My medieval settlement in Farthest Frontier is suffering from drought and crop blight, everyone has smallpox, and we’re being raided by bandits. It’s… it’s glorious. And I don’t mean that purely in a masochistic way. I love a lot of difficult games, but what really sets this medieval colony builder apart is how its challenges all feel historical and authentic. And for a medieval history nerd like me, that really sells the experience – even when parts of it clearly necessitate the early access label.
Farthest Frontier drops you into one of four pleasant-seeming biomes with a dozen weary settlers looking to make a new life for themselves. The basics of building and running a settlement are simple enough, and fairly familiar if you’ve played other survival city-builders: gather wood, build houses, find food, and defend yourself from wolves and bears. The really interesting wrinkle here is that all food eventually spoils. Even the stockpile you start with won’t last much beyond the first winter, meaning you can’t just harvest everything in sight and not have to worry about it for a long time. At least, not at first.
This simple change is the core of why Farthest Frontier feels so authentic, and why I found its challenges so novel and satisfying. It forced me to think more like the way an actual medieval, agricultural society would think, eventually leading me down a lot of the same paths they traveled in real life. There are interesting trade-offs at every step of the way. Grain can be stored a lot longer than other crops, but it also can’t be eaten on its own – you need to turn it into flour, and then bread, which requires two extra buildings. It also depletes soil fertility a lot faster than other crops.
That’s part of Farthest Frontier’s seriously detailed agriculture system. Every plot of land you can grow on has ratings for fertility, rocks, weeds, and even the ratio of sand to clay content. These can all be influenced with various jobs, and it makes crop rotation essential because planting the same thing over and over will often end up leaving the land barren after a while. I was actually looking up articles on medieval field rotation practices as I played, which is about as close to my personal happy place as I can get playing this type of game. Yeah, I know. I’m a dork.
You’ll also have to deal with drought, frost, wild animals eating your crops, and diseases like mildew, the solutions to which make your settlement look and feel more believable over time. It’s refreshing, honestly, when so many games have abstract mechanics that lead me to make silly decisions for the sake of getting things running smoothly. It can feel like a lot to manage sometimes, but I got into a headspace of embracing the chaos and sometimes even laughing at the misfortune of my villagers. Call me heartless, but it’s the Middle Ages. It wouldn’t feel right without a healthy dose of suffering.
Sometimes, though, it can be vexing in less enjoyable ways. There’s some sort of a built-in taxation system that’s never explained that well. You generate gold from certain buildings, though it’s unclear which ones unless you read all of the descriptions individually. Every year, some amount of gold is taken as a tax, without much explanation of why you’re paying the amount you are. Some jobs also cost gold to maintain – notably the military. But even when I had no soldier jobs assigned and all my military buildings turned off, sometimes I’d be charged for them anyway, which was frustrating. It might just be a bug. This is early access after all.
I was glad I paid those soldiers when I did need them, however, because infrequent bandit raids can leave your homes in ruins and your stores of food and gold plundered. Walls and watchtowers help prevent this, though on default settings, I often found the amount I needed to spend to deal with attackers eventually became a bit absurd. Keeping a positive gold balance just didn’t seem possible after a while, and I was only able to avoid bankruptcy by trading away luxury items every year. I feel like I’m missing some facet of how to manage the gold economy, but ages of poking through menus and reading tooltips didn’t give me an answer.
However, even in the worst-case scenario, bandits won’t completely ruin your colony. It’s always possible to bounce back, since new migrants will always be lining up to join you as long as you’re keeping everyone relatively happy. So if the frustration of maintaining a large defensive force got to be too much, I could just ignore it and treat the bandits as another natural disaster I’d have to clean up after now and then.
I really like the look of Farthest Frontier, too. It’s realistic but saturated, readable but detailed. Zooming in on each little homestead reveals laundry hanging in the wind. Vibrant forests, fields, and rivers look like places I’d love to get lost in. And with the changing of the seasons, summer green gives way to autumnal orange and then the frosty, foreboding white of winter. The whole world feels so alive, which is something I was desperately missing in some similar games like Banished.
One area I really hope gets tightened up during early access is performance. Once I got over 200 population, which is required to unlock the highest level of your town center, I started to notice some regular, though not constant, chugging and hitching, even on my Ryzen 7 3700X and GTX 3080-powered system. Optimization is often one of the last things to get nailed down in an early access game, so I can mostly forgive it for now. But it does mean that my motivation to keep playing a bigger colony past a certain size started to take a dive along with my stable framerate.