You’ve got to wonder how many more accessible city-builders 8floor Ltd have got in their vaults. They’re clearly having a clearout, as the past few months have seen four tumble onto the Xbox: two in the Gnome Garden series, one in the Lost Artifact series, and a newbie called Garden Story. Now you can add Crown of the Empire to the lengthening list.
There’s not much daylight between them. One might have a goatee, the other a different haircut, but there’s no hiding that they’re effectively the same person.
They can all be described in the same way: Crown of the Empire is a city-rebuilding sim. You’re given a single screen with one functioning building (or a couple of that same functioning building). This is where your workers live, and paths wind in various directions away from that building. The paths are often blocked, so you are moving your cursor over to the blockages and tapping them, so that a worker will clear it away. By clearing them away, you are gaining one of four different resources – food, lumber, stone and coal.
Eventually, you are encountering buildings on the paths. Some are ruined and require those resources to restore them. Once they’re restored, they pump out resources periodically, creating a lovely game loop where you can afford to fix more buildings and even upgrade them to create bigger piles of resources. Sometimes the buildings are intact, merrily chundering out coal and lumber for you to grab.
On occasion, the buildings are something that will help you with the path-unblocking. A headquarters will deliver you a top-hat wearing lothario who is apparently good at shoo-ing away yetis and other creatures. An alchemist can knock down bridges (again, not something we’d associate with alchemists). Part of the fun is working out which path needs unclogging first, so that you don’t get stuck in a dead-end without resources to speak of.
Compare it to Age of Empires or Age of Wonders and it’s about as complicated as pulling lint out of your belly button. But there’s a simple joy in cleaning up the game screen, as messy rubbish is replaced with pristine, cleared pathways. There’s a satisfying point when you unlock every factory that you need, they’re upgraded too, and you’re hoarding resources like a greedy dragon. It’s a straight run to completing the level’s objectives, and three stars are yours.
As with all of 8floor’s stuff, it’s got a fiddliness to it. It’s clearly made for PC or touchscreens, as manhandling a cursor across the screen can be slow and imprecise. Maybe it’s our daddy fingers, but we found ourselves misclicking things more than the other games. It also had a habit of telling us that paths were blocked when they very much weren’t; presumably it thought we clicked on something beyond the blockage. When resources are being generated every few seconds in the four corners of the game screen, the cursor troubles can be frustrating.
It’s a good time to mention some things that Crown of the Empire does do better than its brethren, however. Where the other 8floor games can be demanding on your time, Crown of the Empire is far more low-maintenance. It’s easy to get three stars per level, and almost impossible to get anything lower – at least in our experience. It means you don’t need to redo levels for achievements. Better still, Crown of the Empire has a love for treasure chests. Find one and raid it, and you’ll be given a motherlode of resources to complete the rest of the level with. Suddenly, you have forty coal, which you would have spent a couple of minutes generating otherwise, and the levels feel speedier as a result.
It’s a pervasive feeling throughout Crown of the Empire. It’s just got a bit more respect for your time. Levels are faster, landmarks like hot air balloons don’t need quite so many resources to complete them, and there are fewer objectives overall. It’s a big, green tick next to Crown of the Empire, and we’d say it’s the best of the 8floor bunch as a result. No one wants to play the same repetitive levels for long stretches of time.
And they are repetitive. It’s still the albatross for this family of games. Not only are Gnomes Garden levels incredibly similar to Lost Artifact levels, and so on, but the levels within each game feel samey. As it turns out, there are only so many ways you can remix the same factories, obstacles and winding paths. Crown of the Empire can’t find an answer to the variety question. It’s the same few categories of level as before: some that have plentiful resources, some that have limited resources (so you have to choose your direction carefully) and some that don’t have resources at all, forcing you to trade for what you want.
Unusually, Crown of the Empire dispenses with one of the mainstays of these games. There’s no means of fast-tracking a factory, sending a worker with the aim of speeding up the rate of resource. You can see why: the levels are shorter, and the resources needed are fewer. Theoretically, you won’t need someone to speed things up. But there were still moments where they were missed. When our one remaining objective was to stock up on coal, but we couldn’t make that coal arrive faster, it felt like a little control was being swindled away from us.
If you’re curious about this series – whether it’s the Gnomes Garden games, Lost Artifacts or any of the others – then Crown of the Empire is the one you need. As a set of games, they have never been particularly demanding, but this is the lowest maintenance of the bunch. It appreciates that you have other games to play, and that the levels aren’t varied enough to linger over. So, it speeds everything up, and that pace suits Crown of the Empire to an absolute tee.
Assuming that we’re going to get dozens more of these games in the coming weeks, we’ll put our request in now: can they all follow Crown of the Empire’s lead? Thank you muchly.