The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom review

Beauty, brains and mathematical sadism make for an intriguing stew

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The same is true of the other trees. Research, for instance, involves meeting certain requirements and constructing purely decorative buildings to increase your prestige level, which in turn unlocks church upgrades, which permit recruitment of more superior holy men, which are spent on higher-tier research, which eventually nets you improved production and bonus victory points. It’s not so much that there’s a lot involved, but that it takes so long and there are so many ways in which it can silently grind to a halt.

Remain true to your chosen path and you’ll spot the fascinating ways in which balance emerges: donating excess clerics to your castle to raise your city’s defence rating, sending expensive traders to distant climes to spend your gold on the resources necessary to speed-build soldiers and prestigious buildings, sacrificing spare troops to a fight against a horde of marauders bothering a neutral observatory to gain mega-bonuses…

Even a single misstep can put enough of your economy out of whack for long enough to cost you the game. In a way, that makes it rather exciting – a true test of will and observational prowess. Oddly, it’s the closest a Settlers game has ever been to The Settlers of Catan, the splendid boardgame the series is often erroneously thought to have been inspired by.

There’s a big, fat, hyper-logical reward here for those willing to put the time in, but it seems terminally confused as to whether (and how) to welcome those who don’t already think in the hyper-efficient way it demands. The cute-but-lavish visuals will be an instant draw to any passerby, but one hover over the inventory screen with its couple of dozen different resources will send most people off screaming.

The early tutorials, with neat little wizards showing how to start off a match/mission, make it seem more accessible than any other strategy game you care to name. But twenty minutes later you’ve got a swarm of red exclaims all over your grumbling town and no idea how to get hold of more gold now the mine’s depleted. It’s a contradictory thing – so chummy, but so unforgiving. Sometimes it seems as though the beautiful engine was made first and as many random bits of strategy game as the devs could think of heaped on top of it, and other times like someone’s years-in-the-making masterplan has been made flesh no matter the cost, with accessibility a distant second interest.

Add this towering, unforgiving complexity to the now-infamous Ubisoft DRM system, which requires you to be online all the time, kicking you unceremoniously out if your connection drops, and you’re looking at a game which really isn’t suitable for casual gamers. Given that The Settlers series was built upon its appeal to a non-hardcore audience, this makes unlucky number seven here just a wee bit perverse. At the same time, it’s an extraordinarily thoughtful and attractive game, and mastering its many nuances and foibles is a challenge that’ll last you a goodly while. Seriously, it’ll be hours before you even see a cannon.

Mar 23, 2010

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