Zombies just don’t go out of fashion, do they? I “reviewed” They Are Billions over a year ago when it was in Early Access. It was all about building up a chunky base to hold out against swarms of zombies and it proved rather promising. Now that They Are Billions has officially left Early Access it boasts a proper campaign mode, so does it live up to its own potential?
The campaign casts you as an unnamed general in the army of the Emperor. Your orders are to expand the empire, retaking the land from the undead hordes at the behest of the Emperor himself who will be watching your progress intently.
The story is kept basic with only the occasional cutscene popping up where the Emperor waffles on. The voice acting and animation are both equally iffy, but it gets the job done. This isn’t really the kind of game where you look for a strong narrative, though a little more meat to sink our teeth into would have been nice.
All of the core mechanics are quite typical RTS bits and bobs: there are resources to gather and buildings to construct. Workers are the most basic thing you need for almost everything and they need to be fed using hunters cabins, fishing or even more advanced farms. From there you’ll need to drop down some sawmills for wood, find a stone seam and then carry on to more advanced stuff like iron and oil so that new defenses, units and buildings can be constructed.
One interesting idea is that everything you build needs to be able to access the energy grid which you expand via special towers. This forces you to gradually push your control outwards. Of course, the downside to this idea is that you can’t create outposts. Even if you pop down a power-generating windmill you can’t have a second base, it absolutely must be connected to starting location via towers.
Sprucing it up is the cartoony steampunk vibe. Annoyingly there’s no camera rotation so you can’t get a full 360-degree view of the lovely art-work, but They Are Billions still looks pretty nice.
You’re building all this while also dealing with locals, who just so happen to be zombies who like the idea of chowing down on your poor population. Early in the game you typically start with four Ranger units who use bows, so you’ll send them out to scout the area and begin clearing out the nearby undead. The ever-looming threat, however, are the massive hordes. They Are Billions helpfully tells you on which day they’ll arrive, so you always know how long you have to start building up defences, but the exact direction won’t be known until the day. These hordes are a blast, especially because you’re never quite sure if your defences are strong enough to withstand them.
What makes the rotting corpses tottering toward you so damn dangerous is that a single zombie can royally fuck everything up. If just one reaches a house, for example, it can instantly turn the occupants into the undead, who then go to the next house and so on and so on. Just one zombie can lose you the game, which makes it all the more annoying that occasionally one will shamble past your early game defences because it just happened to walk along the treeline and for some reason They Are Billions doesn’t let you rotate the damn camera.
Nor does the game let you save whenever you feel like it. Missions will occasionally auto-save, but outside of that the only way to save your progress is when you quite the game entirely. In otherwords, you can’t just load up a save and try again when things go wrong, which can of course be annoying if you’re several hours into a match and decide to try something different. Personally the lack of manual saves doesn’t bother me, but I can imagine for a lot of people, especially those who load busy lifestyles, it’s going to be frustrating.
I also have to say that I sadly had a few crashes in my time with the game, leading to having to replay big chunks of missions.
Ultimately, though, the zombies wind up being the weakest part of the game. Their mindless nature means they don’t exactly make for the most tactically challenging of opponents. They have a pretty singular goal and tend to rely on one strategy: shambling in a straight line toward the nearest building, piece of wood or hapless fleshbag peasant. Cunning they are not. The thing is, in other RTS games it’s the opponent that makes each match feel different because they’ll usually employ different strategies. What worked for you in the last game might not work in the next. But with zombies there’s no variance outside of a few different enemy types, and so matches tend to feel the same. They follow the same formula of locating choke points, chucking up some walls and towers and maybe some automated defences and then just waiting for the zombies to shamble into your deathtrap. Then you maybe expand a little, build the same defences again and wait for the next horde.
The actual mission design doesn’t help bring any variety, either. Almost all of them involve needing to reach a certain population, and that means having to spam the crap out of tents, and then later houses. It actually becomes somewhat hilarious just how many dwellings you need to toss onto the map.
Rather than opting to go down the randomized route every map is hand-crafted which I very much appreciate. There’s some genuine effort made toward trying to make each one feel different, doing things like having a single checkpoint or a giant lake in the middle. It’s just not enough to stop each match feeling the same, though. It’s not enough that an objective might be to get X amount of gold production, because that doesn’t hide the fact that building the base and defending against the zombies feels the same almost every time.
Mixed into the campaign are two other mission types. The first has you defending a tower by buying units and defenses with points. It’s fun the first couple of times, but becomes a chore quickly. It doesn’t help that the most effective tactic is just to buy as many soldiers as you can and then keep them together in a ball formation around the tower.
The other mission type involves one of the two hero characters choose between at the start of the campaign and plays out like a top-down action game, except without the…er, everything, really. The idea is that you navigate ruined fortresses with the goal being to acquire a specific item, plus optional ones that will net you extra campaign resources. But since you’re facing zombies in relatively tight spaces the action amounts to clicking on an enemy, watching it die and repeating until boredom drives you to suicide by zombie. Sometimes numerous zombies will come charging at you, so backing up a little might be needed. That’s it.
Another problem is that the two heroes you get to choose from are virtually identical from a gameplay perspective. The male fires slower but deals more damage, while the female is quicker to shoot but doesn’t shred flesh quite as well. Neither changes how you approach combat.
Occasionally little ideas get tossed into the mix, like finding allies to order around or automated turrets that you can lure the brainless zombies into. It’s not enough to bring any excitement to the levels, though. Each one feels nearly identical, a slow plod through a dull map where objects you can pick up are annoyingly hard to spot, forcing you scroll over anything that looks remotely like it could be an item.
But outside of the standard missions the campaign does have one saving grace; a fun tech-tree to work through. Missions will give you research points that can then be sunk into opening up new options, from better resource gathering to tougher soldiers or entire new buildings. Research points aren’t dished out at an absurd rate, so that forces you to make decisions about what you want now and you want to get in the future. The tech you choose can even influence or be influenced by the missions available. Fancy trying the mission with extreme cold temperatures that increase energy usage? Well, that upgrade to the mill sure would be handy. The only flaw is that there are some things which ultimately wind up being objectively better, such as the soldiers.
They Are Billions did struggle to keep me coming back. The key to enjoying the game is to not play too much or else the repetition becomes an issue. And that’s a shame because the actual building of a base and holding out against the undead is genuinely good fun. The steampunk aesthetic works well, I like the idea and despite its flaws I even enjoyed the lengthy campaign. It’s a flawed game, yes, but still worth playing despite that.
3.5 out of 5