Life’s a game
I was very curious about Birthdays the Beginning going into it. Not because it was the first of its kind or anything — goodness knows we’ve already got plenty of god/sandbox/simulation games — but because of how it carried itself. Although the game was about life and evolution, it didn’t carry in any sort of analytical or overly scientific manner. Rather, it was quite whimsical about the whole process. It took a topic with which most of us are familiar and tried to put a playful spin on it. And, while it did have its shortcomings, I’d say that it did a pretty nice job with what it set out to do overall.
The Building Blocks of Life
If the name hasn’t given it away, Birthdays the Beginning is all about life. More specifically, about how life in our world has evolved. The player’s goal in Birthdays‘ Story Mode is a very straightforward one. As the newly-appointed creator of the cube-shaped world that they’ve stumbled upon, it’s their job to take the initially barren world and turn it into a sprawling utopia of living organisms — a veritable “life bouquet”, if you will. But surprisingly, it took a little more work than I expected it to.
I kind of expected Birthdays to literally let me create life. You know, like maybe I would use resources or energy to create plants and animals, plop them down comfortably on my little cube world and watch them romp around. The animals, anyway. I don’t know of any plants offhand that “romp”. Turns out I was wrong! Though you may be the all-powerful deity of… wherever it is that you are, you never actually get to make living. Rather, it’s your job to create ideal conditions for living organisms to grow and evolve. In reality, you’re less “Creator” and more “Omnipotent Terraformer”.
It isn’t so easy as just raising and lowering land in various places, though. Plenty of other factors come into play as well. While you’re shaping the earth, you need to keep in mind what impact your terraforming will have in the future. Factors such as height and depth, moisture and, perhaps most importantly, the temperature of your world are all directly impacted by land and water ratio and size. You may start out with nothing more than adaptable microorganisms, but as your world grows it becomes increasingly necessary to keep tabs on everything that’s going on around you.
Fundamentally, world-building in Birthdays is fine. It’s initially very enjoyable, and isn’t difficult to understand. But it can get to be a hassle later on down the road. In the beginning, your world starts out small and easy to manage. Naturally, as you progress throughout the game, your world gets bigger, but shaping it can become time-consuming. World-shaping uses up HP, which can be recovered by resting in Macro Mode (which we’ll get to in a bit). And though you can level up by capturing new organisms, thus increasing your HP, the amount of HP that you gain per level is never proportional to the amount of new land that you get, meaning that your entire ecosystem gets thrown off balance before you have a chance to fully correct it. Manually raising and lowering individual landmasses is also a lengthy process that loses its luster quickly.
Shaping the earth may be your job, but that’s not really the most exciting part. No, the most exciting part comes afterward when living organisms start appearing. Birthdays (the creation of new life, not the game itself) come about as a result of two things; time and geography. As I’ve mentioned before, the kinds of organisms that appear are based on what kind of world they are living in. New organisms are birthed when specific conditions are met, such as dinosaurs needing a high air temperature and land moisture, and so on. But wait, what’s that? You don’t know exactly what temperature things thrive at? Well, neither did I. And don’t worry, the game doesn’t expect you to either.
Birthdays has a handy compendium that contains information on every single creature available to you in the entire game as well as a gigantic evolution tree that shows you how everything interconnects. By following the natural evolution process closely, you can all but assure the organism you’re going after will appear. Navi, the player’s diamond-shaped sidekick, can also provide hints about specific creatures needed for progression in Story Mode, making it even easier to reference things.
The second factor is time. Nothing in Birthdays happens right away. Even after you’ve created the right conditions, time still needs to pass. Passing time requires you to transition from Micro Mode (“building mode”) to Macro Mode, where you can begin the flow of time and recover HP. Time passes quickly in Macro Mode however, and things are constantly being born and dying, so you’re better off not needlessly waiting around. Unfortunately, you’re bound to run into a few snags. As time flows in Macro Mode, the Life Bulletin is constantly being updated, showing you population changes in various organisms. And while it updates very quickly, it isn’t always quick enough. I’ve had creatures come into existence, only to become extinct before I could even push the button to stop advancing time. And, since there’s no “Master Population List”, you’re bound to have this happen once or twice.
But that’s part of the beauty of Birthdays in a way, as well. Most of the time, new creatures come into existence not because of something that you’re actively doing, but by chance. As much as I hated not being able to record a new creature because of it dying off so quickly, it was fun looking through my library and trying to figure out why it might have shown up in the first place. And being able to go back, replicate that environment, and finally catch said creature was very satisfying.
I’ve also got to hand it to Birthdays for rewarding player creativity. Although the game does have set goals for the player, there isn’t a wrong way to get there. If my world needed to be colder, there were several ways to make that happen. Should I increase the land-to-water ratio? Maybe I could make a few extremely tall mountains? How I got there was entirely up to me. And, depending on how I got there, I would run into different creatures. There are plenty of “ah-hah!” moments in Birthdays, and finding them all is a lot of fun.
Tools of the Trade
You’re basically a god in Birthdays, right? So it seems kind of weird that your powers are limited to moving land around, flying, and waiting. But wait, there’s one last thing that I have yet to talk about! You can use items, too! It’s cooler than it sounds, okay? Just stick with me. While you’re busy shaping the world around you, items begin to materialize. These items can do a number of things, such as recovering HP, permanently altering temperature, and auto-shaping certain parts of land for you. There are even special Glass Jar items that you can use to store creatures for later use, so you can prevent an animal from going extinct… or unleash a T-Rex into a modern-day civilization. You know, whichever one you feel like doing.
The interesting thing about items (aside from all of the crazy things that they themselves do) is that, like with creatures, they appear based on what you do. Items to flatten out land appear when you’re altering terrain height. Temperature-changing items only appear during extreme weather. Regardless of what you’re doing, Birthdays is going to reward you for it. That’s pretty neat if you ask me.
More Ways to Play
Story Mode is Birthday‘s bread-and-butter, but it isn’t the only thing that the game has going for it. There are also Free and Challenge Modes. Free Mode is pretty self-explanatory. You just do whatever you want — no rules, just building! Challenge Mode is on the opposite end of the spectrum, though. Which is also kind of self-explanatory, now that I think about it.
Birthdays‘ Challenge Mode consists of 10 pre-built levels with very specific goals — all of which involve bringing a specific organism into the world. Challenge Mode piles on additional restrictions in certain levels as well, such as not being able to use items or alter certain parts of the terrain, and wraps everything up nicely with a time limit. Although it starts out easy, Challenge Mode definitely lives up to its name in the end, making it a nice way for those who have mastered the game’s mechanics to test their skills.
That Toybox Look and Feel
It’s funny that a company named Toybox Inc. had a hand in making Birthdays, because that’s exactly how playing this game feels — like playing with your very own toybox. The visuals alone make this look like a scenario that I would have set up when I was younger. A mysterious red alien superhero altering a Lego-like world, bringing hundreds of strange new creatures to life in the process? Sign me up! The childlike whimsy that the game’s aesthetics exude are a perfect fit.
There wasn’t much going on musically, but I think that it worked to the game’s advantage. Save for the main theme and its variants, Birthdays‘ soundtrack consisted entirely of ambient sounds, and sometimes didn’t have any music at all. Music is generally there to push its audience in a certain direction, emotionally-speaking, and a game like this doesn’t need to have a specific emotional pull, so less is definitely more in this case.
Happy Birthday, Indeed
In the end, this game didn’t turn out exactly how I expected it to. But that’s okay. And, although I would have preferred a more active role when it came to creature creation, seeing the results of my worldwide landscaping efforts was enjoyable. While Birthdays the Beginning isn’t the most hardcore god game out there, it’s still got plenty of merits. It’s a good game to chill out to, it makes you think, and its visual charms are undeniable. I’m not sure that Birthdays would appeal to absolutely everyone, but I’d surely tell those interested to go for it.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: NIS America, Inc. ; Developer: Arc System Works Co., Ltd., Toybox Inc ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 9, 2017 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $39.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Birthdays the Beginning given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher.