They Are Billions Xbox review: A horror strategy game with truly terrifying controls

They Are Billions is a cult-hit apocalypse simulator set in a steampunk future. How well has this complex strategy game made the transition from PC to console? Great ... if you have a mouse and keyboard.

They Are Billions is a cult strategy game on Steam, pitting you against potentially thousands of zombies as you attempt to build up a steampunk settlement across various biomes. While the Steam version recently emerged from early access with a full-blown story campaign mode, the upcoming Xbox version seems to be a few builds behind, lacking some of the PC game's content.

Regardless, the base survival mode shipping with They Are Billions on Xbox is not only the same feverishly-addictive apocalypse sim you can find on PC, it also performs well, is very affordable at $25, and relatively bug-free. There is one glaring downside, though.

What you'll love about They Are Billions

They Are Billions is a 2.5D isometric strategy game with a fixed camera perspective, reminiscent of classic Age of Empires titles. You can zoom up close to the action as well as zoom out to get a broader view, however, and the art style is attractive and suitably gloomy, with a ton of dark, steampunk charm.

They Are Billions is equal parts satisfying and addictive.

Set in an apocalyptic future where civilization has been wiped out by a mysterious plague, humanity rises again endowed with the remnants of forgotten technology, combined with Victorian-era clockwork steam-powered gadgets, with a side of medieval necessities. Your mission is to survive on various biomes, unlocked as you complete each one. Dark forests, mountainous wilds, and arid plains await you, with all sorts of dynamically-generated map features to discover, which can both aid and hinder your survival chances.

You can customize the difficulty and length of each survival map, depending on whether or not you want a huge, epic campaign or a quick match against a few hundred nasties.

Playing on an easier difficulty will certainly help you get to grips with the relationships between the game's different resources and nuances, as the encroaching hordes grow increasingly impatient and dangerous.

In They Are Billions, you manage gold, iron, wood, stone, food, and manpower as your settlement grows, in a veritable race against time. The zombie hordes gradually grow in intensity throughout the game, sending occasional waves and mini bosses throughout. Every time a zombie destroys one of your buildings, the workers become infected, which can lead to a cascading plague throughout your town if you don't keep things under control.

To maintain order against the undead legions, you'll gain access to a wide array of increasingly powerful tech and defenses, such as scouts armed with silent bows, soldiers armed with guns, flamethrower units and even steampunk mecha. You'll be able to build large walls to keep the monsters out, complete with guard towers and gates to defend your base. The environment can also be leveraged for natural defenses, as zeds can't pass over cliffs or through lakes.

The real difficulty in They Are Billions comes from deciding where to prioritize your growth, while also defending your expanding borders without allowing your defenses to become too diffuse. If you can maintain a steady flow of food, new workers, and defenses, you should be able to keep pace with the ocean of hungry zombies baying at the gates and ultimately win. That is, of course, if you can get past the game's obtuse, rigid control schemes.

What you'll hate about They Are Billions

The biggest downside with They Are Billions on Xbox is the controller support, or lackthereof. The game does literally nothing to help you learn how to control it, nor does it let you remap keybinds. With regards to controls, They Are Billions is a very haphazard port that could've used far more testing.

With regards to controls, They Are Billions is a very haphazard port, that could've used far more testing.

The only option you have for adjustments is changing the speed of the cursor, which you control with the joystick. Even at the lowest setting, it's still hard to select things accurately, due to the odd acceleration the game attaches to your movements. It doesn't feel good at all, and is frustrating, even with the ability to pause time at will by hitting the view button.

With a ton of trial and error, I discovered that LB replaces the "Shift" function on PC, allowing you to queue up different unit commands. The X button lets you snap to the context menu at the bottom, for more precise selections of unit abilities and buildings, with the A button acting as a basic left mouse click, with a double tap for quickly selecting all matching units.

Even after practicing the controls for some time, they simply aren't enjoyable and represent some of the most headache-inducingly cumbersome inputs I've ever experienced in a game. The saving grace here is that They Are Billions fully supports keyboard and mice on Xbox One, circumventing control issues completely, at least with the game.

They Are Billions (Image credit: Windows Central)

You'll still need to keep your controller nearby, since the game pauses if it no longer detects an Xbox controller, even if you're not using it. Also, you can't yet sign in to the game using a mouse and keyboard, which also makes for a clunky experience – although that's on Microsoft to fix.

Beyond the control issues, it's also a shame that they weren't able to get the campaign into the game yet either. I have no idea if they plan to add it later for free (hopefully they will), but it's important to note that the PC version costs the same, while also granting a ton of additional content, at least for now.

So should you buy They Are Billions?

I well and truly love They Are Billions, having been drawn back to it multiple times on Steam over the past year. It's equal parts satisfying and addictive, as you ascend the tech tree turning your settlement from a desperate camp site into a sprawling, steampunk metropolis. Sadly, the transition to console hasn't done the game justice, owing to awful controls and the omission of the campaign mode.

Strategy and simulation games can and do work on console. Titles like Surviving Mars and Halo Wars 1 and 2 have proven that you can make separate gamepad controls without fully necessitating keyboard and mouse support. But for whatever reason, They Are Billions for Xbox simply doesn't measure up. At the very least, the game is very affordable at $25, and the core gameplay is ace, but you'll want a mouse and keyboard hooked up to your console to get the best experience.

Related: Best Keyboards for Xbox One

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Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!