STAFF REVIEW of Before We Leave (Xbox One)

Friday, December 24, 2021.
by Peggy Doyle

Before We Leave Box art Space Whales. The words jump off the page and sell themselves. This could be a new movie, a novel or a TV show. It would catch my attention immediately. Space Whales are the closest thing to an antagonist in Before We Leave, a gentle, non-violent city builder game by Balancing Monkey Games.

At the start of Before We Leave, there’s a warning about a disaster that wiped out earlier generations. It’s vague, but clear, “In bygone times, humanity descended into bunkers to escape a galactic disaster. Only centuries later, when the cause of the calamity was forgotten, did humanity emerge. Having lost all but the remnants of their past history and knowledge, they begin once again on a planet born anew.” This is where we start building the new world for ourselves.

So, your people, affectionately referred to as ‘Peeps’, emerge from the bunker after having not seen sunlight and eaten nothing but potatoes in who knows how long. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether I find the name ‘peeps’ charming or cringey, but I’m leaning towards charming. Your Peeps are all individually named and will give you a little info about how they are feeling when you click on them. The design of them is simple, think little wooden toys that children play with. They sort of wobble around the map, and you can change the speed at which they do. It’s rather adorable. The world is nothing like you left it and has managed to overcome whatever happened to it. Once again it is a source of abundant natural resources.

The only things remaining from the ‘before time’ are a few rusted out remnants and run-down ruins. Perfect for collecting iron ore and stone. Since we don’t really know what happened to the world, you can assign any of your own personal ideas to it. For me, I assumed that it was a natural disaster, something akin to climate change. As someone who has studied environmental science, and an adult that simply needs to look around, it’s easy to come to that conclusion. With this ‘knowledge’ I start to rebuild the worlds for my peeps. Trying to find a balance between growth and sustainability. Watching the environmental impact of each step. And yet, the game is clearly edging you to expand further and further into the world. Expansion, progress, happiness, all the things we see in our daily lives.

You start small, a few people emerge and build homes on the hexagonal spaces on your map. They have basic necessities such as water, food and shelter. Then paths to places, then a school, library to research, businesses to create more advanced tools, or energy from resources like sand and oil. Each thing you build takes a certain number of spaces on your map, and each requires certain things to build it - like tools, resources or access. As you add more to your civilization, your population grows. It will continue to grow as long as you provide the necessities for them to thrive. Your Peeps will never die, even if mismanaged. They will be unhappy, and won’t work, but they never get sick or die. Another thing that sets Before We Leave apart from other 4X style games is the nonviolent component I mentioned earlier. You are not building armies and planning to overtake adjacent lands. It has a very chill and laid-back vibe to it. As someone who hasn’t played many of this style of game because they tend to have a whole battle experience, this gave me the city building game I wanted, without the pressures of battle.

Before We Leave isn’t really clear on your end goals. The mini tutorial walks you through steps as to what your peeps need, but other than the list of things you ‘should’ do, you can have free reign to really do whatever you like. Your first main objective is to fix up an old ship. Once you do this you can sail the seas and find an additional island to expand your civilization. As you open more and more areas, you can run shipping lanes between your islands. This gives you the ability to transfer resources between colonies and help each other progress and grow. Your community can start to make clothing, necessary for different environments and you can make and trade luxury goods, which will increase happiness of your Peeps.

To run your advanced operations, you need energy. First this energy is generated from forestry, then oil. Since each area you expand to can have different resources, you need to plan wisely and arrange your trade routes properly. Of course, as you create energy you also create pollution. Eventually you have to build homes and vegetable fields on polluted land, and this makes no one happy. There is an operation you can start where you can clean up polluted areas, but it is a slow process. Up until the pollution became a problem, and people were unhappy, I found the game quite calming and stress free. Peeps moved around the world at 4x speed, and I found it quite charming.

You can click on individuals in the game and see how they are doing. They each show a small blurb of speech saying how they are feeling. Most were content or happy. Once they became unhappy and overwhelmed, I became stressed. Although they can’t die, I was unhappy because they were unhappy. I was in charge of taking care of them. There wasn’t enough food, not enough power, your Peeps are unhappy. Trying to manage multiple islands and trade routes made me slow down the speed to try to think tactfully, then a solution appeared. “Find and repair the spaceship”... What? That’s the solution, you find and repair a spaceship and take off to discover a new planet. Leave the mess behind. The new planet will have untapped resources you can use as you colonize it, and you will also run shipping lanes between planets as well as between islands on each planet. The solution just made things more complicated. Eventually I had five planets with multiple islands on each. Along with colonizing the planets, there are some mysteries you will discover, and I won’t spoil them all here except to reiterate how I started this... Space Whales.

You can pause the game while you plot the perfect pathways for your Peeps. You can decide to make the distance shorter for them to get to and from resources and thus increasing efficiency. This means more production of materials, faster building etc. Or you can go entirely freestyle like I did. Meaning mistakes were made and I ended up having to demolish cute little sections I had built, but all in the name of progress. The game is entirely paced on the happiness of your peeps. If they are unhappy, they won’t work as hard, meaning things will slow down for you.

As I expanded my colonies, I had less time to sit back and chill with my Peeps. It put more stress on resources, my Peeps and me. Completely the opposite of what I was promised would be just a chill, nonviolent experience. After making multiple mistakes, I learned a lot of lessons, and wholehearted plan to start a new game and take my lessons learned and hopefully have a less stressful experience.

The aesthetic of Before We Leave can only be described as adorable. From the children’s toylike nature of the Peeps to the storybook homes and structures. The calm nature and fairy-tale artistry easily lulled me into thinking this would be a simple and lazy stroll into building and conquering the solar system. Bouncing between planets was simple and fluid with no waiting for loading screens. When you zoomed out from where you were and looked at the solar system as a whole, I couldn’t help but be enamoured with seeing the tiny spacecraft flying between planets on their interstellar trade routes. The was something delightful watching them toddle along when happy, and bittersweet when they were sad. Just looking at them made me feel guilty and want to fix things for them.

The audio was equally delightful. Happy villages pumped out upbeat folk songs from their homes while unhappy villages had silence, only broken up by the sounds of working like clangs of steel or chopping of wood, or industrial noises of the company’s creating energy. It was easy to see and hear at a distance where there was joy vs. sorrow.

What is completely evident from my time in Before We Leave, is that I should never be the person in charge of the entire interplanetary supply chain. Not because the game made it hard, in fact it was easy, I just still somehow managed to make a mess of it. At some point I realized that it wasn’t playing out as I wanted so decided to sabotage it from the inside, entirely halting progress and work. My peeps were living in bare minimal supplies, naked and with no creature comforts, and yet there was music in in the towns. Maybe there is a bigger lesson here.

Before we leave is a pleasant little distraction to while away some time. If you like the idea of city building and management, without the conflict that a lot of this style of game have, it’s worth a look. Just don’t look for a definitive goal line to move towards. Also... Space Whales.

**Before We Leave was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.2 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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