STAFF REVIEW of House Builder (Xbox One)

Friday, July 15, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

House Builder Box art If there was ever a game where you could discern what it was about simply from its title, House Builder would be it. Describing its gameplay exactly with its title, you’ll be building houses from all different types and styles from around the world styles including real world construction methods. While I’ve never built a house or done much construction work at all, there’s something fun about being a one-man construction crew without having to worry about all the physical labor, inclement weather, horrible bosses and union dues.

While there’s no Career mode per-se, you progress from house to house after each one has been completed in linear fashion. You’re tasked with building a specific style of house based on the world region you’re in. These structures already some with a predetermined schematic, so it’s not like you’re going to actually do any designing or have any creativity, you’re simply grabbing the right tools and materials to place them in the correct spots before moving onto the next step.

This makes the gameplay quite linear and straightforward, yet this is also why I was hooked and couldn’t put it down, as there’s something relaxing about going from point A to point B with material C in hand without having to worry about messing up somehow. You won’t have to worry about contracts, timelines, space constraints or anything else, simply build the house with the materials required step by step.

We all have a different interpretation of what a house really is, though you’re probably picturing a typical box or rectangle with an A-frame roof with a yard or garage right? Well, houses were built long before what we consider modern these days, varying greatly depending on the country and year. A perfect example, the first ‘house’ you’re going to build is a quaint little igloo up in the arctic. That’s right, House Builder starts with you building a house out of ice blocks and snow. Not exactly what you thought you signed up for? Don’t worry, it’s mainly used as an introduction level to its gameplay mechanics and controls.

After about 20 minutes or so it takes to complete this igloo you’ll then move onto the next house, a mud hut in Africa. With only a handful of levels I don’t want to spoil too much given the low number of houses to build, but you can expect many different styles, not just from an igloo and mud hut, but log cabins, a Canadian house, traditional Japanese home, brick house and a completely modern building that would easily cost in the millions. The more interesting thing about each of these stages is that you’re also following the building processes and materials that would be used to construct these in real life.

You begin by choosing which stage you want to play on a world globe that can be rotated, showing you the available stages based on where they geographically located. The first few levels are free to start playing and building, but eventually you have to purchase the next, almost like buying the plot of land before you can build. Money comes in steady enough that you shouldn’t have an issue affording each level as they unlock for the most part unless you get careless ordering new materials, but more on that shortly.

As each house becomes more complex to build there’s more steps in each process, eventually taking over an hour per house to build by the last few. Cutting ice out of the frozen tundra takes a few seconds to gather blocks where you then carry them over to the igloo to begin constructing, eventually moving onto the mud hut where you’ll need to mix water and clay to make some mud tiles, cutting down trees for wood and twine. Later stages have you using modern day tools like nail guns, saws, wrenches and even a crane when you’re building pre-fab homes. Each stages becomes slightly more involved with the steps required and also becomes larger, adding a second floor, roof shingles, insulation and more. It’s actually a bit educational learning the different production methods, especially when I was working on a traditional Japanese home.

Just like in real life, you’ll start at the foundation, working your way up step by step, log by log, brick by brick. While you’re basically just running from point A to get a material to point B and place it down, there’s a certain zen or calmness to the relaxing gameplay without worrying about a timeline or other hazards. Now and then you might have to order supplies from a vendor and have it delivered instantly on a truck (that’s super amazing service) but you’re simply grabbing it from the truck and then carrying the pieces to the dedicated spot to place.

New steps are introduced slowly with a decent amount of explanation. The first hiccup was when I was building a log cabin, unsure of how long I was supposed to cut trees and then how to actually debark them. Making clay and cement was a little clumsy at first too, but once you get the hang of it of how to place items into others it becomes second nature quickly afterwards. Eventually you’ll have to level the land for its foundation, install reinforcement blocks and even place the baseline for the plumbing underground (though this was the most infuriating step in all of the house builds due to lack of proper instruction). The new levels add some curveballs to the gameplay or some new installation methods, all of which are simple to understand once you get used to the wonky controls. There’s even one stage where you want to build a new house, but the old abandoned one needs to be demolished first. It was fun to grab a sledge hammer or ride the bulldozer to tear it down.

Each house type really is built differently based on the region, era and materials. Hammering in wooden pegs for the traditional Japanese home was quite different then using my power screwdriver and nail gun to put up walls in more modern homes. You’ll even need to mix cement and pour it into the foundation or get a cement truck with a long hose to pour for your floor base.

There is a store were you can purchase any of the required materials needed, though the first handful of levels give you all the required materials needed or allows you to gather from them trees or create them by mixing other items together. Eventually though you will need to purchase new materials, so make sure you’ve been saving that money and not spending too much on the completely optional decorative items for around the home. While decorations will make the houses more desirable for when you want to sell them later, doing so means you’ll need to reply the levels again but can be used to earn more money. There’s really no real reason for money once you reach the final home though, as your bank roll will be more than large enough to purchase excess materials without having to worry.

A ton of effort has gone into the house building itself, which is of course obvious given the game title, but I was surprised with how there’s absolutely no detail given to the final steps of building a house, the paint, decorations and furnishing. Once you’ve built the house form a foundational standpoint with floors, walls, siding and a roof, you’re done and complete. No crafting a beautiful yard, choosing paint or even the house layout itself given the blueprints are automatically laid out for you.

As for the gameplay itself, it’s somewhat like Minecraft where you can hold a certain amount of items in your inventory, cycling through each type as you need to place down in the predetermined spots outlined in light blue shadows. You can also hold and carry items to move them around and place where you want, though expect some silly physics at times when items get stacked or bump into one another. There’s also plenty of tools you’ll utilize while building depending on the job site, from saws, measuring tape, chainsaw, shovels, moveable scaffolding, ladders, nail gun, wrench and more. Swapping between tools is a little clumsy at best, but you eventually get used to it, able to swap quickly when needed.

I was a little surprised that there’s no free build option, so you’re stuck with the predetermined layouts and placement of each house. Even when replaying levels it’s always the same, whereas maybe some random blueprints would have made for some replayability. There’s only so many times you can build the same house over and over before coming bored. This is where you can add those decorations I mentioned above, but there’s no real reason to other than wanting to try and decorate for your own enjoyment.

While House Builder is aiming to be more of a realistic sim-like experience, there’s also a skill tree that allows for more quality of life improvements, adding a more arcade feel. For example, when you begin you can only cut down one tree at a time, but do this enough times and you’ll get a new skill that allows you to cut down twice as many from a single tree. Keep doing so and you’ll eventually be able to get a dozen logs from a tree, carry more weight and a whole bunch of other improvements to help streamline the time requirements and tedious walking back and forth.

Gaining these new skills will allow you to create the houses much more quickly and efficiently, able to eventually place down blocks and planks multiples at a time instead of having to press the trigger for each time. Sure this might break the realistic immersion a bit if you’re looking for a core simulation style game, but carrying one plank of wood to the roof and coming back down for another repeatedly would grow tiresome quickly. Eventually you’ll be able to magically carry a pallet full of bricks and other materials without slowing down, placing them in mere seconds. This progression system made it much more bearable and I quite enjoyed being able to attach all of the insulation needed in the walls within seconds when I was on that step.

Small developers, FreeMind, have a number of sim-like games their portfolio on PC, so I’m curious if their others will eventually transition over to console as well. Not a knock on the developers, but you can tell that House Builder is made by a small team as the visuals are passable, but won’t impress by any means. There’s plenty of animations simply missing, physics are a bit wonky at times, controls aren’t optimized for a controller and there’s massive pop-in issues, even on an Xbox Series X. Audio is about the same, with basic sounds for all of the actions and tools you use with some light music in the background, but it will wear on you after a build or two. That said, it is quite satisfying to hear the ‘plunk’ sound of placing down some logs or tiles into place in quick succession.

There’s a laundry list of bugs I encountered along the way though, too many to ignore. One level had my wanting to place the foundation blocks, but somehow it poured the next step’s layer of cement, so I couldn’t see where to place them. I got stuck on corners and random objects more times than I can count, and don’t get me started on using the crane in the final stage, tossing pre-fab walls into space because they got stuck on something and launched god knows where. I found if I did certain steps too quickly it would sometimes bug out as well, like screws not lining up with the wood, or telling me I needed a certain amount of materials, so I order them exactly, yet end up needing more somehow. Lots of clipping issues and other random oddities was a constant.

Even with all the issues I had, even one forcing me to restart a build from the beginning, I still found it oddly relaxing and couldn’t put it down until I was done with my current house. Given that you’re not forced against a certain time limit or other factors, you can easily play this at your own pace and enjoy it while doing something else. Priced at just under $20 CAD, some may scoff at how ‘indie’ it may perform, but this is probably the most entertainment I’ve had building houses on my console, though I question its longevity and replayability long term.

**House Builder was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 6.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.5 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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