Mention Charles Darwin, and there's really only one thing that springs into most people's minds - he was the owner of one hella impressive beard. But while his facial hair game may have been strong, it pales in comparison to his theory of evolution, which speculated that, given the right conditions, creatures could adapt to better suit their environment over time, often creating whole new species in the process. Even if it saw him branded as a heretic in his day, evolution is now widely accepted as the origin of every person, plant and animal on the planet today. And with billions and billions of years of creatures past and present to look back on, it's certainly a rich source of inspiration, should you be looking to create a game that's a bit different to the usual shooters and sports simulations.
And that's just what Yasuhiro Wada, the brains behind Harvest Moon, Rune Factory and Little King's Story decided to do with his latest project, Birthdays: The Beginning. Perhaps befitting of its somewhat unusual name, Birthdays is also a rather unusual game. Putting you in charge of a cuboid planet, you essentially step into the role of God, whereby you can raise mountains, spawn seas and more, and watch as life unfolds before your very eyes. With hundreds of different species to discover, from T-Rexes to modern humans and even Nessie him/herself, the changes you make, and the way you fine-tune your world will lead you down certain paths, steering you towards certain new evolutions. An open-ended game with no real time-limits, it's the perfect game to kick back and relax with on a Tuesday afternoon - which is exactly what we did the other week, when we went hands-on with the game with our friends at NIS America.
Stepping into the white space boots of your alien-like God-thing, it falls to you to take your planet from a barren flat cube to a planet teaming with life, by subtly changing the climate and terrain over a period of millions and millions of years. Different species require different climates before they'll appear, and by fine-tuning your planet's ecosystem, you can evolve and unlock all kinds of new animals, working your way from dinosaurs all the way up to modern day humans. Essentially, every creature in the game requires a certain combination of three parameters to unlock - the land temperature, water temperature and moisture level - before they'll appear, and only by creating such conditions can you unlock said animal. Or plant, we guess - but they're not quite as cool.
Our first mission, and one which would introduce us to the basics of Birthdays: The Beginning was a simple matter of creating everyone's favourite carnivorous dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. According to the game's in built 'library', which details all the creatures you've created and captured so far (and gives you hints as to how to unlock new ones), in order to evolve a T-Rex, we needed a land temperature that's between 39 and 49 degrees, with a moisture level of between 10% and 64%, as well as two other dino pals - a Velociraptor and a Plesiosaurus. The only problem was we had neither a Raptor or a Plessie, and our temperature was 38 degrees and falling - which meant we had some serious Godly work on our hands.
First on the agenda was to increase the temperature, to get it in the T-Rex's (and by association, its predecessor, the Velociraptor's) preferred range. Normally, you'd do this by reducing your mountains to bring the temperature up, but as we were on a tight schedule, we decided to warm things up in a much more rapid fashion, thanks to good old global warming. Normally, making mountains, creating valleys or summoning seas eats into your character's 'health' bar, to limit the amount of changes you can make in one go - only by sitting back and letting time pass can you restore your health. However, items, which you'll earn as you play, let you cheat a little, giving you a speedy way of accomplishing things, such as changing the temperature, without the associated health costs. After a quick sprinkling of global warming later, our temperature was back on track for the T-Rex et al - all we needed to do now was wait.
When zoomed in and busy editing the land, time is effectively paused as you make your changes - your animals will still happily scurry around, but only by zooming out to the 'macro mode' can you speed through the years and watch evolution unfold. Depending on how patient a deity you are, there are two speeds on offer, with the first skipping through the years at a fairly gentle pace, restoring your health as it does so, while the second zooms through in mega fast forward, but costs a chunk of health. As we'd done very little in the way of landscaping escapades, we opted for the latter, keeping our eyes trained on the list on the right, which shows the different species as they flourish, decline, or come into existence, scanning for our elusive Velociraptor - and as if by magic, after a few hundred thousand years had gone by, BAM, there it was! A greyish dinosaur with a mohawk, chilling near a patch of trees; however, we needed a few more to meet our target population of 37,600. Luckily, advancing time another few thousand years got us a much more healthy number of Raptors, without them having moved an inch.
The next step on our quest for a T-Rex required a Plesiosaurus - a sea-loving dino that likes warm water, between about 40 and 50 degrees. As our current land was just a touch too cold - and we were all out of items - it was time to do a little bit of terraforming, to help make our cuboid planet that much warmer. As it turns out, you can use the same strategy to warm up the waters as you do for the land - by decreasing the amount of mountainous regions you have, you can boost the overall temperature of your planet. However, just because your conditions are perfect, it doesn't necessarily mean your dinosaur will appear instantaneously - after all, evolution is a somewhat random process of mutations and natural selection. Fast-forwarding for hundreds of millions of years, we saw no sign of a Plesiosaurus, so we brought out the big guns instead - an item which boosts the fertility of your water creatures, hopefully encouraging Plessie to appear. And appear it did - eventually. With both our Plessie and our velociraptor populations now thriving, it was only a matter of time before our very first T-Rex was born too, and our mission was complete. Yay!
While we were focussed on creating a T-Rex, and filling up our library in the process, Birthdays: The Beginning is generally a fairly free-form game, where you can simply play about with different terrains and temperatures and see where evolution takes you. Of course, if you'd prefer a more structured experience, you can systematically work your way through as many of the species' family trees as you can - it really is up to you. Once you've mastered the basics, Birthdays does offer a harder Challenge Mode that tasks you with creating certain species within a certain time-frame, without any items to help you. Our demo challenged you to create Nessie within two million years, which proved much easier in theory than in practice.
In order for Nessie to exist, the average temperature needs to be around 13 degrees - which is probably up there with the hottest temperature's Scotland's ever recorded - and modern humans need to exist (after all, why exist if there's no-one to take blurry photos of you to boost the tourist trade?). Meanwhile, Plesiosaurus, Nessie's closest relative, should be extinct (which is kind of sad, when you think about it). Kicking off with Homo Erectus, you need to work your way through two stages of human evolution in order to get to Modern Humans, along with decreasing the planet's temperature by around 20 degrees, in just two million years. And in the world of Birthdays: The Beginning, two million years isn't really a vast amount of time. In fact, getting the temperature under control ate up a good quarter of the allotted time, so you'll need some serious skills to complete the challenge - you could even say you'd need to be God like... (Sorry).
With it's adorably brightly coloured, clay model aesthetic, Birthdays: The Beginning seems like the perfect game to chill out with, as you move mountains, summon seas and tweak temperatures to evolve creatures as you see fit. It may not have the obvious interactivity of Viva Pinata, where you spent your time micromanaging the love lives of the birds and the bees, but its scope is much larger, with three or four times the critters to create, spanning everything from deadly dinosaurs to fuzzy mammals to humans - with a Nessie and Sasquatch thrown in for good measure. And with only a few months to go till launch, we can't wait to get our hands on the full game, when it his the Playstation 4 and PC in May.