Well, this is an odd little game. Brought to us by Yasuhiro Wada (the creator of the brilliant Harvest Moon series), Birthdays: The Beginning allows you to create your own little ‘planet’ in a jar. By manipulating the in-game world players are able to create the perfect environment for life, starting with microscopic plankton and leading all the way up to modern-day human (with everything in between). A good god sim has been on my agenda for a while, but the constraints of console-only gaming often puts a spanner in the works of getting down and dirty with an idea like this, as they are often a PC only affair. Not any more.
Starting a fresh game forces you to go through a few stages of the story mode, which is an odd choice for a sandbox title such as this. I think a lot of the narrative actually gets lost in translation as it’s pretty terrible, but to be fair I wasn’t interested in the game for a sprawling, epic story. You start off with a completely blank cube of grey. Nothing more. Navi (basically a tutorial fairy) shows you how to change the world, one cube at a time, by either raising or lowering the ground (R1 and R2 respectively). You ‘dig’ a trench, add some water, and pretty soon you have a sea full of plankton.
From here you need to create the ideal environment for more life. A lot of the creatures are picky little buggers, and won’t turn up until things are just right. The right amount of moisture, perfect temperature, the correct food source; there are a lot of hoops you need to jump through to entice even the lowliest fish to your cube. Changing the heat on your planet is mainly done by raising and lowering the ground. Deeper seas close to the core will increase the temperature, while mountainous peaks will lower it. Changing the temperature of the sea requires time to pass, which is done by entering something called ‘Macro’ mode.
It’s in this mode where stuff happens on your cube. A press of L1 starts time flowing, which in turn allows life to breed if the conditions are right. When something is born (a birthday) you pop back into ‘Micro’ Mode and collect it in your library, (kinda like a Pokedex). Flora and Fauna alike will spawn, and the passing of time is the only way to regenerate HP (which for some reason is used as a sort of currency to raise and lower the ground), so popping in and out of this mode becomes a massive part of the gameplay, which is a shame, as it all gets rather tedious after a while.
Watching your world develop is oddly satisfying. Crafting rivers and seas will nourish the ground and turn a dull grey slate into a thriving little ecosystem. Fish will evolve into amphibians, amphibians into lizards, dinosaurs appear for you to collect, which in turn pave the way for other mammals, and eventually humans. It all just takes a LOT of micromanagement, raising and lowering the ground in small bursts until you run out of HP, then passing time to regenerate and do it again. But even passing time is wrought with peril, as often entire species will decide they no longer have the right conditions to live and go extinct at the drop of a hat. With no way to rewind time or undo any of your mistakes this can be extremely annoying, as certain critters are required to progress to the next set. In one instance I was waiting around for what felt like millions of years for my T-rex to appear, only to find out that my raptors (a vital link in the food chain) had gone extinct ages ago, and was forced to go back and undo my work to make things ideal for them.
The whole game looks pretty ‘cutesy’ and doesn’t look half bad at all. As I mentioned earlier, watching grass, trees and bushes spring from a barren landscape has a certain appeal. The wildlife you manage to create will stomp around the cube and go about their business, and although all the character models look nice enough this area could have been fleshed out a little bit more. I mean, I had to make sure that food was available for my guys to eat before they would appear, so I expected to actually witness the food chain in action. I would have liked to see critters eating bushes and grass, and predators to feast upon their prey, but I was sadly disappointed. Another bugbear is the statistics showing the number of creatures roaming my cube. At points I was told I had thousands of one type or another living in my world, but could only ever seem to spot one or two of the actual model. I understand the constraints of what I wanted versus what I actually got, (I wasn’t actually expecting to see fifty thousand raptors roaming around), but a little bit more thought could have gone into how all these beasts were shown when compared to the numbers you supposedly had.
I’m saddened to say I was rather let down by Birthdays: The Beginning. The HP system used to morph the earth becomes a massive hinderance after a few hours of gameplay, and although collecting ‘birthdays’ and levelling up provides you with more HP, switching back and forth between micro and macro mode turned crafting the world like a god into a time-consuming chore. Watching huge swathes of your population go extinct is heartbreaking, especially when it’s down to a simple little mistake here and there, or progressing time forward just to regenerate HP. Free mode is available after completing a few of the story mode chapters, and although it’s still as unforgiving on any mistakes you make, it eschews any objectives needed to progress and allows you to tinker away at your own pace, rather than one dictated by the game. There is also a challenge mode, which requires you to create a certain critter within a certain time limit, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the most fun in the sandbox-style free mode. The potential of the game is huge, it’s just executed in a rather average way, which is a shame. Maybe grab it if it goes on sale at some point, because at its current price (forty quid), it’s a bit of a let-down.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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