Have you ever aspired to a seat of mayoral power? Fancy yourself as the next Mayor Quimby? Okay, perhaps he’s not the best example of how to run a town, but spend a few hours with the power Cities: Skylines bestows upon you and you’ll begin to understand why Diamond Joe so often ran away from his duties. There’s just so much to do. Even when your burgeoning settlement is little more than a few residential areas, it’s soon demanding round-the-clock maintenance.
It sounds like a chore, but that’s the strength of Colossal Order’s city-building simulator - it’s the busywork of maintaining infrastructure, improving transportation and utilising sanitation that makes its virtual civilisations so authentic. Your city - however small or large - is a living machine that needs constant tinkering in order to keep it running. And the Finnish developer has done an admirable job of remapping a UI previously designed for mouse and keyboards to a controller. Much like the PS4 and Xbox One editions, Cities: Skylines’ menus are easy to flit through with the D-pad, although those menus can get a little difficult to distinguish when playing in handheld mode.
And while actively moving around the map to place wind turbines, define zones and place water pumping stations is a little awkward - especially when laying elements that require a little more precision, such as roads and underground pipes - we’re pleasantly surprised to find how easy it is to access the many sub-menus the game has to offer. You can cycle between a basic list of facilities (including roads, zones, water and electrical construction) by using the D-Pad, while holding ‘Y’ in the main view or in any sub-menu will bring up all the main parts of that sub-menu on a handy (and often contextual) radial wheel.
If you’re coming from the more relaxed and less rule-driven world of Rollercoaster Tycoon, the sheer amount of logistical planning required to build and maintain even the simplest of hamlets can really boggle the mind. You’ll need to define what kind of area you want to build (such as residential or industrial), but you don’t want factories pumping out goods too close to your homes or your citizens will start to complain about the noise. You’ll need to connect up every home to an electrical grid, but you'll also need to make sure there’s space for your roads to fit between the pylons.
Now you need to ensure every building has both a clean water source and a set of pipes to remove sewage. Unfortunately, pipes can’t cross one another, so you need to think carefully before building an intricate residential labyrinth. And you can’t build a sewage plant too close to a water-pumping station or you’ll risk contamination. All of this is just the beginning. You’ll need to link every road together, and ensure your growing community feels entertained, well-fed and positive with a steady stream of jobs and renewable energy sources. It’s a lot to consider, so this isn’t a super-casual game designed for a quick five minutes of play. There’s tons of SimCity-aping depth to be had, and a vast series of mayoral plates to spin.
The problem Cities: Skylines has in the lack of systemic action. Cities will ebb and flow with citizens, exports and taxes but there’s very little seismic change to force you to react on the fly. The old SimCity games had their share of systems to juggle, but they were always balanced out by the looming silliness of an alien invasion or a rampaging Godzilla (or should that be Koopa?) to remind you simulation shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The most you’ll have to contend with here is contaminated water or citizens bitching about your policy decisions on social media. There aren’t even any natural disasters - these were added in a later DLC that’s not included with the Nintendo Switch Edition (although you do get access to the After Dark pack with its day/night cycles and Snowfall’s wintery weather effects).
There’s also a cold and unhelpful approach to tutorials. The game’s basic tutorial does little to help you appreciate the basic principles of planning out underground pipe systems or the subtle ways that districts and policies relate to one another. There are infodumps that pop up on-screen every now and then, but they’re completely unintuitive and do nothing to actually help. The game would have really benefitted from some form of challenge mode to help seed these important, menu-buried concepts. Because once you build your empty plot of land into a much larger setting with multiple districts and hubs, it’s very easy to lose track of how the minutiae of its composition truly works.
There are also some big issues with performance on Switch. When looking after a small-sized town the game trundles on at a steady 30fps, but when you're building on a much larger scale, that framerate takes a real beating. Zooming into the hustle and bustle of your creation to watch everything from buildings being erected to the glow of a city’s nightlife will cause the game to tumble into slowdown country. Frame rates can drop into the low 20s when you’re dealing with a larger urban hub, and considering the game is all about building towards managing your own vast metropolis, there’s simply a cap on enjoying this impressively deep simulation beyond its first few hours.
Nintendo Switch finally has a proper simulation game to its name, but the reality of the console’s hardware limitations proves that not every game can be ported wholesale onto the platform without serious issues. Cities: Skylines - Nintendo Switch Edition has so much potential and offers a fine alternative to SimCity’s broken reboot, but this game needed to be revamped and re-approached for Switch in a way that doesn’t turn it into a performance quagmire. Sadly, this is a game better played elsewhere.