Odd Realm is an early access colony management game, like Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld, in which you play a semi-interventionist deity looming over a square mile of dirt and issuing divine orders to a growing population of simulated people. You have the power to designate tasks for them to complete, tracing out where your villagers should mine, what they should build, choosing which seeds they should plant and which trees should be felled, until they’re so self-sufficient you can sit back and observe them, like some omnipotent, hovering pervert.
Odd Realm hews closely to the Dwarf Fortress format. Bedrooms must be carved out of mountains or built on hillsides to accommodate your first settlers. Workshops, smithies, kitchens and distilleries are constructed and furnished to specification, so that your burgeoning town can begin to process the bounty and booze of the surrounding nature. Even Dwarf Fortress’s most confounding aesthetic has made the grade: Z-levels, which let you flip through top-down cross-sections of the world, as though you’re leafing through individual slices of an MRI scan, take a while to wrap your brain around.
Once you do, and your eyes can decode all of the pixelated goings on, Odd Realm begins to spill its charming guts all over the place. This is not nearly as detailed a simulation as other colony managers, but that makes Odd Realm a less daunting proposition. Where Dwarf Fortress is baffling to the point of turning new players away, Odd Realm’s tender and tiny worlds invite you to experiment with ambitious architecture projects. The default biome is so forgiving, so overrun with friendly animals to tame and butcher and so verdant with edible plants and fermenting fruit, that you can concentrate on building a giant stone tower for everyone to live inside, or a cute wooden village on top of a lake.
In more aggressive biomes, or when the seasons change and colder weather sets in, you’re tested on how well you’ve prepared for long stretches of scarcity, on how magnificent your stockpile of roasted broccoli has become, and how many steel swords you’ve forged and handed out. Winter is a gear shift in Odd Realm: rivers freeze over and crops wither. A cow, her simulated mind compelled by a few lines of code to seek warmth, wandered into the blacksmith’s house to huddle by the forge.
My barracks were snowed under and my strongest warrior starved to death behind a stuck door. I didn’t mind, because she had been abducted by a dodgy wizard as a teenager and came back all spooky and suspicious. And if I know anything about these kinds of games, she had a countdown timer in her head, ticking down the seconds until she murdered everybody in the village, or at least ruined a crate of watermelons and ran away.
Odd Realm’s most notable diversion from the genre is its selection of playable races. Humans operate as you would expect, using farming and fornication to sustain and grow their ranks. Then there are the undead, who are cursed with a miserable inability to dine or shag, and so must dig into the earth in search of lost tombs to find new friends. Races and settlements built in different parts of the world encounter location-specific events too, such as roving bands of magical goons, friendly adventurers willing to join your camp, and at least one bandit whose crudely coded extortion skills has him demanding you hand over exactly three clods of dirt or face the consequences.
Dwarf Fortress players will find Odd Realm so flattering of the leading colony sim that they’ll miss what’s not here, but additions like these races and encounters help this early access project stand out in a genre that’s too often impenetrable. There’s plenty of room for a milder and more bucolic simulation of running the lives of a crowd of teeny townspeople, one that’s not perpetually teetering in favour of catastrophe. Odd Realm can occupy that space. A light colony management game for those who struggle to keep their own houseplants alive.