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Populous DS brings the best of Bulfrog from the early 90's. Whilst being well engineered and honed for Nintendo's popular handheld, there is no hiding the fact that this is a re-issue rather than a re-imagining.
I still remember the trip to the store as a teenager to buy the original Populous. Back then, its GBP20 price tag represented a few months pocket money. Getting the game home and playing it for the first time was a revelation. If the gaming world hadn't heard of Peter Molyneux beforehand, this was both an impressive introduction and a sketch of a path that would lead to the likes of Black and White and Fable. These games, like Populous itself focus around the players ability to influence rather than control the world in which they played.
Populous on DS is in itself an exciting proposition. A trip down memory lane for sure, but also much more. The DS hasn't really had a tour de force real time strategy as yet. A various collection of poor conversations or ill-conceived original attempts have so far failed to hit the nail on the head. Perhaps Populous is the game to crack it.
As the action kicks off, players of the original will be aware that this is a recreation of Populous 2. The second outing for the franchise delivered updated visuals, a wider variety of God powers and a range of adversaries. It is probably the best game in the series to take across to the DS, offering these enhanced features without the demands of the vector graphics from subsequent games (like Populous: The Beginning) that would require too much horsepower.
The game is targeted at a fresh set of God sim players, rather than the older set.
The game is targeted at a fresh set of God sim players, rather than the older set. This is evidenced by the thorough tutorial stages that ensure you understand each aspect of the game. For me, this was a little laboured as it retraced techniques I had already leant first time around. Good to include for newcomers, although why not let experienced players skip through it?
Once you have the half hour tutorial out the way you can start working through the challenges. As with the original this slowly opens up the different God abilities and characters, and encourages you to inventively combine them to thwart your enemies.
The main difference this time around is that the action is split across the two screens. The lower is used to interact with a wire frame version of the world, while the upper renders the familiar fixed isometric pixel visuals . This works well, and avoids the problematic screen clutter strategy DS games often suffer from - like the dense renderings of Age of Empires DS.
The stylus is used in place of a mouse and easily enables you to click through menus. Raising and lower the ground - a key component of the game - is thankfully simplified with a drag up/down to raise/lower terra firma. This means that in one action you can raise a three story hill, shrink it down to sea level and fill in the hole in the middle to create tidy nine-square plot on which your people to build.
Although the mechanics work well, there is a disconnected feel between the tapping and results. As was true of Sim City DS, the game seems to sacrifice responsiveness in favour of the game engine. There is a slight delay between touching the screen and seeing the result. It's a minor point, but one that grates over extended play.
There is no denying that the sensible use of the both screens and the stylus land deformation work a treat.
In addition to the main storied levels, you can play a random battle setup to your tastes, or challenge other players locally to a cart shared multiplayer. Back in the days of the original Populous it was a major undertaking to link up two computers for multiplayer action - involving the lugging of monitors and hardware across town and the acquisition of null-modem cables and fiddling with baud rates. Therefore, to be able to play against human competitors so easily is a real boon.
And this multiplayer aspect is where the game shines. There is nothing quite like erupting a volcano in the middle of a real player's village, or drowning a hapless member of their populous that has wondered off base. This drowning is still a lot of fun - simply keep removing the land from under their feet until l they run out of energy and sink to their doom, mwah ha ha.
The games does its best to work around the limitations of the DS. Sacrifices have had to be made however, both in performance and graphical detail. There is no denying that the sensible use of the both screens and the stylus land deformation work a treat. But the compromises in other areas dampen what could have been a really exciting experience.
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