Circadian City is a bit of a potential dark horse at the moment. For those of you who are not familiar, developer Nowhere Studios calls Circadian City “A life sim game where you play both in the Realworld and the Dreamworld. Your personality is your skill tree“. A simple description of a simple game. Some of you may recognise Nowhere Studios as the devs behind Monochroma.
If that doesn’t tell you enough – which is fair – picture this. Imagine Stardew Valley, Dreamscaper, and Always Sometimes Monsters walk into a bar. Nowhere Studios are sat at the next table over eavesdropping. They catch bits and pieces here and there, write down what they hear, and make it into a game – voila, Circadian City. As a result, the game feels a bit like pale reflections of all of those games.
Firstly, like Stardew Valley, it has plenty of people to talk to, develop relationships, and get to know. However, none of the characters are very interesting or deep – everyone is super one-note. Secondly, like Dreamscaper, your character spends their nights in a dreamworld with reflections of their real life. Unlike Dreamscaper, unfortunately, Circadian City‘s dreamworld is neither exciting to explore nor does it have much in the way of interesting mechanics. Like Always Sometimes Monsters, Circadian City interrogates the experience of life in a big city. Thirdly, where Always Sometimes Monsters paints a too-relatable picture of city life, the titular Circadian City is a weirdly halcyon place to live. It’s clear they’re trying to go for a “life is tough” shtick, but the game is so easy, that aspect falls a little flat.
Where does Circadian City fit?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t necessarily think Circadian City is derivative or that it doesn’t have anything new to offer. What CC has that the other games don’t is its open-ended style. What the above examples offer are a curated experience and relatively inflexible stories. Circadian City offers a story purely rooted in your character’s actions. Nothing happens unless you make it happen. Emergent storytelling is a brilliant rhetorical device, and plenty of games execute it really well. What all of the games that do emergent stories well have, however, is deep interactive systems.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Circadian City has a long way to go before its systems are able to carry the experience.
Eat, Grind, Sleep, Repeat
There are a few things to do in-game. You can explore, work at your [insert generic office employment] job, chat to people, take classes. These activities, however, have 2 problems. The first is that the game doesn’t really give you much motivation to actually do them. There’s no challenge to any of it – click a button and your character does the thing. The reward for balancing these things is to level your personality skill tree, but there doesn’t feel like much of a point in doing that. Secondly is that once you’ve done a task, that’s it. There’s no variety if you do it again. It’s all just time skips and fades to black.
Seeing as there are so few things to do, so little reason to do them, and basically no challenge or entertainment value in the activities themselves… Eventually, they all just feel like a slog. The dreamworld sections are the same – it’s all just super basic material collection and crafting.
A grind needs a reward, and it needs, well, fun. People grind in Pokémon and Final Fantasy because you’re able to feel the progress in real-time, collect drops from monsters, see the exp bars move up. Crucially, you’re actually doing something in those games. Imagine if you levelled your Pokémon by clicking a box that says “Fight”, the screen fades to black, and then it’s over. That’s a bit how the core gameplay loop of Circadian City feels.
Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck
I’ll quickly run over the visual and audio designs of Circadian City. Long story short: they’re fairly competent, but nothing special.
If you’ve ever played a game made in a top-down pixel art style, you’ve seen everything Circadian City has to offer. Similarly, the music and sound effects are bog-standard for the style of game. Nothing stands out as particularly beautiful, nor does the game have a super unique feel to it – but, by the same token, nothing stands out as done poorly.
Circadian City – In it for the long haul?
There are plenty of reasons developers release games as Early Access. Most claim they want feedback so they can continue to develop, but most of the time it seems like they need to or they’ll run out of money.
I truly hope Nowhere Studios continues to improve Circadian City over the next year or so and ends up with a polished, enjoyable product. At the moment, the game has maybe 2-3 hours of fun gameplay in it before it turns into a slog. That’s a long way from the “game that is intended to be played hundreds of hours” which is the intended experience.
I’ve not included a review score on this piece as so much feels like early phases of iterative design. Monochroma was a competent entry from Nowhere, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
Watch this space, and who knows?