“Cries for help are frequently inaudible," wrote Tom Robbins in philosophical 1973 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. This is lucky, because I’m so often up to my neck in disaster while playing Numantian Games’ They Are Billions that I’d scream the house down.
The defining feature of They Are Billions is desperation. The game is a single player real-time strategy asking you to carve out an existence in a map filled with zombies. In play it feels something like classic Blizzard RTS Starcraft, but the constant pressure from zombies, and the ticking clock that will herald yet another monster wave of zombies, each bigger and scarier than the last.
For turtlers, those that play RTS games looking to build a massive fortress and defend it from all sides, this is a dream come true, but it quickly becomes a nightmare as a mistake made 20 minutes ago leads to your inglorious death at the hands of the horde.
They Are Billions could well be the first effective RTS horror game, and the sense of achievement you feel when you manage to survive one of the assaulting waves is huge, solid, thing. Seconds later, you remember the next wave is coming and dig in again with grim resolve.
Unlike many of the games that are praised for being hard, the systems and controls here are clean and intuitive, with most of the problems with difficulty coming from the everpresent horde of zombies who seem determined to ruin my day.
Currently, the only mode available is survival, which ends when you survive for 100 days (on the normal difficulty) or when you die horribly. It’s been entirely the latter for me so far.
I don’t think players are even meant to survive. Things get worse by degrees, so when zombies breach your defences, each building they assault spews forth more zombies, creating a snowball effect that spews zombies after you every time you let someone through. The effort here is Sisyphean, with my only reward for keeping my colony alive is to start a new settlement and hope that that too doesn’t get eaten. I love it.
Expect several of the lessons here to flood into the market in 2018. This is one of the first survival experiences to hit the RTS genre, but probably won’t be the last. The tense desperation and growing dread here is doing wonders for the tiny indie game, and in an industry where your chance of success is a billion to one, this game is punching way above its weight.