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Short Review | Cliff Empire – Futuristic SimCity on a mountain side

Due to a nuclear winter, humanity had to relocate to outer space. Now we can go back to repopulate the Earth. However, the summits and the peaks of the planet are the only habitable places. Read our short review to learn if rebuilding the world is any fun in Cliff Empire.
Special events in the city are marked by fireworks.


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We start by building a storage facility and housing for settlers from the space station.
We start by building a storage facility and housing for settlers from the space station.
People are willing to return to Earth only when there is enough housing and uranium.
People are willing to return to Earth only when there is enough housing and uranium.

These days it looks like that it shall not be climate change that brings us all to wrack and ruin. In this case, it will be a nuclear winter unleashed upon the Earth by an atomic superpower firing the lion’s share of its warheads and thus turning the planet into an ice-covered wasteland, blanketing the surface of the Earth with a radioactive fog 300 meters thick. 

That is the premise of the building sim Cliff Empire, which was developed by Lion's Shade. The game has spent almost a year in early access and was officially released on Steam on August 6. Currently, the developer charges 9.99 Euros (~$11.30) for the game.

The game is not set 100 years in the future, but there are still a few technological advances to contend with. The people who managed to survive the nuclear war ended up at an orbital space station, and after they spent a few decades in space, they decided to go back to Earth. However, the surface of the planet is no longer habitable. The mountain peaks that jut out of the nuclear fog are the only areas suitable for settlement. The cliffs do not offer a lot of space, which is why players have to be especially judicious in how they manage their city.

By the way, our screenshots do not seem to do the game justice. This is why we decided to include a number of screenshots made by the developer, which we clearly marked.

Genre and Aspects of the Game

In typical fashion for a city builder, you are put in charge of three colonies on three different cliffs. The location of the cities is randomly chosen when you start a new game. You can easily reset the game if you would like to change the location of your colonies. After we identified our favorite cliff, we started off by building a storage facility there. The first building is delivered in a spectacular fashion from the space station by freight drones, which also serve as workers and are used for transporting goods and constructing buildings on this particular cliff further on in the game.

Next we build housing units and a landing platform for the first people who want to return to Earth. They arrive in style via shuttle and take over the colony. From now on, we have to construct other buildings to provide nourishment, electricity, income, and security for the colonists. 

There are three different game modes: In Sandbox mode, we can focus on building the most beautiful city without having to worry about resources. In classic mode, we build our city step by step. Here we also have to make sure that we are able to meet the needs of the settlers. In Tower Defense mode, we have to defend the city from waves of incoming attackers. This mode is very different when compared to the classic mode.

You can select which building you want to erect in the construction menu.
You can select which building you want to erect in the construction menu.
The settlers arrive via shuttle.
The settlers arrive via shuttle.

Gameplay

Once the first settlers arrive, the gameplay loop, which is very similar to Anno games or even Cities: Skylines, begins. Settlers need something and in order to satisfy that need, you have to construct a building. At first the game appears a bit overwhelming: There are introductory missions, which give players additional resources. However, it is never explained, for example, that colonists will fall ill even if you have a good healthcare facility if they do not get any vitamins. Unlike in other games, fish, tomatoes and grapes are not an alternative for other foodstuffs. These are actual resources, needed to keep the productivity of the labor force high.

Not all cliffs are equally good for food, energy and commodity production: If visible gusts of wind are sweeping across the platform, then this is where you should put your wind farm. If one of your cities has a lot of uranium, then this is where your mining operation should be located. If weather conditions are especially favorable for food production on one of your three cliffs, then you should build as many greenhouses there as possible.  

You can build on all three of your cliffs right from the start. However, each cliff has its own budget and its own resource base. It is a good thing that you can build bridges to link all three cliffs together, and if you do so workers will automatically move from one cliff to another, depending on the amount of work and living space available on each cliff.

You can see the needs of the settlers at the bottom of the screen. The population size serves as the main determinant of the colonists’ needs. In addition to food, water and electricity, residents may also need furniture, household appliances and electronic devices, all of which are produced at 3D printing facilities that require raw input materials that are mined from the depths of the cliffs.

While building, you also have to pay attention to the ecological situation and the look of your colony. Many buildings come in various sizes, which can be especially useful when you are running low on construction space and need to fit a building in between other buildings. The orientation of the buildings can be changed. Moreover, you can also expand the buildings. For instance, you can add more units to a housing complex.

Research plays an important role as well. It can make fulfilling certain needs of the colonists easier and allows players to construct new buildings. The more universities you build, that is to say, the more limited space on your cliffs you dedicate to research, the faster it progresses.

Cliff Empire is all about making the best of the limited space that you have at your disposal. This is what EA’s much-criticized SimCity reboot, which was particularly disliked by the fans, was also about. However, because of the setting, these kinds of mechanics make a lot more sense in Cliff Empire. Moreover, the different sizes of the buildings can lead to very interesting conundrums such as: Should I add another field to increase food production or should I build another turbine for the wind farm? Should I house settlers in large apartment complexes or should I build single-family detached homes for the colonists, which make them happier?

There are a lot of systems to master. These range from office buildings and tourist facilities, which can generate a lot of money later in the game, to trade with the space station, which happens through a very cool warp-gate. Mastering all of these aspects of the game is necessary for building a viable economy.

During this short review, we spent almost five hours playing with Cliff Empire. We still have a lot of technologies to unlock and our third cliff is basically uninhabited, which gives us a lot of room for improvement. For most people, the first play-through will be a learning experience, during which they will get to know the various systems of the game. The tutorial missions only cover the basics and are not of much use when it comes to more sophisticated mechanics.

By completing quests, you will get to take your colonization efforts to outer space. Randomly generated cliffs and ever-changing climate add to the replay value.

At night our settlement looks chic, thanks to its lighting, but it is hard to make out much in the darkness.
At night our settlement looks chic, thanks to its lighting, but it is hard to make out much in the darkness.
The eternal city dilemma: A nuclear power plant generates a lot of energy but degrades ecology and becomes a real liability during fires.
The eternal city dilemma: A nuclear power plant generates a lot of energy but degrades ecology and becomes a real liability during fires.
Trade is an important source of income for our colony.
Trade is an important source of income for our colony.
The warp-gate, which is used to transport goods from us to the space station, is one of the most impressive buildings in the game.
The warp-gate, which is used to transport goods from us to the space station, is one of the most impressive buildings in the game.
Research also plays an important role in ensuring that the needs of the settlers are met.
Research also plays an important role in ensuring that the needs of the settlers are met.
Impressive bridges link our cliffs together. (Developer’s screenshot)
Impressive bridges link our cliffs together. (Developer’s screenshot)

Technology

The game takes up less than 500 MB of storage space on the hard drive. The system requirements are also quite low. According to the developer, the game should run smoothly on a system with 2 GB of RAM and an integrated GPU. Nevertheless, the title looks very impressive: The camera can be rotated 360 degrees and the zoom level can be adjusted, the futuristic buildings are well-detailed and beautifully designed, individual drones fly to and fro over the city and the residents stroll through the newly constructed parks with a clear sense of wonder. You can take a closer look at the impressive visuals by pressing Tab and enabling tourist mode, which allows you to explore the city from a settler’s point of view.

The lighting is very good. There are impressive firework shows during special events, the buildings are illuminated at night and sea waves distort the contours of structures built underwater. The seamless transitions between day and night look quite impressive as well. Cliff Empire is not the best-looking game in the genre, but it still looks mighty impressive, especially if you take into consideration the low system requirements.

The music is not very memorable and sounds a lot like something you might hear in an elevator, which is quite common for building simulators. That being said, it is not annoying. Sound effects are used sparingly, but when they are used, as in the case of the firefighting drones, they sound very convincing. A female voice informs players of the goings-on in the colony.

In the course of our review, there was one time when the game refused to start. This issue was resolved after a restart. We did not encounter many graphical glitches during our gameplay session, except for the issues with screenshots. Problems may also rise if you make changes to the scaling through Windows settings. This can sometimes lead to text not fitting in the text boxes. The voice-over is only available in English, but the rest of the game has been translated into 12 languages, including German. We found the German translation to be very well-done.

The HUD is scalable, but the dark-gray numbers are sometimes hard to read because they are positioned against a dark background. At night, the world gets so dark that it becomes difficult to locate certain buildings.

3D view allows us to explore the city. (Developer’s screenshot)
3D view allows us to explore the city. (Developer’s screenshot)
The lighting effects look especially good at night. (Developer’s screenshot)
The lighting effects look especially good at night. (Developer’s screenshot)

Verdict

Cliff Empire brings along many cool ideas. And big bridges. (Developer's screenshot)
Cliff Empire brings along many cool ideas. And big bridges. (Developer's screenshot)

Cliff Empire is a good and reasonably priced building simulator that offers a fresh setting and numerous challenges to overcome. Due to limited construction space, such classic dilemmas as whether you should build wind farms, which produce clean energy but take up a lot of space, or nuclear power plants, which need less space but are more dangerous, abound. The in-game systems work well with one another. However, the title has a steep learning curve.

After five hours of gameplay, we cannot talk much about long-term playability, but we are certain that we have not seen everything this game has to offer just yet. The title is not especially difficult. For instance, we were able to quickly recover from a devastating fire on our second cliff. Nevertheless, there are still many things that we would like to improve and a number of buildings that we would like to try out.

We were impressed with the visual design and the graphics. The ability to construct buildings in architectural styles from different eras is also a major plus.

There are a few aspects in which the setting does not make much sense: It would appear as though the people stranded on Earth after nuclear Armageddon had nothing better to do than build tall platforms and then abandon them. The materials of which the platforms are made are also unknown, and it is not clear why these platforms contain so many resources. However, it is easy to overlook these enigmas because of the cool game mechanics such as the ability to build bridges over steep ravines. The smaller technical flaws can be sorted out, and because the game offers the ability to unlock new buildings by investing more time in it and supports various mods it will take a while before it starts to get old. There is also the Tower Defense mode to mention.

Cliff Empire is a very beautiful city-building simulator, which is still going to be fun even after many play-throughs, thanks to its innovative setting and ideas.

We had a lot of fun with the game, which, at 9.99 Euros (~$11.30), is very reasonably priced. The title has a very good price-to-fun ratio for any fan of building simulators. 

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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > Reviews > Cliff Empire – Futuristic SimCity on a mountain side
Florian Schmitt, 2019-08-10 (Update: 2019-08-12)