A little over a year ago, I previewed Kainga: Seeds of Civilization. It was ostensibly a mix of games like Black & White and the Civilization series with rogue-lite elements thrown into it. At that time, cognizant that it was a beta and it was an Early Access title, I afforded it the benefit of the doubt even as I observed that it needed some serious work to get into shape for a full release. Well, it’s been a year plus at this point. And my wish that the game would improve has clearly gone unfulfilled.

Kainga puts players in control of a Thinker, a semi-divine sage who descends down to the mortal plane to start a new civilization for the express purpose of…fulfilling some ridiculous challenge that has no actual bearing on the course of a civilization or the mark it might leave on a world. Seriously, I have never played a game as existentially nihilistic as this one. Black & White at least had the notion of a storyline attached to its god game structure, however thin it was in practice. Hades may have been almost literally Sisyphean at times in terms of the rogue-lite elements, but there was depth to the characters and a sense of stakes. All Kainga seems to be doing is figuring out how to amplify the worst elements of those genres, squash them together, and try to sell the player on the idea that there’s something worthwhile in all the effort.

“‘Come out to the desert,’ they said. ‘We’ll lay down a few huts, we’ll have a few laughs…'”

There’s been little if any improvement or enhancement in the visual elements of Kainga. Your avatar and your mindless minions have a “paper doll” aesthetic which hints at the early stages of civilization, past cave paintings but before more elaborate iconography is developed. The two starting environments I’ve been able to play in at this point have a deliberately low-poly aesthetic which works well enough to convey the general nature of the environment, and the UI helpfully informs you what sort of terrain your cursor is currently sitting over at any given moment. Inspirations which your Thinker can ponder to derive new technologies are now helpfully labelled with an icon that gives the general area of research your picks can be drawn from. Certain weather events and creature attacks add smoke and fire effects to the field, sometimes catastrophically, which is morbidly amusing at times. As to other environments, I cannot make any judgment for reasons which I will detail below.

The sound effects and music remain unchanged from my earlier preview of Kainga. They’re still well done, all told, but there’s not a whole lot there. Relying heavily on drums and flutes, you get short musical stings when you discover a technology and very simple rhythmic melodies when entering combat. You hear a lot of Kainga-style “Simlish” from villagers and Thinkers alike. There are muted thumpings of wood being chopped or fields being dug up if you’re zoomed in close enough. All of it technically proficient, none of it artistically impressive.

“Dear God, who made the birds and the bees…and the snails, presumably…”

Gameplay is what kills Kainga for me. It appears that you cannot mashup god games and rogue-lites without an intolerable ratio of success-to-failure. At the time of this writing, I had managed to have five successful games out of a total of 39, a 12.8% success rate. While some of these can definitely be attributed to poor choices on my part, most of them are due to circumstances beyond my control. The location of inspiration points stands out as a pretty severe example. They appear to be created randomly once you put down your campfire to start your current efforts. There might be an abundance of resource production inspirations but a dearth of food. There could be all sorts of food but only one weapon technology, and it’s located in the camps of your enemies.

Speaking of enemies, there are generally two different enemy villages which appear to be far better equipped than your own and whose villagers are vastly more competent at their jobs. Assuming that you’re not wiped out by natural disaster or your Thinker isn’t murdered by other villagers or eaten by the local wildlife, the typical result is that your village is swarmed by hostile villagers with better weapons than you can produce and razed to the ground. Why? Because your villagers appear to be suicidally depressed about your performance as leader and won’t fight back to save their own miserable lives unless you order them to.

And there’s the ever popular “eaten by wild animals” option

Every possible system is opaque to point of being Byzantine. The “Ante” system, which increases the severity of events like natural disasters and what not, keeps ticking on up, practically ensuring you’re going to fail if you can’t keep pace with the litany of suck coming down on you. While it seems simple that growing food should lead to increased population, your villagers regularly leave it on the ground because you have to luck into a means of storage. Trade tables, if you can find them, should be improving relations between tribes, but there’s nothing to detail how quickly or slowly those relations change one way or the other. Demand tables only seem to further piss off the enemy tribes who set them out, leading to the inevitable genocide of yet another hapless tribe that’s cursed by your presence. A single mistake in technology picks spells doom for your current charges, even there are no “good” picks to make.

But what does it matter? You can always try again! And that may be the greatest sin Kainga commits. It creates a ludonarrative dissonance whereby you’re told you have to shepherd this tribe through the current challenge, but you’re expected to treat them as completely expendable because you’re going to be leaving whether they succeed or fail. And for a game which has no discernible story to it, that’s a hell of a trick to pull off. Worse still, any kind of progression as far as unlocking new biomes, new thinkers, and new technologies is entirely dependent on your ability to successfully complete challenges. If you’re not invested in the Thinkers as characters, if you’re not invested in the world as a living entity, if you’ve got no narrative throughline with the tribes you’ve built and succeeded with, what’s the point? It all comes down to the assumption that you need to care about completing challenges for their own sake. That all the cool things you have to unlock will be worthwhile in their own right. It’s a grotesquely flawed assumption and it’s fatally damaging to this game.

And these schmucks are absolutely no help.

I have no doubt that Kainga: Seeds of Civilization was conceived to be fun. And with different implementations of the existing systems, it theoretically might have been so. A year on from its Early Access launch, its final form is not one that I can recommend, either to fans of the god game or roguelite genres. Some might find a masochistic joy in its punishing systems, but I could not.

Axel played Kainga: Seeds of Civilization on PC with a review code.

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