Review: Craft new life in Birthdays: The Beginning

Part-puzzle, part-sandbox, Birthdays: The Beginning is a throwback to the quirky creativity of the Dreamcast era. It looks like a cross between Wetrix and Minecraft, but it plays like neither; it has more in common with Black & White, Seventh Cross: Evolution or even mobile hit Alchemy. Together, it’s really nothing like anything we’ve played before.

In the game, you’ll cause “birthdays,” or emergences of new species, by controlling the environment in a cube-shaped world. You start with the beginning of microscopic ocean life and work your way up to modern humanity, but you do so by adjusting things here and there. Temperature. Location and depth of water. Relative moisture and abundance of nearby life. These things boil down to hard numbers, with specific stated objectives for the next milestone discovery and hidden ones for lots of other creatures and plants along the way.

Behind all its numbers, Birthdays builds connections between players and the worlds they create.

Still, behind all its numbers, Birthdays builds connections between players and the worlds they create. Never giving all the control over, it makes you feel like a collaborator rather than an overlord, and you cheer on life as it develops. As you wander around your domain, time is stopped; you must exit to advance to new eras. As a result, there’s no pressure when you wander around, checking in on your favorite little friends and collecting randomly-spawning items to encourage them to evolve and mutate into new forms. The “mutated” forms often are practically palette swaps, but each one gives you experience points to increase the potency of your avatar’s abilities, and the visual design is adorably clean. (And hey: I want to collect all of the monkey colors.)

For those who are compulsive about completing the next goal, Birthdays can feel a bit at odds with itself. It’s fairly simple to move forward, and you’ll see the credits before long if you barrel ahead, skipping the bulk of the game’s enjoyment. If you take the time to meander, though, it’s a lot more rewarding. It’s a sort of dynamic we’ve seen before from the game’s lead designer, Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada: a relaxing world occasionally disrupted by a compulsion to sprint to the finish line. Still, though, even those looking simply to beat the game should explore: some truly useful items may appear well above or below you.

The Free Mode option unlocks after completing the story, and we wonder whether the game would’ve been better off presenting this as the main mode. Here, you’re free to build and push for mutated creatures without the “story” or various objectives getting in the way. The game provides a full tree of possible life, giving you creatures to work toward if you wish, and it’s this creation of your own objectives that feels most natural. You can also just build worlds you like and see what life develops there for a more passive, architectural approach.

It feels like Birthdays can’t decide whether it’s a PC game or a console game, with interfaces not always ideal for the controller. With item management functions assigned to the D-pad, movement remains on the analog stick. It’s usually fine, but precision movement to get in the exact square as a creature can be tough. It helps to align the camera at a good angle and move it to a top-down position, but that really shouldn’t have to be necessary.

Birthdays gives players the joy of discovery, letting them shape worlds and watch them grow.

You’re also going to want to stay relatively top-down to preserve the game’s frame rate, which dips precipitously in side views as your cube expands and gets more crowded. It’s not an action game, so it doesn’t lose any playability here, but for a game built around pleasantly viewing your creations, it helps if viewing your creations is more pleasant. The rest of the presentation generally gets out of the way, which is nice; it’s not a given that all the text is always legible or that a sound effect or two doesn’t repeat to the point of questionable sanity, but all’s well here.

Birthdays gives players the joy of discovery, letting them shape worlds and watch them grow. It’s not a typical game and doesn’t fit into those looking for a traditional experience, and there are certainly times when its aspirations exceed its grasp. Still, if there’s anything to learn from the game, it’s that evolution, and going where those before you simply haven’t, is rewarding even when it isn’t always strictly better.

Score: 7/10
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: May 9, 2016
Developer: Toybox / Arc System Works
Platform(s): PS4, PC
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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