Birthdays the Beginning might not be what you are expecting. While screenshots flaunt a menagerie of adorable, polygonal animals and the game’s pedigree reveals that it was designed by Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, gameplay largely shirks the disciplined approach that’s customary for most of the industry’s recreational titles. Instead, Birthdays is more of an autonomous sandbox which strives to unite the tenets of Shintoism and evolutionary theory in an accessible, lighthearted way. Hopefully, those lofty ambitions are able to find an audience, as there is something profound to be discovered within the game’s ecosystems.
Wada’s Harvest Moon games took a breezy approach to agrarian simulation. You’d plow the land, plant seeds, if you gave your crops a regular watering, you could reap enough of a profit to begin the cycle anew. Sure, there were a few variables to watch out for- with severe weather conditions affecting your livestock or blowing a few crops away. But largely, these were minor obstacles that would merely slow your aspirations of courtship. As such, shifting from an overall-clad farmer to almighty deity only has the slightest of similarity, with a focus on the land the only unifying element of both experiences.
Step into Birthdays’ tutorial, and you’ll discover that the title puts restraint on your divine powers. Mainly, you’ll be raising and lowering the earth, etching pools of water as you dig beneath sea level and crafting craggy mountains as you drive skyward. Naturally, each shift has an effect on the smallish square parcel you’re given to experiment with, with digging raising the temperature and any elevations cooling things down. Additionally, the ratio of land to ocean in your environment also affects the humidity level, extending yet another variable to monitor. At this point, it’s hard not to appreciate Birthday’s lesson in systems theory, with the game demurely demonstrating how even a minute change will affect the larger picture.
Once the proper pre-conditions are met, life miraculously emerges in your microcosm. Just don’t expect the cuddly panda or fluffy wolf right out the gate. Instead, life begins with single-celled plankton that with a bit of ecological noodling might just turn into a phytoplankton, with the game celebrating the creation of each new life form across on on-screen sidebar. Since Darwinism is best viewed across millennia rather than by each minute, Birthdays the Beginning transfers between a trio of perspectives. The first is a closeup point-of-view extended when you’re fiddling around with your biosphere. Here, you can also dive into first-person mode, cataloging new species and earning rewards that assist your evolutionary endeavors. The third perspective pulls the camera back, rotating the ecosystem, as centuries are reduced into micro-seconds.
But, as Birthdays teaches us, life doesn’t just prosper on its own. Instead, you’ll meticulously prune your world with the precision of a bonsai gardener. Sea sizes and temperatures must be tweaked to foster the cultivation of species- and when reptiles emerge you’ll have another set of variables to deal with. Naturally, interdependence hangs over the whole affair, and you’ll discover how quickly a species can become extinct when a diminutive change wipes out their food supply. It’s here that the title imparts important warnings without ever being overt. There’s truly a sense of loss when you inadvertently wreck a habitat and thus, instigating the demise of an entire group of creatures.
Masterfully, these moments seem less like lessons and more like poignant moments that are all part of Wada’s plotting. One of Shinto’s tenets- that beauty exists in every part of nature, from human, fauna, flora, and mineral is expressed elegantly, without the slightest hint of preachiness. While Birthdays might lack a scripted storyline, the narratives it imparts are poignant, enduring longer than the oft-contrived emotions nurtured by most titles.
Although the concept is absorbing and capable of producing sentiment, some elements of Birthdays might not sit well with players. The title’s control scheme isn’t immediately intuitive and can be fiddly. While this should be too much of a problem for a deliberately paced title, I accidently squandered more power-ups that I’d like to admit. The other transgression is rooted in the concept of the game. Occasionally, evolution is a slow process and as such, you might spend more time observing than interacting. If you’re seeking a fact action game that delivers immediate and plentiful gratification, Birthdays should probably be overlooked. Lastly, there’s the issue of direction. Although the game provides a codex with information about each life form, there’s little explicit information that details the process of procuring each one.
Visually, the first two hours of Birthdays might seem a bit spartan, as you’ll much around in a primordial environment, with only the most basic species swimming about. But steadily, the graphical awards arrive as compensation for all your calculated tinkering, transporting a refuge of reptile, mammals, and other identifiable species. Sonically, the game’s some memorable element is the effect that signals when a group has gone extinct. Expect the death knell to haunt your pre-sleep consciousness.
While there are some mission-based assignments for players who require goals, the bulk of Birthdays the Beginning is rooted in experimentation. If that piques your curiosity, then by all means, seek out Yasuhiro Wada’s latest effort. Like the chemistry sets or electronic project kits of old, the title is an autonomous endeavor that lives and dies by a player’s pursuit of discovery.
Birthdays the Beginning was played on the PS4
with review code provided by the publisher
Platform: PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Arc System Works Co., Toybox, Inc.
Publisher: NIS America
Release date: May 9th, 2017
Launch Price: $39.99 via retail or PSN (PS4), $29.99 via Steam (PC)