Against The Storm Review – Rainpunk Rougelite City Builder Delight
Can you feel it? A storm is coming.
It’s been two years since Against The Storm launched in Early Access. It was October 2021 when indie developers Eremite Games released it on the Epic Games Store, and in November 2022, released on Steam and GOG now partnered with publisher Hooded Horse.
This fascinating city builder has slowly been building up to this 1.0 release. It’s not just a regular city-builder, it’s a roguelite city builder.
Against The Storm is intriguing blend of two contrasting genres that which the developers has successfully find the right mix that its disparate elements complement each other and create this engaging gameplay loop that, to the right person, will keep them hooked.
And that right person has to invest a good chunk of time.
Against The Storm has a this rather specific aesthetic that I’m not sure if it has a name. But I described in my First Impressions feature as “what you expect a mod of Warcraft 3 looks like”.
And that still rings true. The way the trees are coloured, how expressive the different buildings look, the little grunts each settler makes (which differs based on their species and presumably gender), the chimes and other audio cues. The usage of square icons for the many buffs and debuffs. It evokes that early 2000s RTS vibes in the best ways.
The music can be soothing when the rain is just pitter-pattering, accentuating the songs calmness, or it can go brooding and ominous when the storm hits. The soundtrack here fits perfectly with the world being painted: a world drenched in an everlasting rain.
If there’s one slight nitpick it has to be the font size. Maybe it’s just my eyesight has started to deteriote in the recent years, but I do feel that the text sizes being used can be too small, even at 1080p. There’s an option to resize the UI in its entirely which is nice, but I still find the need to squint a bit when playing on a 17-inch screen laptop. It’s not a game you’ll be playing a Steam Deck or any portable PC gaming machine at this state.
Against The Storm tasks you as a Viceroy who must venture outside of the Smoldering City to establish settlements under the orders of the Queen. In this rainpunk world, the lands are cursed of an eternal rain, with a Blightstorm constantly wiping out every settlement outside the Smoldering City every couple of of years. Yet you must go out there, lead the settlers of all kinds of species to survive, live and prosper while you can.
A city builder and a rougelike or rougelite are not two genres I expect to be combined, just because these two have very different appeals. City builders, in general, are time sinks where players grow attached to their ever-growing, ever-sprawling creation.
There has been twists to this genre, like the narrative-focused city-builders in the veins of Frostpunk, where these cities are not growing forever. But going full-on rougelite? Well that’s a bold move. As this genre has a run-based gameplay loop, where not only there is a definite end-state, but you’ll be restarting from scratch each time with the hook being each game will play out differently from various randomised elements.
Somehow, Eremite Games have build a bridge that connect these two genres that seemingly don’t seem to pair well on paper. It’s like discovering odd yet good flavour pairings in food. Against The Storm is a mangga sambal belacan in that way- two disparate flavours that actually pairs well together. You won’t know until you try it.
The gameplay loop of Against The Storm is split into two layers, like a typical strategy game. And let’s talk about the city-building phase first. You’ll start at the center of a map with a warehouse and a fire shrine. From there, you have to build up reputation (the blue meter) until it’s full before the Queen’s Impatience (the red meter) fills up to win. The two main ways to build up that blue meter is by fulfilling the Queen’s orders, objectives and tasks for you to complete, or just by building enough Resolve.
Resolve is built up by fulfilling the people’s needs, and each of the five different species of folks have different needs and wants. All of them adhere to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in that they all need some form of shelter, access to food and fulfilling activities (services). But Humans wants to eat pie and enjoy leisure activities by consuming ale while Lizard folks prefer eating skewers and engage in some brawling, for example. Some of these needs overlap, like how Humans and Lizards both want to be able to practice religion, which makes things interesting later on.
To fulfill all this needs and wants, you’ll need to scavenge resources, and later construct buildings that can turn the raw materials into complex items. There’s a whole supply chain where to create a pie you’ll need flour which is created in another building by supplying that building with materials like grain which can be grown at farms or plucked from a resource node.
And this is where the rougelite aspects comes in. It’s not just the map is randomised, it’s that you don’t necessarily have the same access to buildings, or raw resources to create all the stuff you need. You start with a core selection of building blueprints, and you can acquire more blueprints but it’s a random draw of multiple choices. You are beholden to a what is essentially a random card pull on what selection you can get. You can reroll them at an ever-increasing cost, or decide not to make a decision and come back to the screen later.
Thankfully, there are multiple buildings that can create each material or fulfill the people’s needs. So if Lumber Mill didn’t pop up when you needed to make planks more efficiently, you can always settle for a Carpenter if that one arrives. These buildings also can produce multiple resources, at different levels of efficiency. Maybe you don’t need a Lumber Mill this early on as the Carpenter can also produce tools, for example. And as hinted before, the same material can be constructed using different resources- flour can be milled from not just grain, but also from roots and mushrooms.
And then there’s the extra wrinkle that a lot of the raw resources you can gather out in the wild are finite. Some won’t even spawn on the map. You’ll have to venture out and get your woodcutters to cut down trees and explore glades to find more resource nodes. Though venturing into bigger glades may ended up with you discovering an event. These events can be cleared in different ways, each bearing different rewards and conseqences. But they must not be ignored, as there’s a ticking clock counting down until some bad debuff happens like settlers randomly dying or having to deal with ever-spawning debuff emitters (those darn fishmen and their totems!). Exploring beyond the starting point will feel daunting at first, but it is a necessary risk when you start growing the little settlement of eight people to a city with 80 mouths to feed.
There are aspects that reward thoughtful placement of buildings, like any city-builder should. Houses and certain amenities can only be build around the area that a hearth is covered. Some buildings can be moved around once placed while other require a whole teardown and rebuild to happen. But Against The Storm engages you more on maintaining a proper production flow rather than placing rows of houses. You’ll probably place them in boxy grids anyway, and the game says yeah, go do that, we have bigger fish to fry.
Against The Storm embodies that roguelite spirit by saying to the players “forget about following that same, rigid, optimised, build order”. Throughout my 50+ runs (a new city) I’ve did, there’s always a moment where I have to reconsider what buildings should I get, or figuring out how to work with the cards I’ve been dealt with (the blueprints that I picked from the random draws). The first few runs, this is overwhelming. The UI makes it clear to spot quickly if you have a building that can produce a specific material you’re highlighting which is nice (the devs do listen bless them), but you’ll need to go in and out of the blueprint selection screen a lot if you can’t remember on the top of your head that Foxes have three service needs and they need Treatment like the Harpies, because a Tea House appeared in the selection.
You are required to have some game knowledge before you can start making meaningful decisions. And that means prepare to fail and accept defeat the first few runs. But once you’ve attain a good grasp of how the game works, it will start to click and become rather compelling. There are always risks involved with commiting to a decision in Against The Storm, and I love it.
Speaking of risks, it’s not all fun and games in Against The Storm. Not only you are limited in time (the Queen can only be patient for so long), there are various adversities you must rise against. Like the storm, it’s in the name after all.
Seasons change in this rainpunk world, but it’s all just various levels of rain. But when the Storm hits, various Forest Mysteries will start to affect the city and its inhabitants. There’s also a Hostility meter where various factors will result in higher Hostility which means more negative Forest Mysteries will start triggering. You can use the rain water to power buildings to make work easier (increasing worker’s Resolve) or work faster, but with a cost of generating Blightrot that will bloom and attack buildings when Storm season hits. Essentially, the longer your city stands and bigger it grows, the stronger the spirit of the forest fights back, dropping Resolve in the process which can lead to you losing.
All these adversities are expressed mostly in number debuffs, which brings me to another point: I hope you like numbers. Against The Storm will scratch that strategy brain itch of having to consider various numbers adding up as buffs or debuffs. And keeping track of how much materials you need to produce and stock up. And trades where you can barter items, or use currency.
It’s not that the numbers in Against The Storm are big, not. They are not ridiculously inflated like a modern RPG has. Stocking 50 Amber is considered filthy rich in this game’s economy, and most of the buffs and debuffs deal with percentages. But you will really need to be comfortable that there various mechanics around you that will require you taking account of the numbers, every precious resource counts.
While I think the moment-to-moment rougelite city-building aspects of Against The Storm has been meticulously and elegantly crafted, the meta, strategic layer of Against The Storm is less so in my opinion. Probably because I’ve been playing this game for while during Early Access and this aspect of the game has changed quite significantly. In the strategic layer, you’ll pick which tile to land on make your settlement, each having various buffs and debuffs. And once you win, your choice of tiles is based from the previous city you’ve build, like an expedition, or a Slay The Spire map but the paths being the ones you’ve drawn on your own. There’s a limited amount of time before the Blightstorm kicks in and washes away all your settlements, ending the run.
The goal for this layer is to forge seals. You’ll need to reach the glowing things in the sky before the Blightstorm hits and have enough seal fragments to enter this map where you have to start a city like usual, but with the extra goal of forging the seal. These are essentially orders, but much, much tougher to fill than the regular Queen’s orders, so much that I have to bump the difficulty down to Pioneer (medium) to finally forge my first Bronze Seal when I can confidently clear Veteran (hard) difficulty cities.
The developers have done a good job with providing tutorials, giving hints (Aunt Lori’s advices are helpful) and in-game wikis to let players learn how to play Against The Storm. But I still felt a bit lost and unprepared about this whole forge-sealing business. I get why it’s there, the game now has a meta-layer progression so that players don’t feel aimless doing the cycle over and over. But I don’t get the context, or a proper explainer why I would want to go do this difficult task.
I played this game for 20 hours only to figure out I should be aiming to get these seals forged. And my first attempt of doing that took another 10. That’s how long I took to figure this part out.
Other than the rather small blemish with the strategic layer, Against The Storm has fine-tuned a wonderfully crafted chimera of part city builder, part roguelite, and part production game logistics sim.
Against The Storm is a time sink that, for the gamer that’s looking for a good game that can last long, is great (but for a game reviewer who insists to put in the time to finish, or at least experience just about everything the game has to offer, a nightmare).
I have spent 30 hours on the Early Access version released back in November last year and I managed to unlock half of the progression tree. I spent another 30 hours on the 1.0 release and I just unlock two or three levels. And I couldn’t reach the new Queen’s Hand mode in time for this review, which to my understanding is a full rougelike mode (rather than rogulite, big difference).
And there’s also the Daily Expeditions, a daily challenge mode. And then a training mode where you can set up your own little custom game (with no XP rewards). Plenty of stuff to keep you busy.
As far as variety is concerned, Against The Storm is rather generous. There are so many possible combinations of unlocks, folk species, orders, glade events, biomes, biome gimmicks and modifiers that keeps each run fresh. One of the biomes is just pure dread, where all the glade evenly sized, and ghosts of the dead haunt you for your sins. With debuffs.
I feel that the pace of the game feels rather slow. My average run takes a bit more than an hour to complete on Veteran difficulty. Some runs can last over two hours. It’s why I consider the completion of one city as a run, rather than the full cycle. This pace is good in the way that you don’t feel like you’re being constantly bombarded in having to make crucial decisions every few seconds. But I’m playing mostly at 3x speed and it still consumes so much of my time.
You better book a good chunk of free time when you’re playing Against The Storm. It’s loaded with content to keep you busy, but it will consume you in the process.
That all said, I do thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Against The Storm. I’m a fan of city builders. And I usually don’t gravitate towards rougelikes and rougelites, with some few exceptions.
What made Against The Storm so fun to me is how the game just keeps presenting problem after problem, and each problem has multiple solutions. Yet some solutions may be good for one problem, but will lock you out of options to solve another. That’s the fun bit, it’s figuring out how all these production chains connect and finding which options work the best for this particular situation.
A building that has 1-star for its production of biscuits is something rather than no biscuits for the 30+ Beavers I may have in this one settlement, if it meant I can make Copper Bars using all these ores I have in the many mines I employ these Beavers to work in.
And it’s even more exhilarating when I come up with a different plan under pressure. You never know that you might have have the tools to send that one box to the Queen if you don’t frantically check all the boxes when the red bar is decimal points away from bring out the Game Over screen.
I also don’t feel too bummed out having to say goodbye to a perfectly crafted city with all its happy citizens when the time comes, which is another side effect of this slow pace each run plays out. Instead, I look forward to the start of each new city, thinking of ideas on what building to pick next if the same order came again, or what could I’ve done differently in the last city.
My only gripe is that I’m having to review this game, rather than just enjoy it at my own leisure. This game just doesn’t end (and that’s obviously by design) but I am putting the hours in to see it all, but yet I still haven’t. I feel like I haven’t done the best job with this review as I couldn’t even report on the one big feature that I have access to right now that fans want to know when version 1.0 hits later today. To that I apologise.
If I am just a gamer, which I presume the one reading this is one, this is the best case scenario if you want a game that you’ll be playing for hours on end. Every little level up new building blueprints will now appear, more ways to change how you approach the game. And that’s fun! I could see myself going 100+ hours just booting this up every now and then to do a run, even after reviewing this.
Against The Storm is the perfect blend of a city builder and rougelite, bringing together the best elements of each genre to form a gripping one-of-a-kind strategy game.
The slow pace for its progression means it’ll take some time before the game truly shines, but should you weather the storm, Against The Storm is a fun challenge to overcome, over and over and over again.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the publisher.