Before Peter Molyneux was busy innovating (and breaking promises) with his Black and White and Fable series, Bullfrog Productions made a highly innovative early entry in the genre now known as the god game. That game was Populous. This title was well-received by gamers for its addictive gameplay and fresh concept and thus was promptly ported to many numbers of consoles and computers. Personally, I played the Genesis version back in the day as the cart supported the Mega Mouse that gave me the quick, original control style of the PC but, you know, without DOS prompts, resolution problems, and incompatibility issues. Luckily the almost long-forgotten series has a new entry with an even better PC-like interface with the touch screen controls found in Populous DS.
Longtime fans of the series will relish the fact that the new game has retained the same gameplay that made the original so addictive. For those of you that don’t know, a god game consists of the player taking the role of a deity and influencing, not directly controlling, the actions of your worshippers. Fans of the more known games Actraiser and Darwinia know this format well. The gameplay mainly consists of the player accommodating the needs of his worshippers: this case being their need for flat land for building homes and to compete with worshippers of other gods/demons for that land. Your faithful citizens will then pay you back in spirit (more on that later). You may not think that making land flat is very fun but steamrolling the mountainous landscapes has an addictive if somewhat obsessive compulsive satisfying feel to it as your worshippers’ houses grow into castles the more acreage you give them to work with.
Battles follow an interesting format as you can only suggest to your followers what you’d like them to do. All you can do is tell your people to strengthen each other and have them convene at a certain point that they may get distracted on the way towards. Though, many times I’ve played and my men took care of battling the enemies all on their own while I concentrated on landscape. This sort of crap shoot is what makes the Populous games so much fun.
Your job as a god is to give your people the best chance of winning the map as you cannot to hold their hand through it. This gameplay choice really emulates the idea of free will that many religions have, allowing the player to truly feel what it must be like to be a god, frustrated sometimes and pleasantly surprised other times. Of course, you can also flex your godly muscles and use your hard-earned spirit to throw down some disasters (ala floods, meteors, swamps, etc.) to directly attack your opponents and support your own troops with miracles such as stat boosting spells.
What comes with this philosophically charged gameplay, comes a great sense of humor that Populous has always had. Even in Populous DS, when followers engage in battle, they have a decidedly low-tech slap fight, accompanied by little bonks and metal clanks, until one of the combatants perishes. Furthermore, when time runs out on a map or if one of the deities has enough spirit, the game falls into Ragnarok mode where everyone on the map gathers at a central location in an ultimate slap fight brawl (all hilariously to the tune Ode to Joy early in this DS iteration).
Populous DS makes the game more accessible by providing a story mode that teaches the player the intricacies of the gameplay. In fact, the story mode follows the current trend of games where the story mainly serves as the training for multi-player, challenge formatted, and user generated content found in other modes (see Gears of War 2, Mirror’s Edge, and Bangai-O Spirits respectively). The debate over whether this story mode format works is hotly debated by gamers, but I think with Populous DS it works. The original games never had much of a story to begin with and had no tutorial to speak of so this one’s an improvement. The story mode furthermore gives the player incentives to play by allowing them to unlock more modes and other gods to play as with their own element based miracles and weaknesses.
Multi-player is the meat of the game, though, and you can play up to four players. RTS pros may find the micromanaging too simplistic but I found that the leveling mechanic to be fun enough to want to do it well and quickly especially when your friends are doing the same. Your friends will try to hinder you as you accomplish this task and vice versa, while you exploit their gods’ elemental weaknesses and destroy their leveling work with landscape volcanoes and such, prompting your buddy to punch you in the arm.
In the end, Populous DS does not make ripples in the classic series, it just reintroduces it for the gamers of today with a new coat of pain on a new system. Sure, they’ve mixed up the formula a little bit but the core game is largely unchanged, perhaps to the chagrin or glee of series veterans depending on their outlook. The mechanics, though, are fun, easy to learn, and addictive as in the first iteration, perfect for a gaming party of godly proportions today.
Images courtesy of XSEED.