Four corporations emerge in the ruins of a fallen world: steampunk, steelpunk, atompunk, and dieselpunk. Indie developers Strategy Forge S.A. deliver a new take on the 4X strategy genre, featuring a Fallout-like world coupled with an inventive warring punk tribe scenario, but how does this small game stack up? We see what clicks and what fails in this review of Punk Wars.
Artistically, Punk Wars is a unique concept that really drew me in. Instead of focusing on a single punk-esque aesthetic, Punk Wars blends steampunk, steelpunk, atompunk, and dieselpunk aesthetics into one game. I really loved this concept; however, in action, I often found myself having difficulty differentiating each faction from one another as many units look pretty similar. Punk Wars’ gritty and dusty look makes a lot of the game look very homogenous.
The most prominent victim of Strategy Forge’s design choices is the main map, which is graphically uninteresting due to its sole use of brown as basically the only color. I understand that a post-apocalypse probably won’t be the most eye-catching setting ever. Still, games such as Wasteland and Frostpunk demonstrate that you can build a graphically compelling world while being visually simple.
Overall, Punk Wars left me unimpressed with its art style and graphics. The more I played it, the more my eyes glazed over.
While playing Punk Wars, I could see where Strategy Forge found inspiration and influences. Strategy game titans like Civilization and Total War are in the DNA of Punk Wars. While standing on the shoulders of giants, Punk Wars fails to reach the same heights.
Punk Wars starts off with a tutorial that serves as a very rudimentary explanation of the game’s core systems. This tutorial is a guided mission where you click where the game tells you to click while never explaining certain intricacies that are crucial to the gameplay experience. Things like how the dialogue choice system works or paths to victory are simply glossed over. The choice system, in particular, was something I only pieced together during my first playthrough and never something that the tutorial explained very well.
Just when the tutorial is picking up, and you begin to grasp the core concepts of how to play Punk Wars, the tutorial says, “also, water is your currency, and you should keep track of food, happiness, and necessary resources,” after which it's over. Then you’re tossed to wolves for your first campaign.
And “campaign” is a loose word for the main scenario in Punk Wars. There are no science or cultural victories in this game; extermination is the only victory scenario. For a small game, that is understandable, but it does hurt the replay value of this title as it becomes a dull and linear experience as you barrel to this inevitable path every time. Punk Wars features 7 maps with a campaign for each faction.
With less focus on its systems and more emphasis on the warpath, I expected Punk Wars to dive deeper into its units with plenty of variety. However, Punk Wars dropped the ball with a pretty abysmal selection of units. Each faction has 2 infantry units, one large flying unit, a giant robot, and 2 mounted units.
Punk Wars does feature unique skill trees for each faction where they gain access to specific technologies based around their faction type. Diesel punks can use combustion engines, atom punks eventually gain access to atomic bombs. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like each faction’s respective skill trees were a little too lean. Each skill tree has only two branches at the start that you can follow, and each branch only has occasionally binary decisions to make as you go down the overall linear path.
There is also a marked lack of consequences to your actions. Creating buildings, armies, and other units requires spending food, water, and resources, but they are all one-time fees. Typical strategy game elements like rolling expenses for building upkeep are not present. I felt like this gameplay choice diminished the weight of my actions and the sense of the scale of my civilization quite a lot.
But maybe I’m just a weirdo that loves to see how much I have poured into my bases and armies at the end of a campaign run in Total War or Civ.
Past a playthrough or two with whichever faction you find the coolest, Punk Wars offers very little to keep players coming back for more.
In terms of UI, Punk Wars is often annoying to play. This type of game needs to be well polished on a technical level for gamers to come back and want to sink hours into it. Some odd camera work and unintuitive choices in unit management result in a tedious experience.
For starters, there is a whole lot of janky camera work in this game. Janky and jerky is what I would call it. Like most 4X games, you can control the camera with keypresses or right-clicking the mouse and dragging. The latter is what I recommend using, seeing as camera control on a keyboard is terrible with too much overshoot and imprecision to be helpful.
But if you do decide to right-click around the map, be sure to not accidentally hit a unit because those also require right-clicks to select. More than once, when I would right-click a unit to set commands, I would interfere with the camera, and it was a bit of an annoyance.
Then the unit management issues exist, which put a damper on the experience with each turn.
For example, every unit you build will be cycled through every turn when you click “Next” unless you put them to sleep. This is a common enough mechanic in 4X games. Still, more sophisticated 4X games have an all-encompassing “Next Turn” button that will skip over everything that wasn’t assigned a command for that turn. As your civilization in Punk Wars grows with more buildings and units, it starts getting tedious having to keep track of your sleeping buildings and units when this could be remedied with the addition of one button.
Moreover, a lack of automated functions for units adds to the overall monotony. I would like to have my scouts simply go out and explore the world on their own, reporting back to me with what they find in the same manner that I do with most other strategy games. Too much time is spent in Punk Wars doing busy work. Solutions have existed for this problem in strategy games for a long time.
Punk Wars had a lot of promise. The proposed factions and unique setting were enough to draw me into its world and hold my interest for a while. However, past the first few hours, the cracks start to show. As a package, there isn’t one huge glaring problem with the game; instead, it's the little things that add up over time and make the game a slog. Punk Wars is fine for a playthrough or two for its low price, but don’t go into it expecting a mechanically rigorous and deep experience.