Date: February 15, 2023
I have a love-hate relationship with older strategy games. I love the creativity that goes into making a game work with so few resources available to the developers. With a few frames of animation, a handful of static images, and a spreadsheet furiously ticking away behind the scenes, old strategy games manage to make you feel like you’re living in– and running– a full, living world. However, I hate how those limited resources translate to artificially enhanced difficulty. Older games often try to compensate for their limited playtime and replayability by making your goals nigh-impossible to meet. And when it came time to review Pharaoh: A New Era, I wasn’t sure which way the balance would tip.
Pharaoh: ANE is a remake of Pharaoh, a city-builder from 1999. Like SimCity or Cities: Skylines, you start with a barren field, add roads, schools, housing, and industry, and try not to let the place fall into fiery, plague-ridden chaos. Unlike those games, you’re playing as the overseer of an ancient Egyptian city, with all the constraints that an Imhotep or a Hatshepsut would labour under. The original Pharaoh is a 90s strategy game, with everything that entails; it’s both an incredibly creative game, and hard as nails.
But when developing Pharaoh: ANE, Triskell Interactive and Dotemu added a bunch of quality of life updates. They tweaked just about everything, from the interface to the game design, to make the game more accessible to a modern audience. This isn’t just a remaster — it’s a full-on remake, worthy of the title A New Era. At the same time, they tried to make the game as faithful to the original as they could. The game’s original feel and gameplay — down to unintended exploits — have been preserved, as far as the devs could.
So, is Pharaoh ANE a Great Pyramid or a Bent Pyramid? Let’s dig in.
When remaking a beloved game, you’ve got to balance nostalgia and modern standards. It’s often a struggle to keep the soul of a game intact through a transition to modern hardware.
Pharaoh navigates that transition pretty well. The sprites look as close to the original as possible, just upscaled to fit on modern monitors. The overall design, colour palette, and ‘look’ of the game is preserved as well as possible. The soundtrack features remastered versions of the game’s original songs, replacing the crunchy midis with less-compressed music tracks. It’s hard to tell whether the instruments are real or not, but they sound a lot clearer.
Standing on its own, the presentation is still pretty good, but some of the choices made for the remaster do look a little cheap. A standout: the sprites look lovely, especially the gorgeous and detailed art for the large buildings like temples and palaces. The redraws are faithful to the original, too– putting the images side by side, it’s the UI that’s the giveaway as to which is which. Considering that these buildings are what you’re going to be staring at for most of the game, the effort was worth it.
The motion graphics of the opening cutscene are lovely, but the limited animation makes the game look a bit cheap. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see from an indie game — honestly, it kind of reminded me of the intro to Rain World — not a triple-A title. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good motion graphic where it fits, but Dotemu’s remasters have good production value. The cheap look is doubled by the UI, which looks a bit… generic, especially compared to the original game. It’s definitely more accessible than the original, don’t get me wrong — some of the options on the original UI were just completely unintuitive — but I feel like they could have given the game’s UI a bit more personality than it originally got. I found myself comparing it, unfavorably, to strategy games like Civilization VI and Crusader Kings III; it looks like it’s trying to imitate the modern, streamlined style a lot of strategy games have adopted, and that’s to its detriment.
The music was good, but I found myself muting it more often than not. It’s not that it’s terrible; both versions of the score are fantastic, and I actually listened to it while writing this review! But the trouble is… it’s a strategy game. In the time I spent with the game, I heard the same songs ten times an hour. After a while, it got repetitive, and sometimes the music would get dramatic when I was trying to think. A little more variety would go a long way here.
The best thing, hands-down, about Pharaoh: A New Era’s presentation is the game’s wry sense of humor. It’s not thrust in your face nonstop, but a lot of incidental objects and tutorial popups contain some silliness. From the description of ostriches being “invisible to human eyes when they hide their heads in the sand” to the snarky complaints of your citizens when they’re bored or working too hard, there’s always the chance for a little bit of a sensible chuckle.
Overall, the presentation is solid. The feel of the original game is mostly intact, and the music and art are gorgeous. Some of the changes that were made to the game, particularly the UI, make it feel a little less big-budget than it could have — but I’d rather have the devs put their time and energy into the stuff that really matters. So how did they do on that front?
I like city-builders. I flatter myself I’m fairly good at them. But while researching this review, I got stuck in one of the early campaign missions. Pharaoh ANE is hard as nails, just like the original Pharaoh. It should not be your first city-builder. It should probably not even be your second. The game doesn’t hold your hand at all, and managing all the different moving parts is a struggle from the beginning.
If that’s your idea of a good time? You’re going to adore this game.
Pharaoh: ANE feels different from any other city builder I’ve ever played. Sure, you have all the regular parts of a city builder: your utilities, your firehouses and police stations, your industry and residential. You have to build housing in places that are close to where people work, but not so close that it’s undesirable. You have to keep the people happy and well-protected, while managing limited resources.
But the scale of what you’re building is completely different. Instead of building a modern city where people can drive miles to get to their destination, you’re building an ancient city, where everything has to be within walking distance. You have to put down more amenities than you’d put in a Cities game — you need water in every residential district, a firefighter and police station on every block, and an architect so that buildings don’t fall down.
Instead of calculating how far your citizens can drive, the game sends out walking recruiters from every potential job. These recruiters have mildly peabrained AI; part of the strategy of the game is blocking off certain roads so that they don’t go haring off into the unknown. And every resource in the game, from food distribution, to tax collection, to entertainment, works off the same system.
There’s two other things that really set this game apart: the elements borrowed from traditional strategy and the farming mechanics.
Pharaoh: A New Era has a bunch of systems that you’d normally expect to find in a 4X strategy game, not a city builder. If you’ve ever played SimCity 4– you remember how you can trade power and water between cities, if you have a city connection? Pharaoh takes that to the next level. There’s a detailed trade system between cities; every major resource in the game can be traded, and managing trade is a better source of gold than taxes will ever be. In addition, you’ve got to manage your city’s defenses: build walls, raise a military, and defend yourself against raiders. And on top of all that, you have to juggle the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Build shrines and temples for them, throw festivals for them, and keep them happy with you… or risk utter ruin.
As for the farming: most of your city’s food is going to come from farming or trade, and the devs put a lot of thought into making the farming mechanics both legible, while having that historical verisimilitude a good game needs. Your crops depend on the Nile floods. Every year, the river will flood, putting farms out of commission. The quality of the flood determines how fertile the fields are, and the fertility of the fields determines the quality of your harvest. It’s a really well-thought-out system — it makes intuitive sense, and lines up with historical Egyptian needs and traditions.
There are some flies in the ointment, though. The biggest one, for me, is that one of the game’s major systems isn’t particularly legible. Just like in most city builders, you’re trying to make your houses more desirable to live in. But the criteria for what makes a house desirable isn’t always easy to suss out. The game tells you what each house needs in order to upgrade… but sometimes the game is just flat-out wrong. For example, the game will tell you that the house ‘has no access to local religious sites’, but you’ve got three shrines right next door. Or the game will tell you the house “has no access to local water sources”, when what they mean is “you don’t have enough workers to run the well you’ve got”. In addition, I couldn’t get the hang of the trade system in the ten hours or so I spent with the game — it’s definitely something that takes some time to wrap your head around, and the tutorial could do a bit better explaining how to set yourself up to be open for trade.
Overall, though, the gameplay loop is captivating. It’s easy to understand what’s going on, but beyond the first mission or so, you never feel like the game’s holding your hand. There’s lots of systems to engage with, and while each one’s easy to understand individually, juggling them all takes time and practice. The game introduces the systems to you slowly enough you can understand them, but quickly enough to keep the early pace of the campaign interesting.
You can play through a campaign mode with dozens of missions — each with a story goal — or a number of sandbox levels. Some of the sandbox levels are just “the mission levels with the objective stripped out”, including all the limitations of the mission scenario; other sandboxes let you do pretty much whatever you want. Somewhere in the game, there’s a map that will let you play the way you want to play — but it might take a bit of digging to find it.
Accessibility vs. Faithfulness
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a disabled gamer, and so I’m passionate about games being as accessible as possible for a broad audience. Pharaoh: A New Era raises an interesting question, though: how do you make an accessible game in a genre that’s deliberately inaccessible?
You most often hear this question asked about difficult action RPGs or rage platformers, but it’s a valid question to ask about a lot of genres. And honestly, in their way, 90s strategy games are as deliberately impenetrable as Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy. For a certain kind of person, sussing out impenetrable and contradictory mechanics is fun, reading a lot of small text is fun, and dealing with hair-tearingly difficult city design mechanics are fun. If you’re not that kind of person, 90s strategy games assumed, the genre just isn’t for you.
Thankfully, it’s no longer the 90s anymore, and in this New Era, Pharaoh gives you some tools to manage your experience. Four menus worth of tools, each with their own ways to tweak the play experience.
With regards to traditional accessibility concerns: you can change the game’s resolution (to make text and window options bigger), change the volume of just about every element of the game individually, and completely rebind the keyboard controls to anything you like. You do need a keyboard and mouse to play the game, but you can do most of what you need to do one-handed. The game’s colorblind-friendly, and the main gameplay loop doesn’t contain any flashing lights. I can’t promise that there are none in the game, but you won’t run into any over a long play session.
When it comes to the other kind of accessibility, Pharaoh: ANE isn’t short on options. You’ve got a difficulty slider. In the prerelease build I got to play, it wasn’t explained exactly what this does — I’m assuming that, like most games in the genre, it tweaks how much things cost and how difficult your citizens are to keep happy. But you also have control over individual mechanics. Remember the recruiters and the roadblock system? You can completely turn that off so that Pharaoh works like a traditional city-builder. You can turn off the age simulation, so that the game doesn’t simulate non-laboring citizens. You can turn on cheat codes, turn off dangerous wildlife, and even tweak how often the game auto-saves.
This game is yours to customize how you want. And that, more than anything, is what makes a game accessible.
I really enjoyed the time I spent with Pharaoh: A New Era. I may have some quibbles with some aspects of the game– in particular, I think the housing desirability notifications could use some tweaks to make them a little more accurate. But overall, I found it to be fun, unique, and creative. It’s got some of that 90s crunch to it, but with modern quality of life updates that make the difficulty a lot more manageable.