There was once a time when the most thrilling toy we had was a precarious tower of blocks. Whether we saw it as a sprawling cityscape or a single fortified castle, our imagination was only held back by physics and gravity. Maybe siblings or classmates threatened to bring it crumbling down, or our own inability to build a solid structure. In any case, the blocks fell and time moved on.
That feeling of building small cities on a tabletop is the driving idea behind Tinytopia, the latest from MeNic Games. The Argentinian studio has been building a catalog of focused city-builders that incorporate physics, but Tinytopia is the most impressive and ambitious title yet.
Tinytopia is available now on Steam for your regional pricing.
STORY – CHAOTIC AND QUIRKY
Players are put into the role of an unseen “Mayor,” who has complete control over what buildings get placed and where they end up. This conceit isn’t going to be foreign to anyone that has ever played a SimCity or RollerCoaster Tycoon; you’re just a simple character, looking to create the greatest cities of all time.
The twist in Tinytopia is that buildings can be upgraded through specific arrangements and everything is shrunk down to exist on a coffee table. The premise for each level is different each time, bouncing between real-world places and absurd fantastical scenarios, which helps to keep the schtick interesting much longer than it should.
The balance between the more straightforward and the nonsensical levels is an important part of what makes this title work. Too much of one style would quickly become as repetitive as the gameplay, and there wouldn’t be any interesting creative situations to look forward to. From building casinos in the desert to balancing a town on a seesaw, the variety of challenges is important to the longevity of play.
To say that there’s more value to be found in one style of level or the other would be ridiculous, as they go hand-in-hand. Tinytopia wouldn’t work as well as it does if it was just a clear interpretation of a municipal planning tool. It needs silly ideas to balance out the chore of unlocking the Eiffel Tower.
On the other hand, I don’t think I could enjoy a game that was just about UFO crash sites and dinosaur parks. Basing roughly half of the game on real-world locations helps to ground the more outlandish conditions. Asking me to build a town on a spinning record player after assembling neighborhoods in San Francisco is a fun little treat, a neat break from the standard design work.
Fans of classic sandbox city-building will enjoy the variety of natural disasters available at your fingertips, even if it’s little more than an exercise in deploying emergency services. Setting up military defense turrets on top of apartment buildings feels strikingly dystopian in contrast with the delightful charm of the rest of the game, but at least your office space will be protected from a kaiju.
GAMEPLAY – GOAL-ORIENTED GAINS
The goal of each level is mostly the same. The main objective usually requires either achieving a population goal or constructing “Special Buildings” (which also require a population goal). Basically, you need to grow the city as best as you can with the scaled-down arsenal of resources that you have to work with. Oftentimes, there are only a few types of residences or businesses to choose from, and they don’t often provide very much in the way of jobs or citizens.
In order to prevent the landscapes from becoming a massive cluster of tiny houses, Tinytopia has an interesting merge mechanic that allows you to upgrade the buildings to gain better resources. Instead of having a ton of small apartment buildings, they will combine if placed adjacent to each other, expanding their effect and saving yourself some square footage.
This mechanic is incredibly easy to execute, just placing buildings will usually result in an upgrade. Hovering the cursor over a unit will show which other structures are necessary to level up, as well as indicate where the placement should be. It’s an easy-to-navigate system, and is, for the most part, conducive to a good time.
To be honest, the core loop gets tiring fairly quickly. Click, merge, click, merge, click, merge. It’s repetitive and there aren’t enough varied obstacles to overcome to finish a level. Sometimes I’d knock over a building and something might catch fire, but I was usually able to pick it up before the flames began. There isn’t a sense of agency in the destination-centered levels to hold my attention.
On the other hand, sometimes the premise of the absurd levels was just too much. Build a city on a record player as it spins? That’s fine for a one-off idea, but I wouldn’t be able to sit through an entire game built on that sort of conceit. As such, the ping-pong pace that we move from one fictional scenario to a location-based area means that I ended up discontent with half of the game.
Tinytopia is a smaller-scale city-builder in every sense. There aren’t deep menus to dive into that adjust the energy that your commercial district uses, it’s all about making silly and sloppy towers and structures with a hint of physics. It’s not blending Cities: Skylines with Bridge Constructor; there’s a snap-in-place button that you can toggle on to mitigate most building collapses.
Don’t misunderstand, I enjoyed my time with the game, but it came with a large understanding that this wasn’t going to be an intensive simulator. True to the aesthetic, it’s like a challenging toy puzzle, where you’ll finish up a section and feel good about your progress, but other times it’s just assembling together plain blue sky over and over again.
The variety of buildings kept things interesting, and the high points were certainly when I was tasked with building in a strange location. But it’s just not as satisfying to place the Statue of Liberty down as it is to construct a Lava Containment Wall. Understand, the low parts of the game pushed the peaks higher, but felt like a slog to get through.
Unfortunately, the mechanics of the UI and different tools contributed the most to my dissatisfaction. The “Move Object” tool became deselected every time I finished moving something, which meant I had to continue to go back and click the oversized bubble button every time. On moving levels, this became more of a hassle than ever, since I then chased objects all over the map as well as the interface just to accomplish a simple task.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – JUST TOO CUTE
Tinytopia looks you’re playing with a literal toy box (at least until the flames start). Each unit has a plastic finish that makes it look like a child’s construction set. The entire art direction is immensely delightful.
The outer area that surrounds your play space appears to be a living room or bedroom, covered in the discarded toys and general messes of youth. I’m a sucker for any game that lets me play in a scaled-up version of a childhood bedroom (Army Men, Katamari Damacy, etc.), so I wasn’t surprised that I loved how this title looked.
The soundtrack is full of mellow elevator music with hints of jazz. A simple swing beat dances across the drums while some filler bass and some different horns take turns on the lead, and it’s honestly really appealing. It’s almost like hearing your parents wait on hold while you played with your toys in the background. The sound design of the game is a wonderful throwback to days gone by.
TInytopia was reviewed on PC. A key was provided by Sandbox Strategies.