Bonfire: Forsaken Lands is essentially a little town management game with the tiniest dash of dungeon crawling. It’s charming, which is a word reviewers use when they can’t quite explain why they enjoyed themselves. The graphics are as indie as it gets, the mechanics are rudimentary, the story is children’s book simple and the combat is hands off and silly.
But it doles out new little bits at just the right pace and gets a lot of mileage out of being obtuse enough to feel like you’re exploring something. And right when you get a bit sick of the difficulty curve it gets easier which kills drama but is sort of welcome.
You establish a simple, side-view village. Your entire interaction with the game is by clicking giant buttons spread out over a few tabs. First you click on the collect wood button until you have enough to build a fire which attracts a few more villages. While they slowly amble you collect a bit more wood and build a farm.
You assign your new recruits to collecting or working in the new buildings and climb up the moderate tech tree in the usual fashion: wood to iron to steel to magic doodads. Workers sleep when the sun sets while the unfortunate souls you assign to guard duty fend of a single incursion of increasing difficulty every night.
Tranquility then slaughter
Survival from a food perspective is trivial. Your character never sleeps and you can feed your village quite easily by working the farm yourself like a cobbler’s elf. When that gets tedious, a single farmer will suffice until well into the mid-game.
The only real challenge comes from the creatures of the night. Everything happens in real-time. And only guards and you are awake at night to defend. If the difficulty spikes and you didn’t assign enough workers to guard duty the monsters tear through everyone and kill your character (ending the game) well before you can turn other workers into warriors.
Surviving the night but taking more than a single casualty starts you on a long road to eventual failure. You only get one or two new villagers a day and whoever guards is too tired to work. So it becomes a gambling game. Will you slow your production to a crawl by letting people sleep during the day so they can guard at night? Or do you collect and build rapidly and hope for a light attack?
It’s not just a matter of advancing the buildings. Guards survive much better with armor and weapons, which require resources which require workers. You do not retrieve equipment from fallen guards. That suit of iron armor has to be remade, which is harder because you have to shift more workers to unproductive night-duty.
While you’re advancing, the game is pleasant. You while the days away assigning villagers, crafting equipment to make them more efficient and building towards medium sized projects that gate the world. 100 wood lets you build a bridge which opens up a bit more space to the east. Crafting an axe lets you clear a path to the west and reach water.
There are absolutely no tooltips or tutorial of any kind so you’re never really sure if what you’re building will be immediately useful. But it’s such a simple game that you don’t have to wait long to figure it out.
There are a couple of surprises, some very simple interactions, a single variable trait to differentiate villagers and nothing takes more than a couple of days to build. Right when it starts to get almost hectic and unwieldy, and the random nightly attacks start to really irritate, you tech up in a way that replaces the nightly attacks with very simple node “dungeons”.
Each of a handful of nodes is either a fight, a treasure or a minor trap. Combat is handled in the same handsoff style as the night attacks, your warriors rush forward on their own with your personal help becoming increasingly meaningless as their weapons advance.
You’re a weirdo
Unless I somehow missed a button amongst the sparse UI, your character doesn’t have his own inventory screen. While everyone else collects with carts and tools, and fights with swords and armor, you stay in your starter outfit armed only with your tiny fists. You also don’t sleep and as a result don’t eat (villagers eat their single daily meal as they go to sleep for the night). And while you can’t directly order your soldiers, they do like huddling around you giving some control over combat.
I get that this is a casual game. But it misses very easy opportunities like this to elevate. No inventory means no progression, since there isn’t even the thinnest of RPG layers. Anything to create a tiny connection with my little avatar and the villagers would have been welcome. But they’re as uncaring as I am, walking by fallen comrades without even a burial.
Just don’t play hardcore
You can artificially increase the playtime by playing in hardcore and going back to the start when you miscalculate the nightly guards. But from the unskippable introduction to the static map, lack of exploration and relatively minor decision making, it’s not a game that makes you want to play over and over. It’s not like FTL where you constantly feel your skill grow. The only pleasure comes from advancing down the tech path and replaying the first dozen days again, in a nearly identical fashion, doesn’t do that.
So after my first two hardcore villages died from an unexpectedly large night attack I started again in “normal” mode and and save scummed a few times on the way to the finish. I didn’t even feel badly about it as game ending glitches happened twice and if I didn’t have a save to revert to I would have quit.
Once I exhausted the tech tree and had a murder squad of geared up warriors, it was just a matter of waiting for the workers to collect all the resource necessary to trigger the end game. For a few minutes the game changes into something else and assuming you pass the new tests, you win and get a score. It’s easy enough that you can figure it out as you go despite general confusion.
Should you buy it?
When games are pleasant but unspectacular I have to go back to the steam page to see what they were trying to do in the first place. It’s as honest as can be, especially the best feature listed: “Discover something new with every passing day”. So it’s easy unless you decide to make it frustrating with hardcore, it gives you lots of novelty but of a mild sort, like the first time your home McDonalds upgraded and got a second order speaker. And then it ends when it runs out of newness, and you’re fine with the time you spent and don’t need to do it again.
I got six hours out of it, you’ll get a bit less if you follow my advice about hardcore and probably have a more solidly nice time. This will pass an evening, if the general loop of collecting, building and teching up is something you enjoy anyway.
Available from Steam
The Bonfire: Forsaken Lands was played on copy provided by the developer.