Crest from Indie developers Eat Create Sleep is a God game like no other. God games usually cast you as “God” simply because you’re the player directing the lives of the people in game; you have omniscience because you can see everything and your characters act exactly the way you tell them to, allowing you to exercise complete power over them. Not so in Crest where you take on the role of actual “God”, but in the more philosophical sense. You act more like a parent figure guiding your followers rather than telling them, through the use of commandments; your only mode of communication with them. You don’t interact with any of the followers directly. Instead you use umbrella commands to direct them. If you want them to harvest food you tell them to prioritise gathering food, however there is an added twist in that you have only three symbols to communicate your wishes and those are open to interpretation. You can tell them to prioritise food but they might take that to mean that food is the most important thing in the world and they should get it whatever cost, even if that might mean cannibalising their young. Commandments fade over time as the new generation takes over and your words have less meaning giving you multiple paths to follow and no linear gameplay, instead the game is about shaping a legacy for your followers.
While the concept of the game is solid the gameplay takes a bit of getting used to. Because you have such limited interaction with your followers there’s a lot of trial and error. The very first game I played lasted all of ten minutes. Nobody had any children so they died out after just one generation. I think I told them to have kids, but I’m still not sure if I had that power, if they simply ignored my commands or if they have children when certain needs are met. This raises the issue that there’s a great deal of assumption to be made about your commands and their effects. I have played the game a number of times but am still unsure as to how much control I have over the followers in certain regards. Can I tell them to have children? Can I tell them to move to a safer area? Or can I only influence them in terms of collecting food and metal? The game is rather vague in these regards. Followers have happiness icons which itemise what their needs are, but how I direct them to fulfil these needs (if I can at all) isn’t explained as the tutorial is extremely brief, showing you only how to issue commands. Now on one hand that’s understandable given the simplistic concept and as this is the only thing you actually do in game, it makes sense that this would be the only thing explained. But I do think the game requires a little explanation regarding the extent of my influence.
As it stands without anything other than the brief explanation of the concept, the game rather quickly devolves into tedium. Once you have figured out which commandments ensure your followers survival it’s just a matter of sitting back and renewing the commands when they run out, which doesn’t make for thrilling game play. There are long periods of doing nothing broken up only by repeating basic commands such as hungry? Get food! That said it’s not as if it’s just a case of sitting back and letting the game unfold because it doesn’t look like there’s anything to unfold. After an hour of playing I watched my followers expand across their island and build new cities but there was no advancement in any way. They just did what they were doing at the start of the game at a different part of the map, without any kind of development. There are no objectives to meet, no goals to achieve, no reward to seek and because of that it doesn’t look like there’s much point. The game ends when all your followers are dead, which can happen in numerous ways. In my various playthroughs my legacy ended through starvation, mass drowning, lack of children and that time my followers ate each other to extinction. You get a message saying your legacy ends here and that’s it, there’s nothing to say what that legacy is because there aren’t any milestones or advancements.
It makes sense if you consider the ethos of the game, when a civilisation ends often that is indeed it, but from a gameplay perspective it would have been nice to know if I’d…well…done something? It feels like the gameplay has been compromised in favour of the concept. It doesn’t chart how long your civilisation lasted and there’s no in-game timer for you to gauge it against, instead I can only base it against my other playthroughs. One time I lasted ten minutes. Another over ninety five and another about thirty, each time I died out in a different way but none of these games varied particularly and how long I spent at each one was the only determining factor in how “successful” I could have been. The greatest tragedy is that on one occasion I wondered how successful my society would be without me. So I did nothing. I figured they would starve to death within moments. Over half an hour later they had three cities, all of them thriving with happy followers looking after each other and doing whatever they needed to survive. They lasted longer than any of my civilisations, were certainly happier and somehow managed to gather food better than the followers I told to specifically gather food. The best game for my followers was one in which I left the game to run and didn’t play it, great for a conversation about the “necessary” role of God, less great for gameplay.
It could be that I’ve played the game wrong, I may not have gotten to grips with the commandment system but if that’s the case it’s a testament to the vagaries of the game and the lack of explanation. I didn’t just play the game once and I didn’t just play it for ten minutes each time, I invested a reasonable amount of time but nothing really happened. I told them to gather food and they ate, I told them to mine metal so they did, they had kids and they founded new cities. In the new cities they gathered food, mined metals and had children. Repeat until death. They didn’t build better cities, they didn’t learn better ways to farm or mine, the tasks they performed after two hours of gameplay were identical to the tasks at the beginning of the game. It would be like playing Age of Empires, but you’re the only civilisation on the map and after you set your guys to chop wood and get food you just sit back and watch. You don’t advance, build, learn or do anything at all.
The tragedy is that the concept is solid but it seems a great deal of game mechanic has been sacrificed in favour of the philosophy. It makes sense that your commandments vanish over time, as each generation forgets but that makes for boring and repetitive gameplay. I would have liked to have been able to delete commandments that weren’t working, like the time I accidentally told the hungry to eat the well fed, but without that option I had to just sit back and watch my followers eat each other and hope they lived long enough to forget I ever said it. I get it was my mistake, but it was an honest mistake from getting one of the three fruit symbols mixed up. Instead, trial and error, I just had to make sure I didn’t do it next time. It would have been nice to delete commandments that weren’t working out for my people, but I guess they’re set in stone until they’re forgotten because; concept.
It’s a mixed bag, because it’s a lovely looking game. The minimalistic/African feel to the game is stylistically very pretty and the concept is sound. But the gameplay is lacking and is compromised in favour of hammering home the philosophy behind the game. The game feels like it wants to encourage conversation about the role of “God” as “God”, but instead my conversations were along the lines of, “if I have to tell them to go eat food one more time I’ma let them starve”. I think it is best summed up in the game’s own words; “Build a Legacy”. A legacy is a vague, non-specific, intangible concept and while this is supposed to be the point; without a specific end-game everyone is free to play “God” as they choose, a little bit of structure or rules would do wonders for the gameplay. Because ultimately that’s why we’re playing a game, to have fun with it. It is possible to have a solid concept and good gameplay, unfortunately Crest just doesn’t seem to meld these two at this point.
Crest is currently available on Steam in Early Access for £3.99. You can read our interview with the developers here.
[UPDATE] Since writing this preview an update has been applied which allows you to cancel out the effects of an earlier command by issuing a new, contradictory command, in effect allowing you to delete the faulty command. (re: “oops I accidentally told them to eat their babies paragraph” above). It also allows you to see which specific commands the follower is obeying when they set to a task. (re: “I have no idea if they’re listening to me at all” paragraph above)