The continuing popularity of city-builder games never fails to surprise me. These games sometimes go unnoticed by the mainstream, but audience is huge, and somewhat under-served by the modern gaming media. Sure, games like FrostPunk occasionally break through to get a bit of attention, but for every one of those titles, there are ten that fly under the radar. I didn’t realize how much people wanted information on city-builders until I started posting videos of me playing a few upcoming titles on my little YouTube channel, and immediately saw that those videos got 100x the views of videos of me playing “normal”, “popular” games.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the city-building genre. I myself was first hypnotized when a buddy showed me SimCity late one night at a Kinkos where I was hanging out while he worked an overnight shift. I sat there all night on some janky old Kinkos computer, slowly expanding out my metropolis, never quite able to plan out my little districts in a way that would hold up as the city expanded. And I guess that’s kind of the point – cities get messy quickly, and even the best planning can’t hope to contend with explosive growth, economic decline, or sudden disaster.
That’s certainly the case with Pharoah: A New Era, a deeply charming remake of the 2000’s-era Sierra Studios-published genre classic. I start every level with some very well-laid and deliberate plans, and by the time I limp across the finish line, I'm hollering "Why?" at my monitor and spending more time with the game paused than with time elapsing.
Even after 20+ years, Pharoah feels unique and challenging. When the original Pharoah first hit the market, it showed off a number of new features that distinguished it from the rest of the market. While much of the road building and structure placement would seem familiar to players, there were some cool new-at-the-time mechanics that fans had to wrap their heads around.
In Pharoah, players would designate housing areas, and then it was up to NPCs to move into them and upgrade them, depending on whether they liked the area or not. It was up to the player to make the residential districts as attractive as possible if they wanted the population to stay (and then go to work at the various nearby job sites). The endgame often involved the building of fabulous monuments, which required a great deal of effort, manpower, and materials, involving not only meticulous planning from the player, but also a very stable city to support the workforce doing the building. Farming is done to the rhythm of the flooding of the Nile river, which can be very fickle. A bad flood season can set a city back years, as disease and starvation can quickly set in when the crops fail. Luckily, you can always hold a festival to try to appease Osiris, who is the God/Manager of the Nile.
Dotemu has retained all of that for the remake, which is extremely faithful to the original game, while still showing a fair number of upgrades for modern players. The most noticeable change is the visual overhaul the game has undergone. If you have the setup for it, you can now play Pharoah in 4K, which is kind of insane when you realize how faithfully the hand-drawn graphics of the original game have been recreated. I dipped over to Steam after playing the remake for several hours to check out the differences between the two versions, and was stunned to see that the original game was displaying the exact same building designs as the new version (just in a much, much lower resolution).
Not that anyone should worry about it if they can’t play Pharoah at 4K. On my 27” monitor, I played at 60 FPS at 2560 x 1440, and found the game to look insanely crisp and clean. Pharoah: A new Era also looks great in 1080p. I mean, we’re talking about little cartoon Egyptian dudes carrying buckets across the screen; this isn’t exactly Crysis. If you are looking for top tier graphics, you’re playing the wrong game in the wrong genre.
The first several missions in the game serve as a nice onboarding to the primary mechanics of Pharoah, guiding the player through a smooth-ish learning process. I say “smooth-ish”, because while I was learning what the game was showing me, I didn’t exactly skate through these opening missions. I had to restart one of them twice before I figured out how to achieve what the game was looking for. And once the "tutorial" section is done, Pharoah continues rolling out new gameplay mechanics at a steady pace, and then challenges the player to live without them.
In fact, there’s a puzzle element to Pharoah that it reveals quickly. Each mission in the campaign asks the player to achieve a certain set of goals; have x number of population, have a certain level of culture and popularity (known as “Kingdom”), and build such and such monument. It all seems pretty straightforward until you realize that Pharoah is asking you to do this stuff with one arm tied behind your back. Each mission gives you a certain set of tools at your disposal, but it never gives you all of your tools, and it very specifically holds back on some that might be the most handy for your current goals.
For example, you might start out on a board with plenty of muddy riverfront farmland, but no ability to farm for food. No, you need to farm barley to brew beer, and then trade that to other cities in exchange for food. Or maybe you need thousands of bricks for your new pyramid – but surprise, you don’t have the ability to make them. Or you need to quickly build up a military to defend yourself against invaders, but there are no nearby copper mines to use for weapon materials. So Pharoah isn’t just an exercise in “build up the city and do stuff you need to do”; it is more like “figure out how to work around your restrictions, build up what you can in the city, trade it to other cities for the stuff you really need, and then try to do the stuff you need to do”. It can all get pretty complicated, but in the best possible way.
This is not a game that feels 20 years old while playing it. These are very solid game mechanics that feel just as entrancing now as they did when the game first came out. Dotemu has done a lot of work cleaning up menus and interfaces, and also giving the player a number of options to ease up on some of the more archaic mechanics that modern gamers might not want to mess with (thank God, they let you turn off those damned alligators).
I also want to be clear; I played a lot of Pharoah, but I did not play all of it. This is a game that can take well over 100 hours to beat, and that’s just the campaign mode. There is also mode that puts the player in specific scenarios (tough, but fun), and a sandbox mode that lets the player go nuts and build the city of their dreams (sprawling, endless). I looked online, and was not surprised to find that there is still a community playing the original 1999 release. There is a lot of game here, folks.
Each mission can take upwards of two hours to win, which is completely captivating when things are going well, but also frustrating when a city goes belly up. We all know the feeling one gets when a city starts floundering and you start frantically clicking through menus to see what went wrong. And this is where Pharoah perhaps shows its age the most; there were times that I could not figure out what was the problem was, and I ended up tossing the whole thing out the window and starting fresh.
However, the occasional restarted mission should not stop genre fans from checking this game out. But folks going into Pharoah during its release cycle should be aware that there may be a few issues still buzzing about, chomping at the heels of their good time, just like those alligators chomping at my poor barley farmers. It could be that I was unable to find the information I needed to save my city due to my own failures as a player, but a few times I suspected that the info I was being fed by my menu-based "advisors" was just flat out incorrect.
Regardless of my suspicions, I do think that Pharaoh: A New Age is a very successful remake. Fans of the original shouldn’t hesitate to grab this obvious upgrade. And the rest of the legion of city-builder fans might want give this one a look too, particularly if they never played the original. There is some very unique stuff going on here in Pharoah that likely informed a lot of modern genre design, but none of it feels dated. And hey, you know what they say about history. Gotta understand what happened then to fully understand what’s going on new.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS4, PS VR2, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.
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