Little Cities was first announced back in late 2021, showing off what appeared to be pint-sized VR version of popular city simulator Cities: Skylines (2015)—only a few months before the very franchise announced the creation of its own official VR adaptation called Cities VR. Bad timing aside, we went hands-on with Little Cities before its April 21st release on the Quest platform to see if it offered up all of the expected charm of managing our own tiny diorama village in VR.
Fans of traditional city sims won’t have any trouble adapting to Little Cities’ main mechanics: you tower over an island that allows for you to sequentially grow across unlockable zones and earn new buildings as you attract residents who need a place to live, work and shop.
You’ll gather taxes on a weekly basis, so you’ll have everything you need to start planning out your roads, residential neighborhood blocks, commercial areas, and industrial zones—all of them hooked up to power, water, and cell phone coverage. That’s the basics of it, and even though it doesn’t get much deeper than that, the balance Little Cities is going for makes it feel like it’s more about providing a charming and relaxing experience that’s never too fiddly or fast-paced that you can’t just watch the world go by.
It’s apparent from the start that Little Cities is meant to be a more casual city-managing experience than others in the genre. You don’t need to deal with pollution, water piping, sewer wastage, electrical networks—all of that is handled automatically by connecting buildings to the central road network that you lay down. You can’t pause during gameplay to plonk down buildings or overhaul your roads. For my preview, the game seemed to provide plenty of time to breathe and do everything at a leisurely pace.
You also won’t need to paw through endless menus, which you might otherwise find on 2D city builders which may better provide fitting pieces with a bevy of roundabouts, road curve pieces, management tools, etc. For example: in Little Cities, you throw down one style of road which only allows for 90-degree grid patterns and basic intersections. At least for my playthrough, which allowed me to progress up to level 25 only on the desert island map, traffic was nonexistent. I could build massive industrial zones with only one entrance, weird intersections that would otherwise mean gridlock—basically many of the issues you might have to contend with in more a more in-depth city sim.
So now you know what’s missing, or rather the intentional omissions indie studio Purple Yonder made when designing Little Cities. So what does bring to the table besides being in VR?
Since the game is focused entirely on building on island areas, it offers up a lot of fun ways to level hazards at the player, which you need to contend with in unique ways. In the game’s desert type island, I had a massive, persistent sand storm that prevented me from building anything besides roads. Plonking down any zone, which you do by raising your wrist-mounted menu, resulted in a building site that’s never completed. The answer? Plant a few trees!
Sand storms can be banished if you put down enough trees, which unlock the area to you can continue building out blocks of houses, businesses, and factories.
The other environmental hazard is the need for water. On some maps, ground water is more abundant, but not on the desert island. Once your city gets big enough, you’ll unlock a desalination plant, which you’ll need all along your coastline to keep the water bar filled. You can see below that my residents are mostly happy, although my water could use a boost. In the 3D pie chart left of the happiness meter, you can also see I need more industry (yellow) and commercial (light blue) to keep people employed. It’s the same thing with power; build more wind turbines in windy areas, or solar plants where the sun shines the brightest.
Like all industrial buildings, and things like water towers or cell phone towers, you don’t want to put them near residential areas. The happier your population is, the more money you can extract from them. That’s as deep as that mechanic goes though, so just make sure to keep an eye on where you’re building stuff.
As with any clear flatscreen-to-VR adaptation, we always have to ask ourselves whether the game actually feels like it belongs in VR, or whether it’s more suited to a monitor, mouse and keyboard. Here, it seems Little Cities has made a few functional concessions along with a number of minor additions that may just make it worth playing in VR over a similar flatscreen experience… if you’re looking for a very casual city-building experience, that is.
The ambiance, the relaxing music, the little events that happen every now and then (hot air balloons lifting off, a whale breaks the water to greet you, planes race overhead), all of it’s designed to get you to take a beat and chill out. Graphically the game is exactly what I’d expect too, a bright and cartoony world that offers up just enough random building variation to make it feel real enough.
As for comfort, I was worried I’d be spending too much time with my head tilted forward, which puts strain on my neck. Thankfully the movement scheme is simple, and allows you to get a comfortable view of your little town.
Locomotion is based on a ‘grab-the-ground’ type of sliding movement that lets you position yourself accurately. Zooming up and down lets you move between Godzilla to Godzooky in size. Or maybe from the Burj Khalifa to a 10-story building. I was always somewhere in the middle, so I could keep my head mostly level. Thanks to snap-turning, you can easily play seated if you choose, or go full room-scale if you want, the latter serving up a feeling I can only describe as making me feel like a kid playing on one of those big road map-style playmats.
So playing in VR has its cool moments, however outside of the nifty arm-based UI menu, which is simple to use, it’s mostly all a game of pointing and clicking with laser pointers. I definitely feel like there’s some missed opportunities here to integrate building and bulldozing into more immersive actions besides simply highlighting and clicking.
Anyway, there’s plenty more for me to experience as I go in for the full game before it release on April 21st for Quest and Quest 2 (Store link here), priced at $20. I’ve yet to play all island types, although what I’ve experienced so far is really promising—and just so damn cozy that I’ve easily spent multiple hours at a time just unwinding in my own cozy little island town.