Along with the epic adventure of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, explosive action of Super Bomberman R, and one-on-one battles of 1-2-Switch, the Switch’s launch lineup hosts some smaller surprises and gentler pursuits. New Frontier Days: Founding Pioneers — a cheery town-building simulation from ArcSystemWorks — fits nicely into both of these categories, and its downtempo delights provide a nice counterpart to the new system’s heavier hitters. It’s not out to innovate or impress, but there’s still an undeniable appeal to the slow-and-steady settlement-building on offer here, and sim fans looking for a small-scale experience will be well served by the Founding Pioneers.
New Frontier Days draws on elements of everything from SimCity to Civilization, but perhaps what it most reminds us of is a (mostly) pacifist version of Warcraft: starting from scratch with just a few pioneer grunt-workers, you’ll look over your flock as they gather resources from the world around them, cutting down trees for lumber, sheering sheep for wool, fishing, mining, and more. You’ll use these resources to build new facilities and expand the town, and those facilities help process raw resources into more useful materials, which you can then use to build more structures in turn, improve your settlement, and continue the cycle of progress.
Of course, in games like Warcraft or Civilization, you’re driving your settlement forward with the ultimate goal of taking over someone else’s or fending off the invading hordes – here, however, your goal is much more relaxed: an annual Harvest Festival occurs at the end of every in-game year (six-or-so real-world minutes), and you’ll need to have enough money and food in the coffers to put it on. If you’re short on food, you’ll automatically go into the red to cover the feast — and if you’re short on funds by the time the festival rolls around, it’s Game Over for your budding colony.
Along with that yearly check-in, you’ll have a whole host of micro-goals to hit as you play, in the form of Development Goals. These tick up on the screen when they’re added — things like “Obtain 20 wool from sheep”, “Increase settler count by two”, or “Use sawmill 30 times” — and you can earn extra money, resources, and upgrades called Invention Cards for finishing them off. Invention Cards come in both passive and active flavours, with the former granting a permanent upgrade (like faster wood chopping or increased building speed) and the latter one-time-use bonuses, like having trees grow faster for a single year, or increasing the value of iron ore. Our favourite of these cards are the ones that reward you with pets, which can serve as speedy mounts and even help out with the pioneers’ chores — it’s endlessly endearing to watch sheep help chop wood by bashing their heads against trees.
If your colony’s really thriving, you’ll find yourself moving forward into new ‘Ages’ — periods of development that unlock more buildings, actions, and possibilities. The starting Age of Pioneering, for instance, only offers a Campfire, Sawmill, and a few decorations; but once you bring your people into the Age of Settlements you’ll have access to Fields, Flour Mills, and Quarries. These go all the way through to the thoroughly modern Ages of Hospitals, Churches, Castles, and Factories, and — false narrative of progress aside — it’s always satisfying to see what the next generational leap holds in store.
In fact, though New Frontier Days starts out slow, with the first few years in particular being a bit of a click-and-wait operation, once the gameplay loop gets going it becomes seriously addictive. Placing buildings, directing your colonists, and watching your settlement grow from a single-tent affair to a thriving town is definitely satisfying, and the fact that progress in every area opens up new options in another makes it easy to keep playing “one more year” for quite a long time.
We had a good time building our town and watching it work, but at the same time it’s worth noting that the main Story Mode is relatively light in the way of challenge. Failure — by way of running out of food and money for the harvest festival — is pretty difficult, and the possibility gets much lower the longer you play; the first few years can be dicey, but the rate at which you can make money and gather resources increases much faster than the harvest festival baseline ever does, so with a bit of planning you’ll find you can ‘outrun’ the main peril rather quickly. Natural disasters and wild animal attacks can still strike, but for the most part it’s an oddly cozy existence on the frontier.
For players looking for more of a challenge, there’s also a Survival Mode, which lets you jump in at higher difficulties, and features catastrophic events like Giant Boar Invasions. On the other end of the spectrum, Free Mode lets you pioneer to your heart’s content, with no fail states in sight. These modes are nice extras, but they also highlight the lack of variety elsewhere in New Frontier Days. What’s here is engaging and fun, but it does become rather ‘samey’ rather fast. We would have loved to see more topography, more animals, a seasonal cycle, new regions, or anything else to spice up the plains — as it is, the frontier starts to feel pretty familiar after a few hours, and one good go at the Story Mode will likely be enough for most players. If you do feel like dipping back in, however, a nifty picture-based achievement system rounds out the package, with tiles of larger art unlocking as you check off tasks like having certain number of pets, finishing off Story chapters, or reaching specific happiness levels — a nice touch for completionists.
One thing we were apprehensive about going into New Frontier Days was the controls, since its inspirations are largely computer games meant to be steered with a mouse and keyboard, rather than console controllers. In practice, however, it works very well: the left stick moves the ‘mouse’ cursor, while the right stick moves the camera, and the face buttons are used for ‘confirm’ and ‘back’, with a small vibration providing nice tactile feedback for each action. A host of shortcuts (helpfully listed in an on-screen cheat-sheet) can bring up different menus, the shoulder buttons cycle between pioneers, and hitting any of the D-Pad-equivalent buttons jumps to the quick menu that takes care of your most common actions. When you’re playing in the Switch’s handheld mode, you can also easily do everything you need to via the touchscreen, making no-button play an easy option.
It’s an intuitive set-up that we warmed up to rather quickly, and it helps that the game’s smartly setup for the system — it’s built around using ‘clicks’ in sequence, rather than clicking and dragging, so it feels well adapted to either button or touch inputs. In fact, we found an opportunistic combo of buttons and touch control to be pretty much perfect, so portable mode was our preferred mode of play. Our only complaint with the controls is the fact that moving the cursor to the edge of the screen doesn’t actually scroll the viewpoint — you have to manually adjust the field of view with the right stick, which feels like a less smooth solution for small nudges. Relatedly, we would’ve appreciated the option to speed up cursor movement — the default setting is fine, but we sometimes wished we could kick it up a notch.
Forging the frontier feels good on the Switch, then, but how does it look? With its simple, chunky art style, big-button menus, sparse animations and isometric perspective, New Frontier Days resembles an HD mobile game – but that’s not at all a bad thing. It actually manages the tricky feat of being unimpressive without being unappealing, so while there’s nothing here that couldn’t be done within a web browser, the colourful presentation is pleasant and devoid of any particular pitfalls. And though the pioneers mostly play it straight, there are some welcome touches of whimsy here and there, especially in the building designs: the sawmill, for instance, has a giant axe stuck in its roof, and the hospital is topped with an oversized syringe. Jessica — the game’s moé mascot — is also an agreeable presence, whether she’s popping up to help out with tool tips, explaining new gameplay elements, or imploring you to cook something — anything! — other than fish once in a while.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a real highlight, featuring a bright and cheery assortment of Celtic-tinged melodies played on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle — those are the real deal, too, rather than synthesized equivalents, and they sound great. Reels, jigs, and hornpipes change off at intervals and provide a wonderful accompaniment to the pioneering gameplay — they’re the perfect mix of quiet calm and rousing inspiration, and we were happy to leave the soundtrack on in the background even when not actively playing the game.
New Frontier Days: Founding Pioneers is a real surprise in the Switch’s launch lineup: a focused town-building sim with an addictive gameplay loop that looks decent, sounds great and plays well. A lack of variety and an unambitious presentation are notable drawbacks, and will keep it from being a long-term investment for many, but what’s here is enjoyable enough, and certainly worth a shot for sim buffs looking for something simple and fun.