Dwarf Fortress, to a newcomer’s eyes, is an unwelcoming wall of ASCII veiling a world unfathomably deep and enticing. The Sims is an addictive manipulation machine where you can play God to your heart’s content. Minecraft managed to make millions of imaginations overflow with blockish designs. And RimWorld… well, we’ve played enough of it that we’ve almost forgotten where to look for flaws. We were intrigued, then, when Embark claimed to combine the best parts of the first three and seemed set to embrace aspects of the lattermost.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Take the sheer simulation power of Dwarf Fortress, wrap it in MineCraft’s easier-to-navigate landscape and give the player a bunch of people who can interact with each other as they build a new home. That last part is where the Sims and RimWorld likenesses collide.
In a process that will feel familiar to some, you begin your mission by selecting a landing site from the surface of a planet. You can see the lie of the land around the site here, along with an indication of the area’s water coverage. This isn’t something to ignore: water is emphasised as one of the most important resources in the game — perhaps even the most.
After that, you can select colonists from a pre-generated list, re-rolling them until you’re satisfied. You can improve your starting equipment and similar conditions here and add more colonists, but all within a point limit. You need to bear in mind that the pre-generated colonists are automatically three married couples for a reason: reproduction is your primary means of colony growth.
As soon as your colonists land, they’ll take periodic breaks from work to chat with the people beside them in nonsensical, Sim-ish voices. From casual chatter to nudging their partners and remarking on how attractive someone else looks, each interaction adjusts the relationships between colonists. Characters can also choose to learn skills from others (there are two tutor options with every such choice), and who they choose to learn from is an insult to the other.
In any case, sitting around chatting all day isn’t the aim of the game, so the first thing you need to do upon landing is pick out a decent spot to set up shop. Access to fresh water is the critical factor here and high terrain a secondary one — given the incredible amount of time construction takes compared to digging, you’re going to want to build down to start with. Switching between height layers at the press of a button, you can designate areas to mine several blocks deep at a time. Building walls works in the same way, but requires resources and takes significantly longer.
Not all your colonists are diggers worthy of dwarfdom, though. They all have different skillsets, so you need to manually assign their priorities in the jobs tab. In this way, you should be able to get everyone doing a vital task for the colony.
In the process of their everyday work, colonists don’t just twiddle their thumbs with the skills they know — they research new buildings, materials and recipes at quite an alarming rate. In no time at all, you’ll have access to all-essential beds. It takes a lot longer to produce the resources to build them than it does to research them, but the option is there.
Embark offers a lot more than we were able to experience (for reasons we’ll explain below). For starters, you aren’t just limited to your landing square — you can travel the entire globe. There are seasons with a rain cycle, climate-related illnesses, complex crafting, trading opportunities, enemy attacks and the prospect of grand constructions. That’s a list of features to get excited over.
It is, however, very early in development and the build we tried had already been replaced by a later version. We managed to build three promising starts to different colonies, building them decent — if ramshackle — accommodation, setting aside massive crafting rooms with carpenters’ benches, water stills and kitchens and even building a dining room. Unfortunately, this was where it ended, as our colonists’ foul mood made us realise they had been forgetting to get food from the stockpile to eat.
Still, the content on Embark’s website suggests this was probably a one-off issue with that build and the frequent update on its sub-reddit are a promising indicator of this title’s future. (In fact, as we were writing this article we noticed that the hungry colonist issue has been fixed).
If you’re excited by the prospect of this procedural adventure and want to support a game still early in development, Embark is currently available on itch.io. If you’re less comfortable placing early bets and aren’t too keen on contributing feedback, it’s still worth keeping an eye on Embark’s progress.