I am God; I have seen worlds shape around me, and primal beings that resemble my form emerge from the dirt. I control these lives. When I give them commands, they listen. When I tell them to migrate, they pack up and head toward precious metals and form new civilizations. When they die, I sit by their side and they thank me for their lives. It’s good to be God.
There’s just a few problems. My civilizations are young, and I only have so much influence with which to command them. One newly founded city has grown rich off minerals and precious stones, but their wealth has led them to become insular. They do not want to bear children, and they chase gold and gems beneath the earth. An original city, ancient in comparison, withers; the people are starving. In order for both cities to survive, I must use their faith in me to solve two very different sets of problems.
This is the world of Crest, an indirect sandbox wherein you play the God controlling the lives of your followers while trying to help their civilizations flourish and triumph, instead of wither and collapse. This is a familiar theme of games like Populous and Black & White. More recently, the genre attempted a comeback with Godus. Crest is a considerably smaller and more humble effort, made by the studio Eat Create Sleep, and is available for a very reasonable $9.99.
Strategy for a god
Crest is a little intimidating once you dive into it; there’s a healthy amount of menus, pop ups, and commands. The tutorial is excellent. The systems are simple but they let me have a tangible impact. Visually, Crest excels at being clear and readable once I found my footing. I was never confused about the location of my cities, their status, or what to do next. The aesthetic, while simple, is also striking. Staring out at a sea of souls who once followed you in the underworld is gorgeous, and scrolling out to watch a web of two dozen cities, all buzzing and humming, is satisfying and immense.
As the God of Crest, you start with one small town. Over time, you earn influence, and you use that influence to send out commandments to your followers. Those commandments morph over time; a declaration to “plant berries” might become “eat berries until full.” Tidying up and manually canceling old commandments is as important as making new ones, lest it change into something like “eat followers in the Savannah.”
There’s a lot of trial and error due to the commandments system; my God’s vocabulary grows over playtime, and to present a commandment, I must slot a subject, object, and verb into the appropriate slots.
As your followers live their lives, they begin to create associations. Sometimes, this feels natural. Other times, I found myself putting in “cities near the coast should attack antelope” and the game would ask if I meant “cities near the coast should attack cities near antelope.” Wait, no, that’s not what I want! Followers can also come up with their own associations between vocabulary terms based on their experiences. Sometimes, these associations are fun and lead to a spark of imagination — my followers associate the jungle with both gems and death? Interesting! Other times, these pop-ups feel like a chain of meaningless mad libs.
The wonderful part of Crest is that it’s very easy to control your own learning curve by giving you control over the large-scale movements of your followers. As someone who’s unfamiliar with strategy games, but a long time player of The Sims, the mastery curve was immediately obvious and rewarding to me. Over time, I adjusted and adapted, having a wholly sustainable continent with citizens who exclusively died happy and of old age. For a while, it was like watching an extremely satisfying ant farm.
Then, those citizens migrate to new islands and settle down. The more they emigrate, the harder it becomes to juggle them all. Eventually, I had cities on three continents, and in my pursuit of new learnings to earn wisdom to buy a larger vocabulary, I played a little too greedily and had a city devolve into a little bit of cannibalism. But not a lot!
Losing its shine
Crest struggles to leverage its systems into a fulfilling long-term campaign that feels cohesive. By playing the game and hitting achievement points through the learning systems, you earn Wisdom, which you use to unlock new vocabulary words and world effects. The distribution of Wisdom through progression feels uneven, and spending it felt less like I was making important choices with long term effects, and more like I was just trying to burn through filler to get to the stuff I really wanted.
There are also serious performance issues with saving. Despite the message that “this may take a while,” I had a save loading bar loop for upward of 20 minutes before I finally gave up and shut the game down manually. My late-game worlds would sometimes crash upon saving. Even successful attempts to save took a surprisingly lengthy amount of time.
Arts and Crest
The art style of Crest sets it apart from other strategy titles. Crest is heavily inspired by Afrofuturism. In the game’s art book, Eat Create Sleep CEO Martin Greip, the project’s art and creative director, writes that the “mostly white team, without people from the African diaspora or African continent on the team” could not create “an authentic ‘African experience’. If we are not claiming authenticity, then the only tool left to us is allegory. [...] Allegory can of course reinforce the idea of ‘Africa is a country,’ which in itself is a pervasive and inaccurate assumption.”
He continues, “However, Crest is a re-envisioning of how the West talks about ancient cultures in the African continent, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, it was meant to be a fantasy or magical realistic experience where we explore the nature of godhood.” The team examined cultures like the Dogon, Zulu, and Ashanti, coming up with an fictional culture based around rivers with iron age technology. This aesthetic comes through via your followers in their festivals around your monuments, in their ships and weaponry, and in the veiled, supernatural assistant who helps you shepherd souls and catalogue your civilization.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to enjoy in Crest, especially for the price. It has the hallmarks of a great strategy game, in that I would sit down to fiddle with a couple of commandments and an hour later realize that I’d become fully immersed. The game has also recently relaunched as of December 2018, with more updates and patches to come. There’s even a Twitch integration to allow streamers to become a collective god along with their chat, which is novel and interesting. While there are serious issues with the late game, Crest is a promising god sim that returns to a genre that’s nearly faded away.