The designer behind Harvest Moon returns with a game that frustrates as much as it fascinates.
Version tested: PlayStation 4.
Birthdays the Beginning's premise has a childlike simplicity: take a snowglobe world and fill it with life. No wonder: creator Yasuhiro Wada had the idea for the game as a child, after watching an episode of the cartoon Doraemon, which featured a tool to create a miniature planet, a mini-Earth that, once raised, could sit on a shelf in your bedroom while its ecosystem ticked away. Wada is best known for the series Harvest Moon, but while both games are bucolic enterprises exploring the stewardship of life, there is a vast difference in scale. In Harvest Moon you're a tinkering farmer; in Birthdays you're a sweeping divinity. Harvest Moon moves in seasons, Birthdays in millennia.
There's the whisper of a framing story, but this is a game in which the cogs and mechanisms of the ecosystem take centre stage. Your world, a kind of biodome encased in a cube of glass, is born small and flat. Your interactions are astoundingly limited: you can only raise or lower the land, which is divided into Minecraft-esque blocks. In this way, you have the power to build mounds, hills and mountains, or to dig puddles, lakes and seas. Life comes to the world first as a single cell plankton. When the right conditions are met, phytoplankton evolves into zooplantkton, and lo, the first link in the food chain is established. With time and careful tending, this fundamental principle is used to slowly and beguilingly fill your world with algae, ferns, trees, fish, spiders and, eventually, dinosaurs.
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Evolution happens when the right conditions of temperature, moisture and terrain are met. The more water you swill into your cube-world, the higher the air temperature. The more dry land you raise, the lower the temperature. In this way you use erosion to fine-tune the environment in order to see your world flourish. Certain species of plant and wildlife will only evolve at certain temperatures, so the majority of your time is spent pruning the land, snipping off chunks of hill in order to trigger the emergence of some dinosaur, before filling in lakes and seas in order to lure another type, which will perhaps hunt the first creature. Evolutions will happen naturally, when the correct conditions are met, but it's also possible to hurry them along with dropped items, although doing so will usually lower your 'score' for the chapter.
Despite its limited palette of interactions, and the curvy, kindergarten style, Birthdays soon reveals itself to be an enormously complex machine. Your ecosystem must be built slowly and carefully. If you drastically change the temperature in the world on a whim because, say, you decided to install a pair of mountains in the North, you can potentially wipe out a particular organism on which every creature higher up the food chain depends. As the food chain collapses, returning your world to its former state is not as simple as levelling the mountains. Rather, you must build the landscape back down to the point at which the crucial and recently extinct creature reappears, and rebuild from there. The system is delicate and fragile. You will, at least once, likely become an accidental ruiner of worlds, a keen frustration when there is no way to restart a chapter.
Your view into the game is split between two modes: micro and macro. In micro, time freezes and you zoom inside the cube, where you can sweep over the landscape, examining your creatures and, if they're newly evolved, clicking on them in order to add them to the game's expansive catalogue of things. Much joy comes from seeing new creatures evolve (those eponymous birthdays) before adding them to the catalogue. In the game's earliest chapters this is easy enough: new creatures are represented as red dots on the minimap and you simply zip over to their location and click on them. As your world fills, however, it becomes ever harder to locate these new species, especially as there's no way to expand the minimap.
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In macro mode you view the world as if from a neighbouring planet. Here time passes at one of two speeds - slow or fast - while a ticker tape reel informs you about the various population numbers of your incumbent creatures, and which ones are nearing evolution or extinction. For some inexplicable reason, time is yoked to your character's HP. When time passes slowly, your health bar fills. When time passes quickly, it depletes. Likewise, in micro mode, every raising or lowering of the land costs HP. For this reason you must constantly switch between modes in order to refill your supply of 'moves'. It's a superfluous design decision, one that serves no purpose other than to interrupt your busywork.
You're guided through your journey by a chatty helper, a sort of evolutionary Clippy. In each chapter the final goal is to evolve a specific type of creature. When this goal is achieved, you progress to the next chapter, at which point your world is greatly expanded. So the world becomes vastly and uniquely yours. As with a Minecraft city, the effect is powerful: the terrain marks the product of ten thousand decisions you made. This joy of creation is, however, gently yet persistently undermined by the need to constantly need to carve out more land in order to evolve one creature, before piling the terrain back on in order to lower the temperature to make room for another. Just when you've arranged things how you want them, you're forced to make a massive change.
The damning sound effect that play whenever a species goes extinct (and often multiple species go extinct at once, when, for example you've been forced to drastically raise the temperature to pave the way for a diplodocus) becomes a trigger for a pang of micro-grief, as one pet dies to make room for another. There is unique and unusual pleasure to balancing this world just so, but without a straightforward way to restart chapters, or way to wind the clock back to undo decisions, the troughs of frustration eventually come to overwhelm the peaks of delight.