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Synergy has shot straight to the top of my most anticipated survival city builders list thanks to its Next Fest demo

 Explorers conducting experiments.
Explorers conducting experiments.

I've had my eye on Synergy ever since we showed the city builder off back in 2022 during the PC Gaming Show. I'm a city builder simp anyway, but Synergy's Moebius-style art really sealed the deal with its delicious pastel sci-fi charms. Until now, though, all I've been able to do is gawk at screenshots, but Leikir Studio has now made a demo available for Steam Next Fest. It hasn't let me down.

While Synergy doesn't shy away from novelty, the foundations are very familiar, born as they are from the formula established by the classic Impressions games like Caesar and Pharaoh. Arriving in a new, extremely alien land, your settlers begin with only a fleeting stockpile and their rugged determination to carve out a home in an inhospitable land. From there, homes must be erected, resources gathered and jobs assigned, until you've ticked all the basic boxes.

A pontoon on a toxic lake
A pontoon on a toxic lake

Quickly, though, pleasing quirks start to appear. All of the water is toxic, for instance, giving you your first production chain as your settlers gather up the water, cleanse it, and then store it for consumption. Gathering more resources, specifically from the unusual flora, also demands some extra steps that emphasise the alien nature of the ecosystem.

Various plants produce fruit and other edible resources, but since your settlers have never encountered this kind of flora before, they need to study it first. Sending out field researchers to do some surface analysis then reveals how the plants can be utilised safely. You don't want your new settlement's denizens to go out and get stabbed by poisonous thorns, after all.

A lot of the plants I encountered actually had multiple uses, depending on how they were interacted with—harvesting could net me fruit that could be used in the kitchen, while pruning could give me sticks that I could turn into tools. Erecting two fruit picker buildings allowed me to send out teams to both prune and pick, after which the plant would slowly regrow. In a pinch, all of a plant's resources can be harvested even without specific buildings, but at the cost of the plant's destruction.

A bustling pastel village
A bustling pastel village

Some resources, like tree trunks, can only be harvested by chopping down trees, which comes with a downside: these trees provide shade from the harsh sun, which helps to improve your settlers' well being. Maintaining the ecosystem's balance, then, is a top priority as you try to juggle the need for resources with the quality of the environment. So you don't want to get too greedy, but at the same time you absolutely do need to maintain a healthy surplus of resources to protect your settlement from the vagaries of the weather.

The change of season can bring with it new challenges, like the dry season causing plants and trees to wilt or making water evaporate. A good stockpile can allow you to withstand these crises, while failing to do so can lead to sickness, starvation and eventually death. Good times.

Learn to survive

Synergy research screen
Synergy research screen

Research and exploration will help you build a settlement that can handle these problems more effectively. Through the former, you can unlock new buildings, tasks and buffs, while the latter allows you to send out expeditions that can return with new settlers, resources and even flora that can be planted in the local area. Eventually you'll be able to create wells, irrigation systems, experimental labs and schools, all while filling the environment with new vegetation.

Once you've got an explorer's hut up and running, you can access the world map and pick a destination. In the tutorial, a narrative event encourages you to visit a cave where a "chaotic blinking light" has been spotted, so these adventures can also have a story-driven component too. While this event only offered a linear path, the language used implies that other events will let you choose your approach.

When you set up an expedition, you can choose its size: the larger the group, the more resources will be required, but they'll also be able to carry more back with them, and the expedition will go more swiftly. It's a risk, though, as I discovered when my explorers arrived at the aforementioned cave and became enchanted by the blinking light. They never made it back home.

Synergy world map
Synergy world map

That failed expedition is where the demo ends, leaving me desperately wanting more. My settlement only grew into a decent-sized village, but it looks like we'll eventually be managing a metropolis full of distinct districts, each built around town squares that confer special buffs on the area, as well as demanding certain prerequisites be filled. Even with the survival bent, this is not a game all about desperation and subsistence living. With new tech and the introduction of new plant life, you'll be able to build gardens and fields, and have clean water running through your settlement, allowing your settlers to thrive rather than just survive.

You can embark on bouts of beautification, too, plonking down decorations to give your new home a bit more character—not that it doesn't look striking right out the gate. Every building is rich in character—even more so when you stick workers in it, who make it spring to life, animating previously dormant buildings as they earn their keep. In the demo, there isn't a single structure that doesn't look both weird and beautiful, but always with a cohesive art style that ensures nothing looks out of place.

Synergy district choices
Synergy district choices

You've still got the better part of a week before Next Fest ends, and given that a lot of demos stick around after the event, you might even have longer to take Synergy for a spin—and you absolutely should. There's no hard release date yet, but it's expected out in the first half of 2024.

For other city builders worth paying attention to, check out Chris's list of the seven city builders he can't wait to play this year.