Birthdays: The Beginning Review
Release Date: May 9, 2017
Developer: Arc System Works/NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Steam
As a child, we all loved to play and pretend. Director Yasuhiro Wada took inspiration from different shows he watched in his childhood and imagined being able to construct whole living, breathing worlds. He was fascinated with the origins of life. Now, as a video game producer, the team at Arc System Works has been able to help Mr. Wada visualize his dream in the world of Birthdays: the Beginning.
At first glance, this game appears almost Minecraft-y, with an avatar morphing the terrain, cute blockiness, and different animals, but this is far from the truth. The storyline is loose, but it boils down to you finding a mysterious place in the woods that sucks you in and drops you in an empty world that tasks you with creating life. Your core skills involve raising and lowering the land. Doing so changes the temperature of the overall world. Adding in water in places, changing the temperature with heatwaves and ice ages, you make the land suitable for life. You start out with basic sea planktons and life that eventually creeps out onto land. A barebones representation of evolution continues from there. Creatures themselves may evolve and adapt. A dinosaur may become a different form of the same, but more adapted to wintry climates. As certain populations increase, the world becomes more susceptible to new life and organisms. With the right combination of living creatures, plants, and such merged with the right temperatures and moisture levels, everything from ducks to humans to Tyrannosaurus can live in your little biome.
As you play, your avatar has an HP gauge that slowly depletes as you raise and lower land or use special abilities. Fast forwarding the timeline will deplete as well, whilst letting time run it's course allows you to regenerate. This pushes players to pay attention to the natural progression of life, as it would be very easy to change a lot at one time or leave your world in "fast forward" mode, both of which could be detrimental to your world, as you really have to find a balance between meddling and leaving things alone. As time goes on, you level up, giving your avatar more HP for more detailed crafts and more powers to more quickly adjust your ever growing cube of land.
There is a storyline mode, where you slowly learn why you are doing what you are doing, but it really boils down to a list of achievements to tick off of a list. There is a challenge mode as well, giving you a goal to reach, such as create a specific species within a ceartain number of "years." It is neat to see your world evolve from simple protozoa to pterodactyls and everything in between, but the game has another achievement to reach instantly after every single one is reached, making them feel like rungs on a ladder rather than the "happy birthday" they expect each new evolution to be. When you see something new, you are to fly down to the world and "capture" one, scanning it so it goes into your record book. It will then keep track of what the conditions are for it to be born, evolve, and thrive. There is a basic chart form, as well as a full-on tree to help you know just how you got there.
I did come to a point where that was too much information, though. The tree has a logical organization to it, but it is so massive that if you really had ONE particular animal you wanted to get to it's almost impossible to find them. Then, you have to work your way down the tree to what you already have, and get every single branch from point A to B. When the game proceeds naturally, the goals are in logical order, but if you mess up it feels almost like you are starting all over. Before I got the hang of the game, I played for a solid hour only to have a majorly important animal go extinct due to mismanagement. I felt it simpler to start over and get back to the proper evolutionary step than try to figure out what I did and how to get back where I needed to be.
I was able to review this title on the PlayStation 4, and I could tell that it was also a PC game before I even started research to write this review. There are constantly scrolling menus that I could see a mouse and keyboard helping you navigate, big buttons on the screen representing things like play and pause that are obviously linked to the button presses I make, and I feel that the game would greatly benefit from the mouse/keyboard combination. There are a few moves that make no sense to me. For example, there's the outside view that allows the world's time to proceed, the main view where you are navigating, and the first person view. The minimap shows all creatures and plants on it, so when you have a full world it's a mess of dots. Going into first person mode will let you see only the new undiscovered species as dots. But, you can't go from first person to full outside view or vice versa, even though the transition button is not used in either. You have to go through the middle view. Opening the item list will disengage that view change as well, meaning you get a little "clunk" noise as you try to change views, even if you'd still like the item menu open in the new view. With a mouse and keyboard, I could see the motions being a little more natural. Also, as you fly around the land you are always right by the land height, so you dip into oceans and up to peaks. It makes it hard to "scan" the flying animals as you dip under them, and then have difficulty lining it up with the first person view when a mouse pointer could get it right there. If you have both options, I might say look into the PC prior to the PS4 port, but the controller is manageable, just not without it's hiccups.
Despite those issues, the game is very enjoyable. It's neat to see life evolve on the once barren planet, and once you get the groove down you will be able to research an animal and do a couple tweaks that result in exactly what you wanted sproutingn forth. The game suffers from being a bit too complicated at times, especially if you have an extinction-level accident, because it won't hold your hand to get back where you were. At times it is frustrating: I finally got to the human level, filled all the requirements, and they just wouldn't spawn. I wanted to drop a human in and see what happened, or at least have some kind of guide to tell me what I might be missing, but they rely on your skills at the game. I spent quite a while trying to figure out that next step. Quite a bit of the game simply boils down to adjusting some land levels that change the temperature of the world, dropping more or less humidity into the area, and waiting to see what happens. People coming in for something more action based or with a more direct effect on the results may leave confused or disappointed, but those who like games like the Sims or Sim City will find a wonderful sandbox of creativity where you watch amazing creatures, plants, and even dinosaurs spring to life with your help.
-Deep gameplay that feels good to master
-Amazingly cute graphics feel like claymation
-Satisfaction received when you get it right
-Every achievement is just another rung in the ladder
-LOTS of waiting
-If something goes extinct that's not supposed to, it's a long way back and you're on your own.
Thanks to NIS America for providing a copy for review!