Back when the current indie games fad was really taking off, one of the talking points that kept getting brought up was innovation – the idea that smaller teams free of oversight could do new and unique things. It’s difficult to say objectively whether or not that’s been proven to be true in the years since then. It’s obvious, though, that when one indie game hits it big, you’re going to see dozens of clones for quite some time. Braid was big, so puzzle platformers were in vogue for awhile; Super Meat Boy spawned a huge number of near-identical frustration platformers; Dear Esther and Gone Home both beget an era of walking simulators.
But you can’t talk about the indie trend of…well, indie trends without discussing Minecraft. It’s pretty easy to tell when a game is aping Minecraft because it’s got “craft” in the name, obviously. Unless you’re talking about Warcraft, so let’s not. Thus: TownCraft, a Steam port of a mobile game – that’s a trend of its own, but we’ll get into that some other day. TownCraft is a survival game in the vein of Minecraft, except it kind of isn’t. You can’t die. You can’t even really lose. Nobody starves and there’s no combat. Sounds thrilling, right?
You start with a little dude who you can order about; since this is a Minecraft-style survival game (except not) you’re going to start by punching trees because you did that in Minecraft. Doing that gets you sticks and slapping stones on there gets you axes which can be used to chop trees for wood. Wood is used to build a crafting table, the table is used to make other stuff out of wood, basically there’s a giant, questionably-explained tech tree to dig through and a tiny lil’ map to wring dry of all its natural resources. The crafting system is kind of arcane and ends up feeling more like Doodle God than Minecraft, and the primary challenge is making sure to use your limited resources efficiently instead of wasting everything.
There’s a few extra twists to the gameplay. You don’t have to do all this crap with your singular dude; other dudes can be hired with cash money (ingame cash money, thank God) to do some of that work for you. You can also trade with dudes, which can help you skip parts of the tech tree. Building a little town is actually kind of engaging at first. If you want to just zone out and do that, well, that’s what TownCraft does best. More power to you. The writing’s also kind of cute if you don’t despite Internet memes with the very core of your being.
This isn’t inherently a bad concept, but personally I found that the lack of any real conflict takes some of the bite out of the idea. One of the draws of the survival genre are that you have to survive. When you can’t actually lose a game, some of the reason to play that game kind of dies out. Learning how to effectively use what’s around you is kind of neat, but there’s no impending threat to keep you going aside from the gathering and money-making each campaign has you working on.
You could compare the game to something like Animal Crossing or The Sims, I suppose, and in that light it’s a little more acceptable…but it’s still not especially engaging. It’s definitely not “Minecraft” outside of the crafting system and mandatory tree-punching, so it’s hard to imagine why they chose this name. Well, it’s not, because Minecraft Pocket Edition makes pretty solid money on mobile platforms, but you know what I mean.
The interface certainly doesn’t help matters. This is a port of a mobile game and it shows. Menus are huge, since they were designed for a touchscreen and not mouse control, and plopping stuff you craft down where you want can be a chore. A little more love given to this aspect of things would have been appreciated. Oh, and it doesn’t have Steam achievements, if you care about that.
If I were reviewing the mobile version of this game – and I’ve played a bit of it – then I could give it a “Yay” because its not bad for a little chunk of something on the go. It also doesn’t have any micro-transactions, and while we’re definitely progressing toward that being a nice bonus in the world of PC gaming, we’re not quite there yet. No cookies for something that should be standard, in other words.
If you absolutely, positively must resign yourself to sitting at a stationary computer with access to Steam, well…there’s plenty of other, better options. Like The Sims. Or Banished. Or Minecraft. Players who really want a chill-out game might like TownCraft. Pretty much everyone else, however, can probably find something more engaging to engage with. Oh, one last thing: this port of a mobile game costs twice as much on Steam as it does on iOS. There’s an unfortunate trend for you.