures or setting up furniture; beyond miscellaneous tasks, overseers can be appointed to more focused work such as, but not limited to, carpentry, farming, cooking, and quarrying. Workers, on the other hand, do nothing on their own, but must be “assigned” to overseers for the purpose of augmenting the efficiency in which the desired work can be completed, forming a “team.”
In RPG fashion, overseers (ugh) and workers can gain proficiency in skills directly related to the work I mention in the previous paragraph. Traits are unique attributes that each villager possesses, and Clockwork Empires has a tendency to allocate some weird ones, such as Strange, Morbid, Mushroom Lover, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. While I cannot speak to how most of these impact the game, I have a feeling that the “strange” overseer is part of the cult that I am trying to stamp out. Not all traits are unusual. Some such as “Spiritually Inclined” or “Easily Influenced” are neutral and can be a boon or a bane, while “Hearty” and “Epicurean” have direct uses for martial and culinary purposes. 
spiritually-inclined

This is just one overseer out of almost two dozen. What a stat sheet! Because she is spiritually inclined, she might make a good vicar. Um, after getting a good drink at the pub, lol!

Likewise, both overseers (ugh) and workers have a mood scale that must be managed, ranging from happiness, despair, anger, and fear. These humans are needy! They will not only want shelter and beds to sleep in, but they will want their lodgings and workplaces decorated, their borders secure, the public house (tavern) flowing with booze, the barbershop well-stocked with tonics, and the chapel supplied with cogs. If players fail to do any of these things, chaos will ensue. I have witnessed villagers flee into the woods sobbing when overcome with despair. I have become frustrated when one of my workshops shuts down because an overseer stomps angrily around the village. I have a habit of maintaining a standing army, so I have yet to bear the burden of someone being overcome by fear. While I  understand that Clockwork Empires is a simulation, the mood management system is demanding to the point of vexation. 
iron-taking-forever

The music in Clockwork Empires is satisfactory as are the visuals. Modules specific to the contextual industry are distinguished as is every unique resource. Bonus points for Gaslight Games’ devotion to diversity, and special animations for villagers that have to be seen to celebrate.

It is a little-known fact that the development of a simulation game is an uncanny feat. The amount of coding required to prompt an overseer to properly place the wooden planks (in the above photo, behind the building) or the bag of sand (top center of photo) properly on a resource pad is considerable. Here, the coding’s deficiencies are on display, and the litter of resources around my camps is infuriating. As another example of programming, in the photo below, I have been waiting a full game day for my overseer here to produce one iron ingot. ONE!!! It is distressing that I do not know whether it is poor AI scripting or intentional that it takes so long to smelt metal. Something that informs me a time to completion would be pleasant. 
That said, the number of options in Clockwork Empires is voluminous to a fault. Even 35+ hours into the game, I am still learning the different modules that I need in each workshop to make my camp as efficient as possible, and yet I am failing. Need more overseers to execute orders or workers to assist? Build more lodging to attract them, but to max out their “unit caps,” dwellings need to be decorated. All of this—from building to decorating to feeding the incoming populations—requires precious resources. Once the natural local nodes have been exhausted, one may be required to research additional technologies in the laboratory, or encourage mine workers to dig deeper. This is simultaneously fun and frustrating. For example, a key module used in the metalworks is actually made in the ceramics shop. While I enjoy this interlocking system of compatibility, finding the correct combination of modules to create a desired product is frustrating. As I write this, I would like to place a barometer in my laboratory, but I do not know the correct combination of modules that will lead me to this product even though the tooltip in the laboratory says “made in the metalworks.” The question is, from which module? Building one of everything to find the right object is time consuming, and again, a waste of precious resources. Clockwork Empires includes a tutorial, but it only sets up the player for the early game right before the midgame. 
metalworks-options

Looking at that row of options, there are two crucibles, three kilns, a forge, a press, a lathe, and a grinder. WHICH ONE DO I USE TO BUILD A FRIGGIN MACROSCOPE?

Do not get me wrong, despite the bugs—excluding the in-game giant beetles—and lack of tooltips even though there are a ton of them (I want a research pyramid, gosh darn it!) the fun parts of Clockwork Empires teeters my sentiments on the game just beyond irritation to fascination. In a strange way, the game simulates something akin to a sort of Stockholm Syndrome: it is intriguing because there is always a structure to build, module to tinker with, or some random event to resolve, yet the game also produces a constant state of anxiety as one attempts to accomplish those very things. 

The Bottom Line

 

 

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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