It pays to be a bastard. The future is dark, humanity has become an appetiser for ravenous hordes of the undead and the only way to reclaim land is to be the kind of heartless overlord who crams hundreds of citizens into dingy overcrowded hovels while throwing expendable troops at a growing army of the very hungry undead.
Launching last year with an absolutely brilliant survival mode, They Are Billions took two seemingly disparate ideas and mashed them together, digging up a new genre which is starting to find its place in a crowded genre of strategy. Survival is the name of its particular game, as you find yourself juggling not only a colony which needs to grow beyond its original borders but you’ve also got to fend off the zombie hordes who are just one shambling corpse away from ruining everything that you’ve spent so many hours building.
That right there, is the core appeal of They Are Billions. It’s basically an isometric juggling game, albeit with several resources, timed hordes of the undead throwing themselves at your gates and a quid pro quo system wherein one economy props up the other in a delicate clockwork city that is just one mistake from falling back into the darkness of the apocalypse.
Land is always available at a premium as you cram more civilians into an area that is surrounded by oblivious ankle-biters, expensive research is the only way that you can survive the growing danger on your doorstep and the tension builds with each passing day as your balls become chainsaws in your juggle to preserve your delicate momentum.
Everyone has a part to play, whether that be as fodder for the hordes or as a mom who packs lunches for her urchin so that the little swine can toil away in my factory building steam-powered suits of zombie-murdering armour. Anyway, a year later and They Are Billions is still a superb slice of survival mechanics wrapped up with a sprinkling of tyranny and a weary populace of serfs who slave away for the greater good.
So how’s the rest of the game
Whereas the Survival mode offers everything that’s available to you provided that you can last long enough to unlock said features for your colony across its collection of randomly-generated maps and customisable challenges, They Are Billions’ campaign is miserly in design. Mind you, that’s not a slight but rather an observation of its more deliberate handicapping of the player.
With humanity hiding in a crater and the rest of the planet infested with tens of billions of the walking deceased, it’s up to you to carry out the will of your steampunk overlord and re-establish the lost colonies that were overrun by the dead. To do so, you’ll need to explore maps that throw various spanners into the mix. Some maps are tighter, others have larger hordes roaming about and some maps have the mother of all swarms just waiting to knock your cockiness out of the door with the crumbling timber of your hastily-prepared wooden walls.
Here is where humanity makes its last stand, as you have to establish your colony and plug any gaps in your defences. Much like survival mode, They Are Billions’ campaign is a tight race to the finish that’ll have your armpits leaking moisture like the Titanic after one too many icebergs. It’s also brutally punishing, as these lengthy missions offer no chance to make even a single save game whatsoever.
While the idea is solid, it’s also heart-breaking to spend the better part of two hours on a single map and watch your decisions fall apart right at the end just because of one tiny detail that you overlooked. All your preparation, planning and execution undone by a single zombie that slipped through and reduced your colony to a sea of rotting bodies that have begun tearing your blueprint for iron-fisted design to shreds.
While not having a traditional save mode in the Survival offerings feels like a natural omission in They Are Billions, in campaign mode it just feels unnecessarily unforgiving for players. It’s not just
Between those missions, is a research tree where you’ll have to choose which technologies to unlock with your accrued research points. Prefer chunkier health bars for your soldiers over increased farming efficiency, want to unlock snipers instead of wooden cottages with which you can grow your huddling populace at a quicker rate? The choice is yours, provided that you can complete a mission and unlock the points needed to so for the research tree which requires Scrooge McDuck levels of investment.
Beyond that, the game also throws two more modes at you: A quick survival map where you have to use scant resources to guard an outpost from an approaching swarm of undead, and a Hero mode where you guide your plucky protagonist through abandoned military bunkers and outposts as you scavenge for materials.
Swarm encounters are pretty much a quicker taste of trial and error that thankfully won’t shave hours off of your lifespan, whereas hero missions are meant to be tense on a singular level but more often than not are somewhat tedious in their nature of back and forth guerrilla tactics. And yet, I’m still having a blast despite all these faults.
When They Are Billions ticks away at full speed on all steam cylinders, it’s a work of art. It’s a combination of hard choices, desperation and an unending thrill of seeing a mob of undead reduced to atoms by the combined fire of a platoon of soldiers. Those rare moments of victory, where all your hard work in establishing a base that can stand strong against entire armies of flesh-eating monsters in a world gone mad.
They Are Billions is a game based on just a single trick that’s up its undead sleeve. But it’s a hell of a trick, one that’ll keep you ensnared in its tangled web of survival for dozens and dozens of hours as the undead march upon your best base-building efforts.
Last Updated: July 1, 2019