Pharaoh: A New Era Review
Oh, to be a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. It’s crazy how long their empire lasted. Historians place the formation of Ancient Egypt at around 3100 BCE, a run that lasted until 30 BCE, when under Cleopatra, it fell to the Romans. That means that someone around for the fall is farther in time from someone at the beginning than we are from Julius Caesar. An epic epoch like that calls for a grand telling, and Pharaoh: A New Era delivers the gauze-wrapped goods.
A Puzzling Labyrinth
The Old Era of Pharaoh took the form of a 1999 city builder. I was a pretty dedicated Real Time Strategy player in those days. I sunk a lot of time into Starcraft and Age of Empires. But unfortunately, for whatever reason, I missed the original Pharaoh game. From what I understand, Pharaoh ‘99 shook up the genre with small innovations, like watching your citizens automatically upgrade their housing as their need for goods is met. Though the original game prided itself on historical accuracy, it was too much of a puzzle game to have the verisimilitude of really living in the ancient world.
Pharaoh: A New Era definitely has those things in common with the original, but if I hadn’t been told, I never would have noticed. Pharaoh: A New Era feels like a modern game through and through. It’s definitely still a Real Time Strategy management game, and it still prides itself on historical accuracy. But the underlying mechanics of making your Nile-adjacent towns is always at the forefront of your mind. Even with all the specificity filed off, Pharaoh would be a fun puzzle to solve. But it does have specificity. You’ll be transported back in time to a world where the gods had crocodile heads.
Let’s get out of the way that Pharaoh: A New Era looks great. It adapts a pseudo-cel-shaded art style, that had me nostalgic for the 90s. Somehow, Pharaoh: A New Era looks more 90s than the one that actually came out in the 90s. I think it’s because the graphics strongly remind me of the 1998 animated smash hit Prince of Egypt. I know that old PCs couldn’t have run this game smoothly, but the visual choices make you almost believe in the timeless style.
Flooding River Valley
Not everything is dates and chick peas though. The sound design particularly grates. There’s too little of it, and you start to hear conspicuously repeated sounds fast. The crowd sound in particular sound so artificial as to be a little creepy. And the various splats, wooshes, and tings got on my nerves too. The music is pretty enough, but it didn’t take long for me to put the game on mute. Once I had the strategy down, sandbox mode was a lovely thing to mess around with while I listened to a podcast.
Where Pharaoh: A New Era really shines with the light of Ra is in those specific mechanics. There are many strategy games where you place farming plots down on the grass. In Pharaoh, you have to take advantage of the flooding Nile. This will be simulated cyclically and dramatically. A portion of the map will cover with water, which will then recede, giving your workers a chance to plant and harvest crops out in the river mud. You will also need to appease the Egyptian gods, whose favor (or ire) can earn you bonuses (or damnation). The gods are portrayed as petty and jealous. Building too many temples to one of them is a great way to piss off all the others.
These rules (and others) force you to think like an Egyptian. Your transport network is necessarily going to have to hug the river. You’re going to want to space out your religious monuments. Plus you have to worry about things like fire and malaria. I loved watching my little oasis shantytowns blossom into methusalan metropolises. Failure cascades are possible though. Most of the time, I knew where I had expanded too quickly and learned a harsh lesson for next time. But I do wish the game was a little bit clearer about production chains. Do two claypits serve one potter or is the other way around?
The Code of Ra
There’s some other information buried in strange menus. I’m used to have a lot of graphs and intel available at my fingertips. Pharaoh definitely has the data to share, but it’s buried in a cumbersome series of adviser buttons. The buttons are not evocative of what they represent, and sometimes info would be needlessly spread across multiple screens.
Even with those hiccups, I couldn’t stop playing Pharaoh. The power of that One More Turn was too great to bear. That, and there is so much Egyptian history to cover. Pharaoh has you covered in a lengthy campaign mode., which will take you from the dawn of human history to Alexander and Cleopatra. In so much time, so much happened! This game can only skim the surface of that but as History 101 classes go, you could do a whole lot worse.
The straightforward rules of Pharaoh: A New Era make it great on the replay. Even apart from the campaign, you can find maps where all you are supposed to do is grow your population, your prestige, and your pyramids. And if you have the city building bug, you will love watching dusty browns and yellows explode into a cosmopolitan blast of color. To newcomers Pharaoh: A New Era easily takes its place in the modern library of deeply playable city builders.
***PC code provided by the publisher***
- Spiritually captures the original
- While feeling totally modern
- Real time, but even paced
- Irritating sound design
- Repetitive audio in general
- Some opaque menus