I started reviewing games to help people uncover those small innovative gems that would otherwise go unnoticed and at the same time help steer readers away from titles that just aren’t worth their time. Birthdays the Beginning is a game that miraculously falls in both these categories at the same time.
From its first trailer Birthdays the Beginning had me hooked. Made by the creator of Harvest Moon, Yasuhiro Wada, it showed off amazingly cute visuals with an almost blocky world not unlike Minecraft. The promise of creating your very own miniature world and helping life grow from the birth of the first colony of Stromatolites to the modern human civilization is an alluring one. Its just unfortunate that the real game, while charming, lacks any real substance.
The story is as barebones as it gets and it will leave you scratching your head by the end. Between each of the game’s four chapters you get a minute or two of visual novel-like sequences. After you enter a cave you end up being guided by the mysterious cube like creature called Navi. You are trapped in a cube and it is up to you to help Navi create a habitable place for a plethora of organisms before it sends you back home. The story was definitely here just to glue the game’s four main chapters together somehow.
After giving birth to the first lifeform, the Stromatolite, via a magic drop, evolution will be a natural occurrence. At the very beginning you only have two options: raising and lowering the terrain in your cube. Raising hills drops the temperature, while digging holes increases it. But before long you will be able to create rivers, mountains and even life at the press of a button.
Aside from temperature you will have to pay attention to the elevation, moisture and other species in a region. Different lifeforms need different conditions. The game has an absolutely massive number of species and outside a few UMAs, the game stays true to the evolution tree. You will see everything from sea creatures, to plants, to dinosaurs and various mammals, and it is almost always exciting finding out what your little world has given birth to next.
The story mode is very linear, tasking you to create more and more evolved creatures in a very specific order. In one instance I managed to evolve dinosaurs but the game insisted on me birthing a creature already extinct for millions of years. I was forced to make the whole world uninhabitable effectively devolving life in order to be allowed to proceed. In order to do any of this you have to drastically raise or lower temperatures and early on your only option is to decimate your carefully crafted land with bottomless pits and towering mountains.
Instead of seeing thousands of creatures, big and small, roaming your intricately crafted land, what you get is just a few of each species scattered throughout your giant cube. Hovering above one of these indicates how many of this species exists in the cube. The rise and fall in the population ends up being little more than a number represented in the menu.
This trend of being a passive observer applies to every aspect of the game. Birthdays the Beginning is effectively paused as you landscape the cube and it is not until you zoom out and fast forward that anything actually changes. You don’t get to see tribes of humans grouping together and hunting down a mammoth. You never witness the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a mouse across a scorching valley. Instead all you get is the animals, all standing in place and periodically munching on some juicy manga meat.
For a short 5-6-hour story mode the repetition starts to set in fairly early on. You will loop between raising the temperature, lowering it and quickly capturing any life before it goes extinct. Capturing unfortunately serves no purpose other than logging all the animals you have discovered.
As you progress through the game’s short campaign you will unlock 10 distinct challenges. These give you very specific requirements and constraints such as having both dinosaurs and modern humans coexist. It puts you up to the test, forcing you to make use of everything you have learned up until that point.
Finally, by completing the campaign you unlock Free mode, which lets you load or create an entirely new cube without any restrictions other than your imagination.
My first playthrough was cut short when a day later I realized the game made no attempt to save any of my progress, forcing me to start over from the beginning. What’s even worse is the fact that the game constantly notified me it was auto saving, however later I found out this was in fact only for intermediate records and options rather than any actual game data.
Despite its flaws the game would be bearable if not for the absolutely infuriating and unintuitive controls you will be wrestling through your whole playthrough. On PlayStation 4 the triangle button takes you to and from the micro and macro screen, but only when you are not in the first person mode, then it does nothing. The X opens the inventory and square uses the highlighted item unless your inventory is accidentally closed and then it uses up an item in the quick item slot. And even the most simplistic actions such as raising and lowering terrain can be a test in frustration as you battle the control scheme in order to position your avatar in the exact spot you want.
Using the first person camera is a disaster. What would otherwise be an interesting perspective on your very own world ends up being a fiddly mess. Like your typical first person games you move using the left analog and point your camera using the right stick. However, you have no precise analog control over the direction you are facing. Instead, you are either turning too slow when moving or uncontrollably flinging the camera left and right when dashing.
For every novel aspect the game brings to the table it fumbles in delivering a meaningful and engaging experience. It is interesting to experiment around with the massive number of species and create a beautiful world but it all becomes repetitive rather quickly. Considering that the developers already planned out a sequel we can only hope they will be able iron out its issues and add everything they initially wanted.