Two games. It only took two games of Against The Storm to realize that I was about to be absolutely ensnared, that I was helpless against a gameplay loop that felt almost designed to keep me coming back to its clammy rain-soaked embrace. Somehow, the developers at Eremite Games have taken the idea of city building and infused it with the dopamine drip you often experience from faster genres like deckbuilders (Slay the Spire) or roguelikes (Binding of Isaac).
Editor's Note: Against The Storm has been out in early access on the Epic Games Store for about a year. We played a demo version released during the October 2022 Steam Next Fest for this article.
The strange genre-bending alchemy attempted here is absolutely electric; I’m not lying that it took less than two hours to sell me on the concept and make me know I’m going to lose entire nights to the full version. While this article is only a preview, I can guarantee from the very start that Against The Storm has hit on something very, very special.
What Is This Storm, And Why Are You Against It?
Against The Storm is a city builder that’s trying to build a compelling world. Don’t get me wrong, I love city building games, but a huge strike against the genre is how cut and dry it can be: here is the land, you build a big city on that land, and then just keep building bigger and better. It’s compelling, but there often isn’t a huge sense of story outside of ‘I made a bigger skyscraper’ that immerses you into the game itself.
This is where Against The Storm first really breaks away from the usual city building formula. You see, you aren’t exactly building a city, but you are instead supporting one… perhaps even the last city in the world. The world has been under a magical eternal rain, one that has slowly flooded and eroded away all that remains except for the Smoldering City. Set on a volcanic mountain, it’s able to survive the Blight-rain, but not without supplies. This is where you come in, rushing out into the world to build outposts in a mad attempt to find resources and answers. A campaign in Against The Storm is broken up into individual scenarios, looking more like an RTS campaign rather than creating one massive city.
The story in Against The Storm is told through a wonderful cutscene that I hope we get more of in the full game.
A single level does what you’d expect: you start off with a central location and some villagers, and you rush out into the natural landscape to grab as many supplies as you can. The queen passes down orders of what she wants gathered or events to happen, and through stellar city building or completing these orders, you earn enough reputation to move onto a new settlement. However, the complications begin to seep into gameplay with the fact that there is an impatience meter as well as the reputation one. If that fills up enough due to time and mismanagement, the queen’s impatience has run out. Game over.
So you have a blue bar for progress and a red bar that works as a chess clock to keep you moving towards goals, so there’s a sense of pressure immediately. This is compounded by – you guessed it – the storm. It’s both subtle and ever present. I can’t state clearly enough how it never stops raining in this game. The ‘dry’ season is a drizzle where maybe sunlight can be seen for short bursts in sunshowers, but as time goes on, the sound of thunder and the flash of lightning hits the screen. When it’s storm season, everything gets harder. As time passes, the storms become more intense with more and more debuffs to your carefully growing economy of production.
Don't let the calming melancholic music fool you: the storm never stops. Time is always running out.
Royal Micromanaging And Roguelike Architecture 101
A good city builder that piles on pressure is a thing of beauty; just look at Frostpunk, which is a masterclass in creating anxiety to generate forward momentum and a sense of progress. Against The Storm certainly takes some inspiration here in how it builds tension, but it then adds genre-bending twists to stand out as unique. For starters, we should talk about how many randomized elements are packed into the city building formula.
When you start a game of Against The Storm, you don’t have access to all of your buildings, and you aren’t guaranteed to get them either. Instead, they play off the theme that you are there on the good graces of the Queen, and as her viceroy, supplies are brought to you. Earn enough reputation through your deeds, and you will unlock new commissions for buildings to place. Do you want a lumber mill to process lumber into planks, or a brewery to start creating ale?
The game is constantly offering you new choices for how to best manage your settlement. Choose wisely, and it could turn a tough level into a much easier one.
This creates a host of really interesting challenges and opportunities. There are raw goods to find in the forest like herbs, ore, grains, and so on, and then there are ways to refine them into goods such as pies, ale, or simply boxes of tradable goods. The complexity can stack even further, where you can then build places like taverns to let your brave pioneers drink in or temples to use incense in to increase their satisfaction for working for you.
This means you are constantly trying to reassess what buildings you want and which ones you’ll need. My first game outside the tutorial missions had me launching myself up the production chain right away, missing my chance to unlock farming for basic foodstuffs. It ended up making things a lot more difficult in the middle section of the level. That, and I made the beavers mad.
Leave It To Beavers… And Lizards?
Against The Storm is constantly finding ways to throw multiple goals at you at once. There are three major reasons behind why you might want to commission certain buildings: basic survival, queen’s orders, and keeping citizens happy. Juggling these different goals to earn reputation and not leave the map in disgrace is an incredibly addictive gameplay loop, but some of it bears more explaining.
We already talked about basic gathering, so let’s talk about the next part of the complexity, which comes from your own citizens. On their own, each citizen isn’t too complicated; have some food and some shelter, and they’ll be fine working for you. What is complicated is that you don’t just want your citizens working, you want them truly satisfied, because if you hit a certain threshold, you’ll start earning the game-winning reputation you are looking for. What adds to the pile is that there are different types of citizens.
Humans are great with food and brewing, but desire a taverns and many baked goods. Beavers are amazing at chopping trees but want education offered. Lizards are great at tending to the hearth for the good of all, but require access to religion to follow their faith. Each of these populations (plus harpies in the full game!) can help you succeed, but also want to be catered to in different ways with different buildings. Every more newcomers are sent from the smoldering city, and you have to choose between the goods they bring and the types of citizens in each package.
On top of this, you have the fantastic Orders system. It’s pushes you forward, offering you big reputation boosts in exchange for fulfilling certain achievements during that level: they could be anything from turning in resources to keeping citizens happy to just exploring more of the map. It’s a great way to give you constant little goals towards achieving the big one of filling the reputation bar, and its yet another example of how the Roguelike formula has been carefully interwoven into the fabric of Against the Storm.
Mysteries, Treasures, And Lots More To Come
There’s a lot more content to talk about, but much of it is only hinted at during the demo. I love how wonderfully oppressive the forest is around you, that you start a game absolutely surrounded by trees. Building a woodcutter’s lodge is usually a first step in most city builders, but here it is necessary. To build any sort of normalcy, you really do need to cut back the woodlands to make any progress at all.
Fortunately… or unfortunately, based on your luck, you will cut your way into glades. They start off obscured by the fog of war, but once your loggers break through, their contents reveal themselves. A glade can contain anything from fertile soil to farm in or rare ores… or it could hold ancient shrines with malicious spirits and abandoned buildings. Exploring is yet another exciting part of Against The Storm, but one that can complicate your plans.
There are real problems that can be found buried in the woods. Many of them subtly add more depth to the strange rainy world you are exploring just by trying to survive.
As I wrap up this preview, we should return to the threat that’s hinted at in the title: the rain. It never stops, not for a moment. It slows sometimes, giving you small respites where the resolve of your citizens is bolstered, but it is only temporary. Every year of gameplay makes the cycle worse, where the storms grow longer and crush the morale of your people even harder. When you start a round, the game advises you of yet another randomized element: what base resources are in your biome, what boons the drizzle season might give you, and what problems might occur during the heavy rains.
Against The Storm really does live up to its name. You’ll learn to flinch when you hear thunder crashes in the soundtrack, as it warns you that the weather is about to turn worse. As time goes on, you’ll look more and more anxiously at those blue and red bars on the bottom of your screen. By the fourth year in game, the stormy season crushes the hopes and dreams of your people, and you’ll pray for the stormclouds to lighten again. Always forward: the goals and threats of this game constantly, always push you forward.
A Game That’s Worth Your Attention
When you get through the two tutorial games in the demo, Against The Storm decides to pull back the veil just enough to get a real taste. You’re hurried back to the Smoldering City on the world map, just in time to see all your work destroyed. You can then choose where to travel to next, to start your next journey out into the wilderness. There’s a tech tree of sorts, where between missions you can use global resources you’ve unlocked to create new upgrades in the Smoldering City which will make your next games easier, even as you journey further and further away from safety.
In the full game, choosing where you'll put your next settlement will be as vital as the levels themselves, helping to add variety to the campaign.
The demo lets you play one or two full rounds before you hit the boundaries of what’s available to you: the full game has five biomes, not just thick woods. The ‘tech tree’ lets you advance further to unlock more important aspects of the game such as trade, but you can’t unlock them yet. The story of the Smoldering City, the horrific Blight-rain, and the mysterious queen is hinted at, but never truly addressed in the demo.
Will the full version of Against The Storm live up to its promises? I certainly hope so. While I can’t guarantee greatness from just a few short hours, what I can say is that the random elements of each playthrough made me hungrier to see how many more variables will be in the full game. There’s a chance that I might one day grow bored with this unique formula, but it is certainly not yet. I want to see what new surprises there might be in the different environments, what new challenges await; I want to know the secrets of the corrupting rain.
There is so much game here, so much potential in Against The Storm that I feel more ravenous for the full game than when I first started the demo. It’s a good sign that I find myself constantly clicking the steam page to see when it might be fully released. “October 2022” is all it says… and based on how much I enjoyed my time, I’ll keep checking every day until I can play this promising game again.