Populous DS
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-01-09 Nintendo DS Strategy E10 (Everyone 10+) XSeed Games / EA

For all of the praise the Populous franchise has received over the years, I found myself expecting a grand experience when the franchise finally made its way to the DS. And while the title does offer a fairly intuitive take on the real-time-strategy genre, with all of the advancements made within said genre since Populous first debuted almost 20 years ago, the move to the DS may have been too little too late in terms of the universe's overall competition with the Civilizations and Ages of Empires, among others, of the gaming world.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of Populous, the game places you in the role of a God that enters (normally) one-on-one battles with other Gods (with each God representing a different element: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Harvest), as they vie for domination over various plots of lands, via the use of their many worshipers.

Gameplay is actually a lot simpler than the description of its gameplay may let on. The top screen presents a pixilated view of the continent within each level, with your worshipers being presented in one color, while your enemies are another. The touch screen contains a grid-layout view of the same section of the continent, minus the actual buildings, trees, rocks, etc. that can be seen on the top screen. Instead, rocks are represented on the touch screen as white squares, lava as orange squares, etc., while villagers are small dots, allowing the bottom screen to remain as uncluttered as possible.

Both screens are presented in an isometric view; that is, the land comes to a point in the center of the bottommost portion of the screen, which creates space on either side of the land for various menu options such as worshiper commands and miracles.

Depending on which element your God represents, these miracles can range from earthquakes and tornadoes that strike your enemy's land, or can actually help your own worshipers by creating warriors or moving your land's Symbol, the village's physical representation of their God (you), which allows you to draw your worshipers to it in order to more easily control them in mass.

Aside from using the Symbol for worshiper movement, you are also given four basic commands with which you can control the majority of your followers' actions. The default command is "Build", which, as the name suggests, has your worshipers building homes within which they can live. Once inside their homes, they regain their energy and offer you praise, adding to your Psyche Energy, which must be used to perform any miracles you may have within your arsenal.

Other options include "Gather", which force your worshipers to gather around the Symbol, "Battle", which causes a violent streak in your worshipers, who will then attack enemy villagers, and "Unite", which merges villagers with each other, combining both their strengths, resulting in a stronger worshiper that can do more damage without dying from exhaustion.

However, the most common task you will be undertaking within the game is landscaping, which allows you to raise or lower land (including land presently underwater) to any height you desire. Since homes may only be built on flat surfaces, you're sure to spend the majority of your time creating flat plains on which your villages will expand.

At the end of each battle, Armageddon will strike the land (which can also be triggered early, if you so choose), causing every villager (friend and enemy alike) to converge in the center of the continent. Villagers unite with each other to create stronger warriors, and the side with a villager left standing when all is said and done is declared the winner.

All of that being said, you are hardly omnipotent, and lack almost entirely in the way of more complex commands that would result in heightened strategy being brought to the title. For instance, you are unable to choose exactly where villagers place their homes, which removes your ability to place them in clusters or vice versa, place them near the divider between you and your enemies land or vice versa, and so on.

In fact, the only way to manually choose where homes are located (and I use the word "choose" lightly) is to create a mountain range or valley covering the extent of your land that you wish not be used. But even then, you are not guaranteed to know which exact square your worshipers will eventually settle on.

Furthermore, your villager movements are controlled in an "all or nothing" fashion, meaning that you must choose one task to be undertaken by all of your worshipers simultaneously. While this provides a certain ease in terms of controls, it also forces you to wait motionless for minutes at a time while your villagers rest in their homes until they can return to their previous actions. Needless to say, being able to individually command each worshiper (or perhaps even small groups of villagers) at once would have been an appreciated option.

In addition, the reaction time of your villagers is quite slow. After changing the overall command from Build to Battle, for instance, most villagers will happily continue on with their construction habits for a matter of 15 seconds or more, until they finally decide to head in the direction of the enemy. And while 15 seconds may not seem like a lot on paper, when each battle is timed, 15 seconds can make or break your chance at victory.

Luckily, the game does contain a bit of an escape from the flaws presented by the single player campaign by offering up to four player multi-card play, which gives destructive miracles much more meaning when destroying a friend's hard work than when fighting an AI opponent.

The title's disappointing, even mundane gameplay is helped little by the graphics. If described in one word, that word would be shrunken. Small font on the game's menu screens, miniscule villagers lacking entirely in distinguishing characteristics, small menu buttons that must be tapped two or even three times before they correctly respond, and the list goes on.

While each battlefield contains a unique theme, like a fairytale world that resembles the look of Alice in Wonderland, and an "8-bit Plain" that contains various Nintendo released consoles as buildings and other decorations, the overall village design is creative, which is appreciated, but even then, the game's "small" theme strikes here as well, eliminating a large portion of the detail that one may desire to see.

One beacon of light comes in the game's sound department, which is pleasing to the ear, and even contains a bit of humor in the game's presentation of "Ode to Joy", which plays during Armageddon sequences. A clich??d touch to say the least, but strangely fits the theme of the game.

In the end, I'm sad to say that my experience with Populous DS was far less enjoyable than I anticipated. To put it bluntly, the entire experience is quite trite and far too repetitive to be enjoyed in long sittings. Only diehard fans of either the franchise or the RTS genre should give this one a second glance.

Special thanks to Sarah Irvin and XSeed for providing a copy of this game.