Zombies have been shambling their way through gaming for a long time now, but I’m not sure I’ve played a game quite like They Are Billions before. As you’d expect, zombies have all but wiped out humanity in what is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but this has been blended with a steampunk aesthetic and a survival strategy style of game. There have been strategy games with undead mechanics before, but in They Are Billions the hordes of undead are not yours to command. Instead, they are to be feared.
The game begins simply enough. You have a base and some military for a little defence and your first task is to build tents for workers to live in while they they work at your sawmills, hunters cottages, and quarries. These are all required so you can build defences against the undead menace and to start producing military units, of which you will need a healthy supply. The dead milling around the map won’t overwhelm you early in the game and can easily managed by your modest number of military units. This is very little comfort when you inevitably lose your first settlement because you missed a single zombie and it wiped the whole place out.
Zombie mechanics here are surprisingly in-depth and even a single zombie slipping through your defences will cause a catastrophic cascade of events. Zombies will attack your buildings, and if it falls all the workers inside will be zombified and join in attacking all your other buildings. The situation spirals out of control remarkably quickly as your military falls and then joins in the assault against you, your workers’ houses are all infected and need repairing, stopping you from fixing up defensive structures and producing enough military units to fight their former comrades and rescue the situation. The smallest mistake here can and will be punished in extravagant fashion.
Of course, being a survival game, there is much more at stake than simply building a base amongst a small handful of the walking dead. As time passes, hordes of zombies will start to gather and attack your base, apparently sending a messenger ahead with a note letting you know when they’ll be there. Should you withstand these assaults, they will increase in size until eventually, you win! It quickly becomes apparent that, despite the initial disappointment of just a few zombies milling around the map, the billions mentioned in the title might actually be quite accurate as thousands of zombies can flood the map at a time. You quickly learn to listen for the screams of your workers as the earliest warning sign that you’ve missed a zombie who is now tearing your base up. The undead are countless and a constant threat that hangs over the gameplay.
This gives the game an oppressive atmosphere, one that is unforgiving and dangerous at any given time and where any mistake can cost you the whole game. It’s a feeling that I don’t get from strategy games too often and it serves to make the game brilliantly gripping and tense. Thankfully, you can ease some of that tension by using the magic that is science to research traps and stronger defences. In addition to wooden walls, gates, and watchtowers that can be manned by rangers, you can research stone equivalents, spike traps to slow attackers down, towers that will attack anything in range, and even some new military units. If you survive long enough, you may even get to use titans, which are giant mech suits that wreak havoc in the ranks of undead.
All in all, it makes for a surprisingly deep strategy experience, but it is missing a few things to really elevate it. There aren’t many military units, which is fine for the first few games, but starts to make it clear that there isn’t much variety in the actual mechanics of designing and defending your base. This isn’t helped by only have four map styles, and though being procedurally generated does help, three of the themes have to be unlocked by finishing the others. I’ve also experienced a couple of bugs on PlayStation 4, such a small amount of visual flickering on zombie models as they die and workers being unable to use gates. Once you’ve got a respectable base going, zooming too far out causes the frame rate to drop. There are also only two modes at the moment – Survival and Challenge of the Week – which is strange because the PC version of the game has a campaign mode that is conspicuous by its absence on console.