By Benny Carrillo / May 5th, 2017
|Title||Birthdays the Beginning|
|Developer||Arc System Works, Toybox|
|Release Date||May 9, 2017 (US), May 12, 2017 (EU)|
|Genre||Sandbox, God Game|
|Platform||PlayStation 4, Steam|
The origin of life is something I think many of us find fascinating. Whether you believe that we were placed here by a divine creator or that life on Earth developed over the course of billions of years, the origins of life itself captivates many of us. We all had to come from somewhere, after all. Well, leave it to Yasuhiro Wada, the legendary creator of Harvest Moon, to think up a game about this concept. Enter Birthdays the Beginning, which allows you to create and foster life on a cube by influencing the environment of the world. The question remains though, is this just as revolutionary as Harvest Moon or are the origins of life just too complex to simplify into a game? Let’s take a look.
Birthdays the Beginning is a simulation of the evolutionary process of life on Earth. Charged with assisting a small diamond shaped being named Navi, you’re placed in charge of a cube of land. From this land, you will carve mighty mountains, create vast oceans, and fine-tune the environment in hopes of recreating the various evolutionary changes that occurred on our Earth.
The backstory is pretty simple. You like to read, and one day while reading through some books you stumble upon a map and follow it to a cave. Inside said cave, you enter another world and meet Navi who names you its chosen one and asks for your help to develop the cube and recreate civilization. I have to admit; the framing device of the cave reminds me quite a bit of Super Mario Bros. 2’s opening. However, this really is just a framing device. This is not a story driven game so don’t expect any complex plot here. The “story” is really the story of life and its creation rather than an explicit conflict. Which is perfectly fine, not every game needs to be a Tales game or Super Robot Wars. However, all games need some music and sound effects. How does Birthdays measure up in that department?
The music of Birthdays the Beginning is ok, but it pretty much exists for atmosphere. This isn’t a game whose soundtrack is going to get your heart pumping. Instead, it’s meant to soothe and relax you as you try to cultivate the environment of the cube. One major exception is the title theme, however, which just sounds awe-inspiring and wondrous. Seriously, just sit on the title screen and let it play it and you’ll see what I mean. Moving on to sound effects, they are really well done.
Nothing sounds jarring and everything fits. What I really like though are the animal noises. During the game, you can go into a first-person view to explore and find new creatures. It’s in this view where you can get up close and personal with the various animals. While you can’t interact with them, the game does have audio clips of roars, monkey noises, and ducks that will play when you’re close to the animal in question. It’s a nice touch that makes them feel more alive. Animal sounds won’t do much if they animals don’t look convincing, so let’s talk about graphics next.
Graphically, I really like Birthdays the Beginning. The colors are all bright and cheery, the animals adorable, and even your avatar looks neat. Really it reminds me of something out of either Ultraman or Kamen Rider with the eyes and cape. It’s a fitting design touch to have your character look like a superhero as you often do feel like one due to the trials the game puts you through. The animal animations are simple but effective. While the animals don’t interact with each other, they sometimes will unintentionally seem to interact due to the animations that play. Such as a couple of dinosaurs which go through their eating animation at the same time. The only possible downside to animals and plants is that there is a lot of recoloring of models going on. However, in the game’s defense, it is trying to model the ecosystem of an entire planet. Creating individual models for each species would just be a monumental task in what is already a very ambitious game. Especially when you consider how good the world looks.
We’ll touch upon gameplay in a second, but I do want to highlight how easy it can be to mold the world around you. Using the in-game tools, you can raise and lower land to create mountains and valleys. Because the game is cube-based, you’d think that everything would come off looking very blocky. While technically true, the game’s art style tends to mask this fact and instead you can get some pretty impressive looking terrain. It’s one of the things I really like about the game as I can imagine it took a long time to get right. This brings us to the other thing I really like, which is the concept of the gameplay.
As I mentioned, the purpose of Birthdays the Beginning is to create life and foster it until it evolves into modern humans. This means you’ll have to oversee the process from the stages of single cell organisms, all the way to the dinosaurs and then into mammals. The way this is done is by manipulating the environment around you. The key metric that the game uses to determine this is temperature.
Controlling the temperature of the world is simple. The more water present and the closer to the highest point on the map it is, the hotter it’ll become. Likewise, the more land there is and the higher that land is, the cooler it becomes. Basically, everything relies on the water-to-land ratio. Maintaining the temperature is only one part of the equation, however.
In addition to temperature, you also must keep an eye on the height of certain sections of land, its temperature, the moisture of the ground, and what other organisms have already been born. For example, Stromatolite (the first thing you have a hand in birthing) requires titles in the shallows (1-3 height levels below sea-level) and a temperature between 38C and 53C. Canis lupus meanwhile requires a land tile, a temperature between 12C and 18C, between 10% and 64% moisture on those land tiles, and requires you already birthed Scombrini (which is a fish). As you can see, despite being simple of the surface, it’s quite a complex system. Made even more complex when things don’t go quite right.
One of the problems I had was unlocking Diphydon, which is a key species to begin the development of mammals. Despite meeting the conditions in the game, I couldn’t get Diphydon to appear. I ended up restarting my file to try again from scratch to no avail. Either the Random-Number Goddess just didn’t like me or, what I suspect, is that there’s some land requirement I hadn’t met yet. The description of the creature mentions “hot grasslands” however try as I might to create more grass it never unlocked. Thankfully the game does have a way around this through the use of items.
You’ll gain access to various items over the course of the game. Some will be handed out to you and others you can just collect on the map as you fly around. These range from HP restoring items, to weather affecting items, to my saving grace: The Seed of Evolution. Using this, I was able to force Diphydon to appear and continue my game. However, doing this does affect your rank at the end of the episode.
The main campaign is divided into four episodes. While that may seem light, you can easily spend 10 hours just trying to critical path the game. At the end of each episode, you’re assigned a star ranking depending on how well you did. These including clearing the episode, capturing a 9-star organism, capturing all organisms available in that episode, clearing the episode under 5,000,000 C.Y. (Cube Years), and not using a Seed of Evolution. This challenges you to come back and play again and again to clear each episode with a 5-star rating. However, you can’t just start up a game at the beginning of an episode. You either start from episode 1 or you must load a save. In addition, this game does not auto-save. I find this a bit puzzling. On one hand, I get that it could lead to the player relying on the auto-save and getting into a position where you can’t progress (as I did, when I killed off a good portion of animal life while trying to unlock Diphydon), but the lack of auto-save means a lot of hard work can be wasted if you forget to save. So, this goes double for this game “Save Early, Save Often”. With the basics of gameplay done let’s cover the controls before wrapping up.
The controls for Birthdays the Beginning are simple. The game alternates between two modes, Micro and Macro. In Macro mode, you pass time and can use some items to affect the environment. The controls here are all simple button presses. Micro mode, meanwhile, sends you down to the cube where you can fly around and sculpt the land as you see fit. One of my favorite things in this game is flying around while on the overworld. Moving around is simple enough, but hold down L2 and you’ll start zipping around at a much quicker pace. It’s kind of odd to say this, but I found this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. There was just something innately satisfying about how I could cross from one side of the cube to the other in a matter of moments. Micro mode though also allows you to cultivate the land, as I mentioned.
Pressing R1 will raise land and pressing R2 will lower it. As you can image doing this for each individual tile would be time-consuming, especially on later maps, which are enormous. By pressing left or right on the D-pad you can change your cursor into a larger one so you can manipulate a larger area. You don’t get these from the start however, you earn them by leveling up. Leveling up serves two purposes. Higher levels give you access to better cursors and increases your HP. HP is important as it costs 1 HP to manipulate 1 tile (so a 3×3 selection would cost 9 HP to move up or down one level) and it also costs HP to fast-forward time in Macro mode. There’s no penalty for running out of HP, you’ll just need to return to Macro mode to recover for a bit, but more HP means you can do more work. So how do you level up? You birth and then capture data about the creatures on your cube.
Capturing data about creatures is your ultimate end goal. This means you need to birth new life by altering the world and then track it down. This is where things start to really fall apart for me as I have some issues with the controls. The first one is more of a minor complaint, but it’s such an oversight I’m kind of surprised. And that’s the lack of a “1-by-X” selection tool.
All too often I found myself trying to level out certain cliffs or fine tune land masses. Unfortunately, this means a lot of the time I had to sit there and grab each tile individually to move it. When you’re trying to move a 1×6 land section down 10 levels to create a “Deep Sea” area, this gets a bit tedious. Still, that’s more of an inconvenience and a bit of OCD on my end. No, where I really take issue is the capturing of lifeforms.
Capturing lifeforms is an effortless process in theory. Move your cursor onto the tile it resides in, press the touchpad and capture done. In practice, this works as advertised during the early game. As the world gets bigger though, this can be a nightmare, especially regarding plants. To help, you can press L3 to enter a first-person view. This clears your mini-map of any dots except new lifeforms that you haven’t captured yet. The idea here is to allow the player to quickly find new life and get its data. However, because there’s no indicator on the world as to what’s new and what’s not, this can lead to you basically looking for a needle in a haystack as you try desperately to find that new lifeform. This happened to me a lot with plants since they don’t move and the models are recolored several times so you start to lose track of what you’ve already seen. Really all that was needed to avert this was to have the new organism sparkle or something until it was captured. We don’t need a neon sign, but some help would have made things less frustrating. The worst though was the controls in first-person.
The first-person controls in this game make sense when you think about it. Like in any game, you are moving on a 2D plane. Forward moves you forward on this plane, while back moves you back, etc. The problem is that your character is airborne and your cursor exists under you. This means when you’re trying to place the cursor on that new lifeform you need to look down to check your position. Well moving forward in this state has you basically dive. The reason being is that you are now looking at the ground and your “forward” would have you move towards the ground. Basically, there’s no way to naturally strafe the ground and check your cursor. The game does give you an “Ascend” and “Descend” button in this mode with R1 and R2, however, it’s clunky at best and I found myself constantly switching between third-person for proper movement and just using the first-person mode to check if I was in the area of a new lifeform. This by far was the most frustrating thing in the game for me. Movement should not be difficult. That all said, let’s wrap this up.
Birthdays the Beginning is an ambitious project by an ambitious man. It sets out to do for evolutionary science what Harvest Moon did for farming. The concept is amazing and the amount of research, love, and dedication this took must have been immense. You have a game here that really could be used as a science lesson or as part of school curriculum. Heck, I can see this being used for reports and I wish I had something like this when I was growing up. Birthdays the Beginning has a ton of potential. The problems really lie in the execution of things rather than the concept.
The controls are the big issue, but even barring that, there’s the issue of feeling lost and communicating what a player may need to do in order unlock certain creatures. A little more in-depth help there would have been appreciated. That said, there is a lot to love if you like world-building games like this. I was able to clear the main campaign in about 20 hours (with two restarts). Once you clear it you unlock free mode which allows you to either continue your file or start a new world using various cube sizes, including the appropriately named “huge” size. In addition, I did not get even remotely close to unlocking the entire lifeform tree. There is still a ton I could do. Add to that a challenge mode which has you clear maps with special conditions and there is a lot of value for $39.99. To summarize, Birthdays the Beginning is what you make of it. It can be a short and simple game or it can be an epic where you try to catalog the origins of life itself. That decision is in your hands.
Arc System WorksBirthdays The BeginningGod GameNIS AmericaPS4sandboxSteamToyboxYasuhiro Wada