Pharaoh: A New Era Review

The 90s and early 2000s saw the rise of Impressions Games thanks to their various city-builders like Caeser and Zeus. But the most famous of them came in 1999 when they launched Pharaoh, a city builder set in Egypt where you had to build expansive cities and construct vast monuments because what every desert needs is a big triangle. The game often makes it onto lists of the best city builders and many have tried to replicate it. Now, developer Triskell and publisher Dotemu are here with a remake that aims to bring the charm and fun of Pharaoh to a new generation. Let’s go and raid the tomb, shall we?

There’s also some competition that Pharaoh: A New Era has to deal with, like a Pharaoh finding a stranger sitting on their throne. While I didn’t think much of Nebuchadnezzar when it launched, the Steam reviews tell a tale of a developer that has worked long and hard to improve the game, introducing loads of new features and ironing a lot of the issues I had with the game. So now we get to see the old Mummy return with fresh bandages and duke it out against its own descendent. Cool.

It all begins with throwing down some houses to tempt the first batch of immigrants to your new utopia next to the river Nile. Pharaoh: A New Era works on a basic grid system that makes it easy to build roads, and plan out cities in a suitably square-shaped manner. With people come demands, in this case for food and water. Evolving houses into fancier versions of themselves means a gradual increase in citizens’ wants and desires. They might want beer and pottery next, then more entertainment and access to schooling, and prettier neighbourhoods that aren’t too close to the storage yards. The more of these needs can be met, the more people houses can support and the more tax you can bring in. Failing to meet these demands can make houses devolve backwards, dropping their capacity and forcing people to leave the city, which in turn can lead to worker shortages and even more evictions. In other words, the entire economy can collapse faster than erection faced with a wrinkled nun that hasn’t had a bath since the last ice age.

Available On: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developed By: Triskell
Published By: Dotemu

Review code supplied by the publisher.

Essentially it’s a game of growing supply chains. To make pottery you need clay pits and potters, and then you need storage yards to hold all the pots until the bazaar workers can come to collect them. Do the better-off citizens of your little zo feel the need for education? Then papyrus is the answer, provided you can get reeds. Other items can be imported if the mission you’re on doesn’t give you the natural resources. Need beer but can’t grow barley? Import it at a cost while exporting the piles of copper you have people digging out of the nearby hills.

The tricky thing in Pharaoh to wrap your noggin around is how goods and services get distributed. Let’s use a basic water supply as an example: a worker will head out from the well with water to distribute, and when he or she comes to a junction they will pick a random direction and so on and so on. That means it’s best to keep layouts as simplistic as possible in order to ensure houses get deliveries. Aiding in this are Roadblocks that you can plop down which certain works can’t bypass. Failing to grasp how this whole thing works will lead to entire neighbourhoods collapsing while you watch on helplessly because the water guy decided to pick the same direction 10 times in a row. This theory applies to tax collectors, physicians, food distributors and more. In the end, it’s best to build residential blocks where all services can simply walk around a square so that nobody gets left out. That means gameplay can and does heavily favour pure efficiency over everything else. That’s true of most city-building games, but they still typically give you room to make fancy road layouts. Do that here and the poor architect will go insane wandering around in circles.

Gameplay continues on like this with increasingly complex wants and needs that you’ll be required to fulfil in order to progress through the chunky single-player that boasts 53 missions. The first few guide you through the basics and do a decent enough job of explaining how everything works before kicking you out the door to get on with it. Well, kind of. Despite saying the tutorial is finished the game does keep explaining some new ideas like military buildings and ships. Before long you’ll be working on massive monuments, trying to get the city’s prosperity higher and idly wondering if you shouldn’t just burn the whole city to the ground and start again. Over the course of the campaign, which includes the Cleopatra expansion, you get a crash course in Egyptian history, and the encyclopaedia has been extensively rewritten to bring it more in line with modern Egyptology.

It’s fair to say that a lot of modern city builders are much more complicated than Pharaoh, but considering Pharaoh is from the 90s that’s like saying a Tesla is a bit more complicated than a Ford Fiesta. Technically correct but also a tad simplified. The good news is that if you find stuff like Cities Skylines overwhelming then I think Pharaoh: A New Era strikes a nice balance. It can be challenging, but it’s reasonably forgiving and more like a puzzle. Each new location you visit has a solution and using the resources you have at hand, you can solve it. It’s a fun loop, one that isn’t as complicated as Cities Skylines or as morally agonising as Frostpunk.

Just like when I played the original, the biggest problem I think Pharoah: A New Era has is that it can be a nightmare to figure out what has gone wrong in the city. A single change can result in a cascade of problems, culminating with your housing devolving and a mass exodus that exacerbates it. But figuring out the cause is kind of like trying to figure out what’s going on inside President Joe Biden’s mind. A whole section of houses might suddenly declare they have no access to temples, and yet nothing has changed – the same roads are there, and the temple is still there, so what’s the issue? It can be even more frustrating when your citizen’s complaints don’t seem to make sense, such as a house being unable to evolve due to a lack of entertainment despite being right next to a juggler. And because it’s vague, it can make it hard to tell if the problem is an actual problem or a bug. Has access to a temple been cut off, or is the game just throwing a hissy fit?

Obviously, the graphics have been updated with support for higher resolutions, although I’m unhappy to say 21:9 isn’t included in that. There’s a cutesy, cartoony vibe to the new style that I really like, and I think it does a good job of keeping the feel of the original, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking and does have a faintly mobile gaming look. Zooming in close reveals a lot of personality to your little citizens as they go about their days, and I could easily spend five or ten minutes just watching them move goods around. With that said, in the original Pharaoh when you zoomed in you could hear the hustle and bustle of the city as people went about their days. The remake is missing that, a small detail but one I really miss.

The UI has gotten a bit of an overhaul, too, with the aim of making it simpler to use. The result is more mixed than the graphical upgrade. For the most part, it does feel more streamlined to use, though I’m not a big fan of the small icons. They are hard to parse at a glance and I constantly struggled to remember where everything was. Luckily, you can now dish out build orders when the game is paused, so it’s much easier to plan out large chunks of the city or speedily fix an issue. Overall, though, I think a lot of charm has been lost compared to the original game’s UI which attempted to match the Egyptian theme by using images that resembled ancient hieroglyphics.

The minimap has been tossed in the bin, for some reason that I cannot fathom. Some of the later maps are huge and it can be helpful to have a mini-map to quickly get around and re-orientate yourself. There isn’t an option for rotating the camera, either, which can be a bit of a pain when things get obscured by giant statues, service buildings and a honking great pyramid. To combat this the developers have included a flat mode which turns all the buildings into marked tiles. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it works. At least all the buildings can be rotated now.

There are some nice new quality-of-life options to change, too. For example, you can now choose to use a global workforce instead of the original system where buildings would send out a single person to knock on doors to drum up a workforce. It was an interesting system but often led to players creating slums around production buildings. Turn the new option on and buildings will automatically grab workers. Both have their merits and their issues, so it’s nice to have the choice.

You can also opt to turn off the simulated ageing. Previously, your population would grow older, giving you a fluctuating workforce, so if you stayed stagnant for too long you could find yourself with a city full of crotchety old bastards. Turning this off means you have a stable, consistent workforce of 40% of your population at all times.

One of the biggest changes is how Pharaoh: A New Era handles its combat, by which I mean it tries its best to ignore it. Originally you would fight off invaders in tedious real-time warfare. But for the remake, combat now happens in a small pop-up window and is entirely automated. You just have to watch as your army and the enemy collide slowly or skip it to see if you won or not. I’ve got mixed feelings about this change: on the one hand, the original system was poorly done and dull, but this new one is worse because it may as well not exist. Building a military is nothing more than tossing down a few forts and forgetting about them.

A few other issues arise because of the military changes, too. For example, walls don’t actually seem to do anything now, so other than making your city look prettier there’s no reason to build them. And without soldiers on the actual map, there’s nothing capable of killing predators. Letting the police handle predators would be the obvious answer to this issue, but their response to critters is unreliable at best, so for now the best thing to do is to turn predators off entirely in the options menu.

There are a lot of other problems that should have been ironed out as well. In one mission I refused a shipment of items from another city early in the game without realising I actually needed it to win the map. Because I refused their offer they cut all ties with me, and I couldn’t finish the level. But the game never indicated this, so I spent a few hours in an unwinnable situation. As for the smaller bugs, here are a few examples: tooltips only appearing for a split-second, graphs not being labelled, placeholder text popping up, boats only going to one port even when there are others available, traders struggling to navigate and loads more. None of them ruins the game on their own, but when you take them all into account it does impact the enjoyability. A little more time in the tomb might have been in order.

Pharaoh: A New Era is not quite the perfect remake of the classic city-builder from the 90s that I was hoping for. The good news is that all of it is fixable, so we just have to hope that the developers will keep working on the game to iron all of its bugs. If they do, then this will be a fantastic remake of an already excellent game. Right now, though, it stands as a decent remake of an excellent game.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Leave a Reply! Seriously, I'm lonely. Talk to me. Hello? Anyone?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.