Before We Leave (Xbox Series S) Review

Micromanaging a micro-civilisation in a micro solar system.

Before We Leave – developed by Balancing Monkey Games and published by Team 17 – describes itself as “a city building game set in a cozy corner of the universe”. That’s only half-true, as there’s no shortage of challenges and dangers, of a sort. Managing the logistics of a global and, eventually, interplanetary civilisation is no easy task, but what sets Before We Leave apart from its peers is the lack of a true fail-state and the ability to always come back from bad decisions.

As an indie title at only a third of the price of a full release, Before We Leave places all of its focus on the gameplay and provides a bare minimum of narrative context. All we know is that at some point in the distant past, humanity fled into bunkers to escape a cosmic threat. Generations later, they emerge above ground, having forgotten all but the most basic technology or even the reason their ancestors fled below the surface. There’s one scenario – think of more tailored experiences with distinct criteria – that provides a little more insight into the past, but that’s all you get. Outside of these four scenarios with specific “win” conditions, every game is effectively endless and devoid of story beats.

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So much to do, so little space.

Thankfully, the gameplay – which consists of juggling dozens of interconnected systems – will keep you fully engaged regardless. The tutorial should be the first thing you tackle, as it eases you into the flow of the early game, while immediately highlighting the complexities you’ll face as your “peep” population grows and your fledgling colony expands first across continents, and eventually across the solar system.

The first issue is that the procedurally-generated hex-based worlds are tiny. Each island offers up one or two biomes – which affect potential land use – and a limited number of natural and technological resources. As a result, moving up the tech tree, mining and refining new materials, or providing new luxuries to keep your peep happy will always require expansion. You’ll find enough resources on your starting island to build ships to scout and colonise new islands. From there, you’ll discover the resources and technology you need to get into space and discover even scarcer resources on new planets.

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It’s not the most expansive tech tree but every technology researched tends to unlock multiple buildings. Expect to spend plenty of time tearing down and rebuilding your cities.

It seems manageable at first as most buildings only occupy a single hex, but so do the basic roads you need to connect every structure. Farms and water sources require fertile hexes, but clearing forests will limit your wood supply, decreases your peep’s happiness, and remove a potential pollution sink for nearby industrial buildings. Deserts, icy wastes, and rocky highlands often provide essential raw materials but limit food production. As a result, you’ll need to constantly overhaul your early sprawl as your needs change and technology advances, making for an incredibly busy and iterative experience.

The second major issue is establishing supply lines. Before We Leave has no ethereal resource pool to draw from. Each planet, and each island on a planet, generate its own stockpile of resources for construction, refining, and manufacturing. As a result, setting up supply lines – by boat, airship, or spaceship – quickly becomes an important gameplay element. Ensuring each island and planet is autonomous may seem like a good idea at first, but if you want to optimise and maximise production chains, you’ll need to specialise each island (or entire planets) and establish dense supply lines.

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The first time you send off a colonisation spaceship seems like a momentous event, but soon you’ll have multiple spaceports and bustling space lanes to keep new and old colonies supplied.

Assuming you’ve managed to expand your civilisation off-world, optimise resource production, establish supply lines and keep your peeps happy, you’ll still need to deal with several distinctly weird threats: space whales that consume buildings and peeps along their path as they skim through the atmosphere, gremlins that steal resources unless you’ve invested in night lighting, and minotaurs that scare your workforce back to their homes if not first subdued by wrestlers (?!).  

Despite the complexities, these challenges are surmountable as Before We Leave rarely allows you to hit a dead end and offers granular difficulty settings. As an example, most basic resources are abundant and never entirely consumed; buildings can be demolished to retrieve rare resources for other structures; your peeps simply slow down or stop working when hungry or unhappy, rather than die off; and there’s also always a technological solution to any challenge – think more nutritious farm types, green power-generating options that don’t emit pollution, the automation of industries, and permanent solutions for several threats. With overlays and tooltips to highlight issues, The challenge comes from figuring out the optimal path forward if you become stuck, rather than having to start over.

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Space whales are more terrifying than they have any right to be. In this scenario, they consume entire planets – including any peeps or resources you’ve left behind.

This design makes Before We Leave far more accessible than many games in the genre, but it also limits replayability. You’ll soon realise the location of scarce resources is predictable, based on the chosen difficulty and number of planets in the solar system. As a result, there’s little randomness between runs and replayability ultimately comes from tackling larger solar systems and learning to optimise your early and mid-game build order. There are the four aforementioned scenarios that offer novel challenges – think abundant resources but time limits, city layout restrictions, or keeping an overpopulated civilisation happy – but Before We Leave still lacks the dynamism of games with factions, diplomacy, and conflict.

Visually, Before We Leave looks great and runs well on console. The environments and structures look distinctive and vibrant, while zooming out to see the entire solar system is undeniably cool. Unfortunately, the limited tile-set becomes obvious the longer you play and parts of the UI also feel more like stock assets. Perhaps more important is the audio, with a strong spatial component (think shifting directional audio levels as you pan around or zoom in and out), immersive ambience, and a chilled soundtrack that encapsulates the vibe the developers envisioned. Navigating and menu-ing by gamepad feels good – it was obviously designed around a mouse-and-keyboard first – but there are issues with sub-menus that can stay open and leave you wondering why your cursor is unresponsive and not selecting hexes.

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Digging deep into menus is essential – especially when peeps start demanding fruit and smoothies – but it can be fiddly using a gamepad.

Overall, Before We Leave is a solid indie city-builder that offers plenty of accessible content at a budget price. If you enjoy the thought of micromanaging a mini-civilisation, without the potential for dead-end trajectories, it’s well worth the price (and a no-brainer if you have an Xbox game Pass sub). However, the longer you play, the more you’ll recognise a rigid design and lack of dynamism seen in other games in the genre. That said, modern games can always grow over time with patches and expansions – which Before We Leave has already done on PC – so I’m looking forward to seeing what Balancing Monkey Games have planned for future updates.

An Xbox Series S review code for Before We Leave was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher

Before We Leave (Xbox Series S) Review

Before We Leave (Xbox Series S) Review
7 10 0 1
7/10
Total Score
  • Story
    5/10 Neutral
    There's only the bare minimum of narrative context to get you going.
  • Gameplay
    8/10 Very Good
    Complex and engaging, but also accessible. Replayability does suffer from an overly rigid design.
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
    The environments and structures look distinctive and vibrant, but the UI often feels like a stock asset.
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good
    The immersive ambience makes your mini-worlds feel alive, while the chilled musical vibes set the mood.

The Good

  • A complex but accessible city-builder with no dead-end trajectories
  • The joy of optimising production chains and establishing supply lines
  • Vibrant visuals, immersive ambience, and chilled musical vibes

The Bad

  • Rigid progression and limited random elements reduce replayability
  • Navigating sub-menus can be fiddly using a gamepad
Total
9
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