Ballads of Hongye
Ballads of Hongye is a fast-paced city builder with a heavy focus on strategizing in order to achieve economic balance and an optimal placement of buildings. It’s a game that has a steep learning curve, and one that is quite difficult to handle even on the easiest of the two possible difficulty modes. Yet it’s a pretty unique experience in regards to the gameplay and mechanics, despite the game having its own shortcomings.
You take the role of Ding Hong who is appointed as a magistrate in the small city of Hongye with the task of reviving it economically. The game is built as a sequence of eight challenges (more to come in the future) with a small period of intermission in between two of them, and Hongye constitutes the first and by far the easiest of them. Each challenge has specific objectives and takes place in a new region of the map. This will then be annexed to your domain once the mission successfully completes, together with all the buildings you put up during the challenge, whose production will be added to a centralized, global treasury. Your performance will be rated at the end of the mission, and the time you took to complete it, together with other factors like the amount of money spent, the diversity of the structures built or the happiness of the people will be taken into consideration for a final score.
The first mission also acts as a brief tutorial that showcases the basic controls, but by no means this is enough to cover all the mechanics in the game or all the UI elements. Ballads of Hongye is quite stingy in regards to how many things it teaches you, and you’ll mostly be left alone to discover not only various strategies to employ, but also where exactly to look in order to find the information you need. For example, the fact that the buildings can be moved without any additional costs is not explained or shown through the interactive tutorial, although this mechanic plays a critical role in planning the placement of your buildings or how many buildings of a certain type you actually need (one of each security buildings should be enough, since you can just move it in the areas where it’s needed, as long as it has space there). It’s a game that was certainly not designed for novices to the genre, who will have a pretty hard time adjusting to it and learning the ropes.
Your priorities will change with every challenge and you’ll need to adapt your strategy to the amount of resources you start with and to the goals of the mission. On top of that, a seasonal mechanic will impact the production or consumption of your goods. And to complicate things even more, there will be a lot of natural disasters. The floods will decrease the food production, lightning or fires will burn down your buildings and cause deaths in your population and the worst of all: the earthquake, which can’t be prevented or countered by building protective buildings, could scrape off even half of your town. Starting with the third challenge, the game sadly turns into a non-stop fight against these natural disasters, with very little time to actually do something in order to balance your economy. Attempting a challenge costs you valuable resources that will be recouped only in very little amounts in case you fail it. This means that ultimately you end up depleting your whole treasury if you continuously fail missions.
One thing that bothered me to a certain degree is the fact that the game is mostly played in paused mode. Considering that the speed of achieving the goals matters for the final rating, every second in which the game runs without you actually doing anything will decrease your resources. In addition to that, the time flows extremely fast (making the consumption of resources also very fast) and there’s only one speed setting available. Putting up buildings or moving them will require you to unpause the game, but otherwise there is no reason to let the game run normally unless you’re trying to reach certain production goals. Graphically, the game is absolutely stunning and it’s a pity that one can’t really enjoy all the colorful animations of the inhabitants doing their jobs or walking around because of having to keep the game paused almost all the time.
Three ample talent trees which provide not only various perks, but also new buildings that will shape the way you choose to solve challenges. For some of these missions, having certain talents unlocked seems to be a must for a successful completion, and while the game doesn’t provide a strict order in which you should do the missions, this should come naturally based on what talents you chose to unlock so far. However, unlocking one item in the talent tree costs a considerable amount of resources, and most of them can also be upgraded / improved several times by spending an incremental amount of resources. Since you use the global treasury to unlock talents, a good thing is that the ones unlocked during a mission will still remain unlocked even if the mission failed.
Ballads of Hongye impresses not only through the astonishing Chinese-themed visuals, but also through the dynamic, fast-paced gameplay which gives it a unique twist among the other similar city builders. The game is actively being developed, the community’s feedback is taken into consideration, and the developers are constantly adjusting and balancing the factors that make the challenges so difficult at the moment. From here on, I can foresee it only becoming better with time, and I’m excited to discover how the end product will play out. For this kind of game, the $10 asking price is well worth it and if I might also say, quite modest.