Raise mountains! Cleave seas from the barren earth! Cultivate dinosaurs and woolly mammoths! Birthdays The Beginning lets you play God like no other game has since Populous, but is it any good? Find out more in our review.
Feeling to me as if it were the beautiful, carefree and delicate offspring of Viva Pinata and Populous, the clumsily titled Birthdays The Beginning (just Birthdays from now on) is the kind of once-in-a-generation titles that you'll either love or hate. Even though Birthdays is the product of original Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, I find it has little in common with that series, save perhaps the philosophical, whimsical story line.
Birthdays operates on a much grander scale than Harvest Moon, and considering it features a timeline that spans many, many millennia, it actually features greater scope than any other game I can think of. Basically, Birthdays is a game about planetary evolution at the most basic level. From the emergence of the first amoeba, to the dawn of humankind, the player will fine tune the landmass of each miniature world to raise and lower the temperature and in turn, give birth to new life.
Birthdays does feature a story, but it is a strange one and should not be considered a necessity for enjoying the game, except perhaps for the select few who really connect with it. I will say that if there was ever a way of somehow crafting an almost credible plot around a concept as broad as the rise and fall of entire worlds, Birthdays does just about get away with it.
Basically, the player character is exploring a wild, forgotten place when they stumble upon a cave that is emitting a strange light. Within the cave is Navi, a fairy-like creature that is tending to a miniature world such as those that I've been describing so far. Unfortunately, Navi has lost some of her powers, and the player must help her to restore the world and bring about the various stages of evolution. I'll leave what happens from there a mystery, but needless to say, it's both bonkers and understated at the same time, and it somehow fits the quirkiness of Birthdays overall concept extremely well.
The real story in Birthdays, is perhaps the tale that is told within each world, as the player shapes it with each minor adjustment. If you do like it, then this is absolutely the kind of game that draws you in and keeps you hooked for play sessions much longer than you expected. I sat in front of the PS4 at one or two am on several occasions, knowing I had work in the morning, but unable to put the pad down until I had evolved that one elusive dinosaur.
For me, the gameplay in Birthdays is where the gamereally shines. It is unique among all the other games of this generation and all generations past, even if some of the concepts do draw some similarities to two or three individual games.
The game is split into two views; the Macro View and the Micro View. In the Micro View, players are free to raise and lower the land, or use items that spawn either randomly or as the result of a specific event within the world. Raising enough land decreases the overall temperature of the world, whilst lowering it increases it and usually, results in the creation of seas and rivers. The water volume and proximity to any given land tile set the humidity, and between temperature, humidity and altitude, you have all the ingredients of a habitat.
Macro View zooms the camera out to a sedately rotating view of the blocky world from a distance not dissimilar to outer space. When viewed in this mode, tens of thousands of years pass in the world, and an information panel on the right hand side provides players with information about species being born (birthdays,) those in decline, and those that have become extinct. Typically, these events occur as a result of the tinkering done in Micro View, and so the cycle of making minor changes, zooming out to assess the impact of them and then zooming back in is what makes up the bulk of the action.
Sometimes, the more subtle impact of changes can be hard to assess, and I often found that I had met the stated criteria for the spawning or evolution of a particular creature, only to learn through experimentation that I had not met some other hidden need. For example, most life will spawn when the world temperature holds at the median point in the acceptable range for that lifeform, but sometimes you'll also need to create a lowland area of at least three square blocks alongside water, for example. These secondary requirements are not always stated. Some of the items spawned in game can fast track evolution and the birth of species without the need to meet all of these requirements, but using them felt like a cheat to me. It may be that these items are included to help some players overcome exactly the problem I've described here, and if so, then fair enough I guess.
The controls in Birthdays are fairly simple, if a little clunky due to their uniqueness and the tricky camera. Raising and lowering land is inelegant, but I soon came to learn that the game has little care for the actual lie of the land except where individual creatures require it. Instead, the world temperature is set based on overall block height, so a clumsily drawn mountain is as useful as a neat one and undoubtedly, more in keeping with natures way.
There's absolutely tons to do in Birthdays, and in fact, I doubt anyone beside from the most hardcore fan will complete all the modes and see all of the possible creatures. At a high level, there is the story mode, a challenge mode that tasks players with creating specific creatures within specific parameters, and a sandbox which is entirely freeform. Depending on what you want to achieve, each world is likely to take more than four or five hours to play, and to see the true endgame and the evolution of advanced mammals and birds, a world would be in play for much longer than that.
Graphics and Audio
Birthdays has a bright, colourful aesthetic that really compliments the cute, characterful creatures that populate each world. There are info panels and science references aplenty, but Birthdays is presented first and foremost as a gentle and eye-catching world, which has to be a fantastic way of attracting younger gamers who might otherwise have passed it by. I can imagine my thirteen year old self being in awe of my own achievements in Birthdays, but I would never have stuck it out beyond the first ten minutes if it didn't look so darn cute.
The audio is perhaps less interesting, with next to no creature specific audio and a single backing track that really just fades into the background. There are context sensitive sound effects however, and they do a good job of providing feedback when certain actions are undertaken, but that's obviously nothing particularly special or unusual.
I really liked Birthdays, and I'm going to be playing it for months to come. It feels like one of those rare games that only comes around once a blue moon, and I like it all the more as a result of that, because if this kind of quirky title became commonplace, the magic would certainly be lost. Birthdays often frustrated me, but it also rewarded me so much more when I took the time to read the information it gave me, adjust and when necessary, adjust again.
That said, Birthdays is a tough game to recommend to everyone, because it is incredibly niche. If you enjoy God-simulators or world building games then it might be for you, and I think anyone who likes the relaxing tinkering of Viva Pinata or Spore will also feel at home here.