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There isn’t a jump scare in sight, but They Are Billions has a very effective horror game design for keeping players scared constantly: The Warning.
My scouts had returned from a recon trip from a nearby colony that had succumbed to the infection. These so called Villages of Doom are nests for the zombies, and its proximity to my burgeoning settlement to the south is concerning enough to keep my eyes on whenever I can.
Workers in my colony were toiling away, processing local forests into usable wood, fishing from the local lake, and keeping power running throughout the various buildings. It’s steady and predictable work, but it’s also necessary for human survival in this deadly world.
Suddenly, the alarms blare; the Warning. These productions stop immediately as the call comes through. The horde has been spotted from the west. There’s precious little time, but it’s spent triple checking the battlements. Are the walls secure? The ballistae in place? Workers who were carrying stones to the warehouse moments ago now take up bows and settle into the guard towers. The grey, formless mob materializes in the distance. They’re here.
Bows and bullets ring out into the mob. Individual bodies stumble to the ground, and the pack tramples over them. It’s impossible to stop the wave from hitting the walls. They pound on them incessantly. That it takes so much time for them to break through is a reminder of why I build them in the first place. But they do break through.
This time, I clean them up without too much damage to important buildings inside the colony, and without too much risk of spreading the infection throughout. But this mob was much bigger than the last one, and there was much less time between this one and the last one. Something’s going to give, eventually.
Old School/New School
Numantian Games (Lords of Xiluma) has landed on something very interesting in They Are Billions. It’s a blast from the past in some ways. There are some early Ensemble Studios (Age of Empires 2) and Blizzard (Starcraft) design callbacks throughout. Scouting through fog of war for caches and recon is a big part of the game. It also looks and sounds straight out of the 90s.
But this sort of kit-bashing of genres it what makes it a truly modern creation. For 80% of the game, it’s the style of RTS (real-time strategy) you’ve been playing for years. But everything your doing—running through technology trees, expanding the borders of your colony, etc.—is for that 20%, where Billions becomes among the most harrowing tower defense games you’ll ever play.
This isn’t just because of the devastating horde waves, whose mass is a shock to any solid infrastructure you build. You play the entire game knowing they will come, and the momentum of your playthrough is punctuated by these epic moments. It’s also the tension of knowing that the infection itself can create its own sub swarm, should zombies get their claws on your buildings.
In a way, you almost wish that the horde would just flatten everything in its path, but the destruction is just the beginning. Any occupants of those buildings now join the ranks of infected, attacking more buildings near them, and creating a cycle that can be difficult to stop. You play the whole game in fear of this scenario. It affects how and where you place important economic buildings, where you drop watchtowers, and how you organize your patrols.
That each and every one of your buildings can be a potential threat can create a sort of all or nothing fail-state that makes this game particularly tough to get into in the early hours. You will most certainly die quickly in your initial playthroughs, as you try to learn the ropes. But knowing that all the zombies really have to do is break into and infect a small portion of your colony to create an unstoppable wave corruption from within is a bit demoralizing.
Ironically, it’s also the backbone of why the tension works so well in They Are Billions. Driving off a horde might fill you with a false sense of security. It can convince that, since you won, you’re ahead of the curve during this particular run. Besides the fact that it’s almost never true, that complacency can distract you from identifying and fixing your vulnerabilities. It’s a hard and sobering reminder when that one wave comes and checks you into a game over screen. It will always feel bad losing an hour of game in a matter of minutes, though.
Ugly and Insightful
They Are Billions’ translation to console is full of its own jagged edges. Accessing the HUD can feel clumsy. Taking time to adjust the sensitivity of the cursor is vital. There’s no way to re-map navigation options on the controller, though. Moving through the various building and unit menus with any sort of ergonomic ease is impossible. It’s not just taking the PC layout and putting it on the console, but it feels like it. Even with its old school trappings, there are plenty of modern controller-based RTS examples that could have helped guide this system.
Aesthetically, They Are Billions is also old school to a fault. All of your units are easy to identify with a passing glance, but there’s so little detail to them. Bigger mechanical buildings and mechs have personality, but many of your standard constructions don’t possess a wow factor. That said, it’s all well confined to this post-apocalyptic lens, so everything has that repurposed junk look. I just wish you could see more of it (and that there was more to see). This could be another issue with translating this to the console from PC, where screens from the game look far more enticing.
The font is hard to read. It’s just so small and oddly placed. I don’t know if this was a resolution mistake on my part or Numantian’s. Reading text can be essential for learning what unfamiliar things do, so it unfortunately had a negative effect on my early playthroughs.
That said, there’s really something here to enjoy in They Are Billions. Taken as a whole, it is an entirely new and interesting take on genres that are as old as gaming. Billions has such great moments at times that it’s rather surprising that these genres hadn’t been smashed together already. Billions leaves plenty to be desired everywhere else though—in visual fidelity, art direction, sound design, and even game balance. Clearly, this is a first step on a new and mysterious frontier. Hopefully, not the last.
They Are Billions review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.