Review: They Are Billions (PlayStation 4)

Reviewed by Jakub Kowalski, posted Aug 8, 2019, last updated Aug 8, 2019
It's always hard to adapt a strategy game, particularly an RTS, to a console setup. A standard game controller is not the most ideal input method for the genre, which is precisely why we don't see a lot of those games show up on our systems. Having that in mind, it's always nice to see the occasional exception from the rule, especially one that happens to stand out in a crowd on its merits alone. I'm no stranger to RTS'es, having grown up on WarCraft, StarCraft and C&C certainly taught me a thing or two, so I eagerly downloaded They Are Billions. Was it infectious, or did it flatline? Read on and find out!
Aug 8, 2019
  • Release Date (NA): July 9, 2019
  • Release Date (EU): July 9, 2019
  • Release Date (JP): July 9, 2019
  • Publisher: BlitWorks
  • Developer: Numantian Games
  • Genres: Strategy
  • ESRB Rating: Mature
  • PEGI Rating: Sixteen years and older
  • Also For: Computer, Xbox One
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
They Are Billions is a "Zombie Invasion" simulator, a cross between an RTS, a city builder and a Tower Defense game, available on the PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Jakub Kowalski

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Night of the Living Dead

There's something about zombies that makes them a permanent staple of the media we consume. From the time of Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" to more modern productions like ABC's "The Walking Dead" the appeal of decomposing corpses remained surprisingly fresh. The concept of the living dead is a cultural phenomenon, and as such we've seen it adapted to the video game format many times over. Series like Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead owe their existence to the humble zombie, and it doesn't seem like the we're ever going to outrun the hordes of the infected - not that it's an issue considering the fact that ensuring things that are dead stay dead is surprisingly entertaining.

"They Are Billions" is a game that stands at the busy intersection of zombie games, real-time strategies, tower defense games and city builders, all in a steampunk setting to boot. To me, that sounded like a winning combination straight from the get-go, and it is. The plot of the game is fairly simple - the world population has been decimated by a plague, forcing the remaining few healthy humans to form small, isolated colonies in the far stretches of the land. You find yourself in charge of one such colony and it is your job to ensure that your subjects are well-fed, productive and, most importantly, protected from the ever-growing hordes of the infected. Sounds simple enough? If so, boy, you're in for a treat.

Dawn of the Dead

"They Are Billions" started its journey much like many other titles from smaller developers - as an Early Access Steam title. A lot has changed in the PC version of the game since its initial release in December 2017, most notably the inclusion of a fully-fledged campaign mode, elevating the title from the Early Access tier to a full retail release. Sadly, the version I'll be talking about here is the console release which, as of right now, still lacks the campaign and is limited to the Survival mode where you can play out custom scenarios based on parameters of your choice and the Challenge mode which allows you to test your base building mettle against other players on a pre-determined map. The developers have promised that the campaign will eventually be added to the console release in a patch, so this review will focus on the features available to console gamers.

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Pay attention to this screen, because you will only see it once. I'm not kidding.

After choosing Survival mode, selecting your tileset, length of the skirmish and the size of the zombie hordes you're willing to fight, "They Are Billions" throws you right into the fray with no tutorial and no preparation. Even the controls only briefly flash on the screen, so I hope you're very perceptive - I wasn't, so I took a screenshot for future reference. This turned out to be good idea as getting used to RTS controls on a gamepad requires some practice. It's a shame that the game doesn't offer the player a way to look them up in any of the menus, unless I missed it. Perhaps a minor gripe, but it did cause me some initial grief before I learned the controls. With that said, they are fairly intuitive and, once mastered, surprisingly comfortable.

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Your small settlement needs to grow quickly if you're to withstand the zombie onslaught

Your playthrough starts at your command center, surrounded by some units - a soldier and a handful of rangers. Although there are a few zombies here and there, they don't seem to bother you all that much, giving you precious time and room to expand, at least for now. Your job is to turn this small settlement into a bustling metropolis, one that, ideally, isn't going to succumb to the plague. This part of the game is pretty standard RTS/City Building affair - you start by building Tents, followed shortly by resource-oriented buildings like Fishing and Hunter's Cottages which supply the colony with food, Sawmills and Quarries which provide it with necessary resources and finally a Soldier Center which allows you to train more units. As you progress through the Skirmish you will naturally upgrade or replace your initial setup, but there's nothing more important than having a good start. As it turns out, building a colony in the middle of a zombie-infested wasteland is more difficult than I expected. The game is the definition of "git gud" and isn't going to coddle you - I learned that lesson rather quickly as I almost immediately lost my first skirmish. This came as a surprise as I'm a bit older than the average bear and I played my fair share of strategy games, so I wasn't expecting to get humiliated by the AI so quickly on what the game considered to be "medium difficulty". Humbled by the experience I turned the difficulty down and realised that in order to play this one, I will have to throw everything I've learned about strategy games into the bin and start from scratch - once I've done that, I was significantly more successful. It's funny, my first successful defense was on difficulty set to 3%, and it still felt like a monumental triumph.

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They're coming, close the gates! How many are there? Not billions... yet!

The gameplay of "They Are Billions" is asymmetrical in every sense of the word - your resources, units and defenses are very limited wheras the hordes are, as the title implies, basically never-ending. There is no enemy base to destroy at the other side of the rainbow, the hordes have no plan or strategy, they simply consume everything in their path. As such, the player has to deploy the one thing his zombie opponents lack - smarts. The peaceful beginnings of your colony don't last - there are pre-set intervals at which giant zombie hordes will spawn on the map and attack you from one direction, serving as a prelude to the final siege which occurs from all directions simultanously. Having that in mind, the defenses have to account for the unique topology of the map. It's far more effective to build a thick and well-defended wall between natural obstacles than it is to defend a long frontier. Moreover, sometimes defending a particular front simply isn't necessary - the hordes "flow" towards the colony like a wave, curving around the terrain and progressing across the map on the path of least resistance. If there's a natural obstacle in the way of the horde, chances are that it will split into two smaller hordes, requiring you to adapt your strategy to their formations. This behaviour is particularly obvious during the final wave which uncovers your entire map and allows you to observe the assault. At this point you might as well cross your fingers - there's very little you can do when you are few and they are billions.

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Play time is over, I hope you're ready!

Researching technology is almost as important as fortifying your colony, so don't make the mistake of neglecting it. The longer you survive and the further you advance up the technology tree the better your units will be - you start with simple archers and soldiers manning wooden towers, but by the time the final horde comes along, you'll be walking around in impressive steampunk mechs and your walls will be protected by powerful automated attack towers... hopefully. Besides your ultimate goal of survival, you'll also want to build one or more Wonders, special buildings with powerful special effects that can effectively satisfy a particular need of your colony permanently, allowing you to focus your attention on something else.

You will lose a couple of skirmishes when you start, but as the saying goes, "you live and you learn". Applying your newfound knowledge in future attempts is the entire point of the game, and as you progress further, you buy yourself more time to research new structures and new units, more suitable for the challenges ahead. As you gain proficiency, you'll be able to set the difficulty higher and higher, unlocking new tilesets which all bring unique challenges to the table, requiring you to once again adjust your strategy to the new terrain.

Shaun of the Dead?

The game has been in development for quite some time now and is certainly great to look at and listen to. The steampunk aesthetic looks great and the soundtrack is really heart-pumping, particularly when there's a horde incoming. There are few games that made me lean into the screen until I was at the edge of my seat just because a particular theme started playing, and "They Are Billions" is on this short list. With that said, the title isn't free from the usual blemishes we see in smaller Early Access productions. Two things that come to mind instantly are the way the game interprets walls and the gates.

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Uhm... Huston, we've got a problem!

To be more specific, the game allows you to build three "layers" of walls before they reach maximum thickness, and it counts guard towers as part of the wall... sometimes. If you build a tower first, the wall will "connect" to it automatically. While it makes sense to do so, it actually turns out to be a weakness which will prevent you from building a third layer of the wall as the tower is considered to be a layer in and out of itself. If you build the exact same fortification the other way around, start by building a three-layer wall and attach a tower to it later, you can just build it without the game protesting at all - it simply won't "connect" to the now free-standing tower, but your fortification will be much better and your offense will not be affected. Once I realised this, I began destroying towers as I re-worked my walls, this allowed me for an extra layer of defenses at no extra expense. It's weird to find an "exploit" like this in a game that's, effectively, oriented specifically around building walls.

Speaking of towers, the units seem to exit them willy-nilly. Sometimes your soldiers will, predictably, exit the tower from the direction of the cursor and walk down the path you selected. Other times however the units will exit from the opposite side where they're open to attack from the hordes, or they'll straight up get stuck, following an impossible path to the objective you wanted them to reach. Fortunately, the exploit above resolves this issue, forcing your units to always exit the towers away from the wall, which is what you want anyway. The pathfinding in general... needs work. The paths your units take aren't necessarily the safest, or even the most efficient, making me think that perhaps my own units are infected too - they certainly don't seem very smart.

The last problem I quickly found relates to the gates - the sections of the wall that can be opened in order to allow your units to pass through. Your soldiers will have no problems using them, but your subjects will simply get stuck until a controllable unit passes through. This issue didn't seem to affect their productivity and my resources continued to flow into my coffers regardless, but it was mildly irritating to see the colonists bunch up close to the gates. You might think that this is another minor gripe, but in the event of a single zombie slipping past my defenses, that huge pile of citizens can magically turn into a horde within a blink of an eye - they should be able to open doors, it's not a tall order. Save yourself the headache - skip the gates, just build walls. They're stronger anyway, and you can demolish them as needed.

Alive and Well or Dead in the Water

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Success!

My adventure with "They Are Billions" ended as I grew from a "3% guy" to a "60% guy", which allowed me to experience all but one tileset, and I've had a blast with the game so far. The steampunk aesthetic is very suitable in the post-apocalyptic setting the game takes place in, the music is great and keeps the tension high, the units are pretty inventive and fun to use and, overall, the game is pretty addictive. This... makes the conclusion even harder to arrive at. I can make peace with the difficulty level, I can appreciate the OCD level of attention one has to pay to the colony due to the danger a single zombie can pose to it and I can even look past the typical Early Access bugs, but... This game is not in Early Access anymore. The later waves of the infected actually made the game chug, and I was playing it on the PS4 Pro, I dread to think how it performs on the stock system when things get a little busy. I realise that this is its initial release on consoles, but I was sold on the premise of a complete experience, and what I got was a severly cut down version of the game with no campaign. I don't want to be misunderstood, the game is fun, but if I am playing half a game, I can only give it half of a score - fair is fair. Will I return to "They Are Billions" once it's fully patched and the Campaign mode is added to the product? Without question - I've had a blast playing the custom scenarios. Thing is, there's only so many times you can play them before the title starts feeling repetitive, and I don't want it to go sour in my mind. I recommend it, but I'll wait for the remainder of the content before I play it once more.

Verdict
Pros
+ A novel mix of Tower Defense and Real-time strategy
+ Excellent soundtrack
+ Post-apocalyptic setting that blends well with the game's steampunk aesthetic
+ A good selection of different tilesets which require different strategies
+ Addictive asymmetrical gameplay
Cons
- Buggy pathfinding and wall-building mechanics
- A distinct lack of a Campaign mode
- Somewhat repetitive in the long run
8 Presentation
I can't help but love the presentation of "They Are Billions". The musical score and the sound effects kept me on the edge of my seat, and the combination of the post-apocalyptic setting and the steampunk aesthetic is fitting. There are few things in this department that could be improved - some of the voiceover raises an eyebrow, but overall the game both looks and sounds great.
8 Gameplay
The gameplay of the title is excellent and, once you get the hang of things, very addictive. The periodical horde attacks in particular are an interesting change of pace which make you instantly shift your priorities from offensively exploring and expanding your colony to withdrawing and defending what little land you have. It's equally as stressful as it is satisfying, putting the player on an enjoyable emotional roller coaster that's quite unique.
5 Lasting Appeal
The lasting appeal is where I'm forced to dock some points - in its current form "They Are Billions" offers "End Game" content in the form of custom scenarios without offering "The Game" content in the form of a Campaign and a tutorial of some kind. "Git gud" is all fine and dandy, but the developers had to realise that throwing the players straight into the fray will come at a cost of alienating many. I persevered and the game rewarded me for it, but sadly, many players won't.
7
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
"They Are Billions" is a kernel of a great game. I'm sure that the more complete PC release is thoroughly satisfying, but the console release, in its current state, feels incomplete. The developers forgot that the game is no longer in Early Access and have released a game that, ultimately, lacks some basic features. Nevertheless, I recommend it to fans of Tower Defense games and RTS'es, or at least I recommend picking it up once the title is actually complete.


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