“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller
The words of a disenfranchised 1980s teenage slacker serve as a strangely accurate metaphor for most of Birthdays the Beginning. Your aim is to birth life, evolve it and create a unique eco-system by manipulating the temperature or humidity of the environment. Adding water or raising or lowering the temperature will provide the right conditions for one of 292 types of plants and animals to thrive, from the tiniest plankton in your primordial ooze to the Tyrannosaurus Rex and his Mesozoic mates, right the way through to modern(ish) man.
You begin your journey as a child, looking around in your grandfather’s book collection. Your investigations reveal a map marked with the location of a secret cave. Upon entering said cave, you are transported to another place in time and space where you begin your new career as a deity to a small and barren cube of land, floating in the endless void of the universe. You then control this world as a small, floating Avatar which looks distractedly like a jester in Power Rangers cosplay and are guided through by a Navi – a small, blue tetrahedron that looks a lot like one of Destiny‘s Ghosts – and together, you begin terraforming this strange, new world.
Birthdays the Beginning is broken down into episodes and these, in turn, revolve around that fairly superfluous story about a boy and a bookcase. Each episode takes you a little further along the evolutionary chain towards birthing mankind – but the journey there is a long one. To begin with, you’re taught the difference between “micro” and “macro” viewpoints. Micro allows you to tinker and tamper with the world to get things just how you want them before you add the “Broth of Life” to water and the “Seed of Life” to land. You’ll then switch to macro mode where you can unfreeze time and watch your creation come to life. Each time you make an alteration to the terrain, you use a little HP, which can be recovered by going to macro mode and leaving things be for a few millennia. You can also level up your Avatar by scanning your creations: click a new creation to scan it into your library and earn that sweet HP. In practice though, keeping track of new life once plants and animals have proliferated becomes a challenge that’s barely worth the effort. Even the map that is easy to follow early on quickly becomes more cluttered than the Metal Gear timeline (and almost as hard to decipher).
Modifying the terrain is done in a real bare-bones way; a single square at a time to begin with and then, as your cube grows, so too does the terrain editor. This works fine, but can make life difficult for perfectionists like me who like to have very neat and tidy landscapes. There’s also a levelling tool to use, but again, its just too restricted to allow you to modify things just how you’d like.
Get past this though and (after a good half-a-dozen hours or so) once you fully understand the physics and mechanics at work in Birthdays the Beginning, you can start to progress fairly quickly through some of the early stages. There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you scan a species you were tasked with birthing, too. Early on it’s easy to get disheartened when the world seems to just die off, the plants all disappear and you’re left with not much more than a now-deformed cuboid loafing around the universe, kicking its virtual heels; but redoubling your efforts will usually get you back on track after a few million years (thankfully, only around half an hour in real-time).
Birthdays the Beginning is a charmingly stylised game with cartoonish colours and bold shapes. This is one area where the game shines; the environment looks inviting, especially later on once you’ve gotten a good mix of lush greenery, arid desert and vast oceans, all of which you can fill with life from right across the spectrum from the first amphibians to the mighty wooly mammoths. Each species has a well-designed character model that fits perfectly with the art style of the game, and filling your cube with a wide variety is a worthwhile reward for your efforts.
To give an idea of the scale of Birthdays the Beginnings; the first episode sees you attempting to create plankton and algae so that other species will have a food source, before moving on to creating different varieties of seaweed. It doesn’t sound all that exciting – and to be honest, quite often it isn’t. It can also be pretty frustrating when you create a species that soon goes extinct for no discernible reason. Sometimes a predator will eat it, which makes sense, but watching a forest disappear when the humidity, air temperature and surrounding environment has remained unchanged is incredibly disheartening.
However, sometimes you have to go back to move forward. The extinction of one established species can allow another species to grow in its place. You can keep on top of this by using the “Life News” ticker on the right side of your screen, which tracks the status of each species. It also shows your global statistics like the overall temperature, the percentage of plants/animals and percentage of land/water, but given how many species die off before coming back to life, it didn’t seem to be much use in practice.
Functions that might have been more useful would be the option to restart an episode, or even a rewind function. It’s all too easy to inadvertently perform the wrong action, such as cooling the world down, rather than warming it, killing off your dinosaurs and ending up with a barren rock rather than a bustling biome. The trouble here is it can take an age for life to re-establish itself and even longer to evolve to the stage you need to be at. This was further compounded by an unreliable save mechanic that twice told me it had saved my game, but left no trace of it for me to load upon my return, losing me hours of gameplay both times.
There were also issues early on with the confusing control scheme. At times, performing certain actions is hideously unintuitive with convoluted menus to navigate just to use a single item. Sure, it becomes far easier to use as you become little more practiced, but it will undoubtedly cause a few headaches early on. This isn’t the only confusing element either, as sometimes your objectives aren’t particularly clear, requiring a bit of detective work to figure out what you need to do. For instance your objective might say to birth a particular species and you’ll meet all of the parameters you are given – but it fails to mention you need to have evolved one or two other species first. I lost several hours due to this as I attempted to manipulate the environment in various ways, but once I eventually realised what was going on, I solved it within a few minutes, which was very bittersweet.
I’m tempted to describe the entirety of Birthdays the Beginning as ‘bittersweet’, actually; it’s equal parts massively addictive yet horrendously frustrating, but it somehow manages to always provide an enjoyable challenge. Despite the exasperation that comes with seeing a species become extinct, the game never feels impossible, and when you do reach your goals it’s pretty satisfying. It’s just a shame several minor issues hold it back from being more than just “good”. Whether it’s trying to find a lost save, figuring out an unclear objective or to getting to grips with the controls, it feels like there’s always something standing in the way of your enjoyment. Sure, I had fun evolving hundreds of species of plants and animals, but having to play the same sections over and over became tiresome. Still, for its mid price point, there’s a lot to enjoy thanks to its unique concept. If you’re heavily into sims or enjoy games that try new things, Birthdays the Beginning is worthy of your attention.