From the mind behind Harvest Moon comes Birthdays the Beginning, a vibrant god game that will both entrance and infuriate you as you build a unique world to evolve lifeforms over millennia.
Sandbox games like Birthdays always suck me in, and this one was no different. I spent hours and hours shaping the land, excitedly searching for newly evolved organisms, gritting my teeth through some finicky controls, and pulling my hair out trying to figure out how the hell to get climate conditions juuuust right.
Surprisingly, Birthdays the Beginning has a bit of a story, rather than simply giving you a world and letting you go wild. You’re a normal person who stumbles upon a barren landscape that needs help developing life. The story leaves a lot to be desired, though, and it might as well not be there at all. You can tell the developers were trying to add some charm and mysticism with the brief cutscenes, but they end up clashing with the real meat of game: controlling and progressing a massive ecosystem.
Once you’re in your flat world composed of nothing but rock, you’re guided by a chatty AI through raising and lowering the blocky Minecraft-esque land with a limited selection tool, as well as using special items that make shaping the world and altering the climate much easier. Your initial goal is to evolve this world’s first single-cell organism by getting climate conditions just right. Once you get the first plankton, you move on to evolving a multicellular organism. From there, you spend countless hours fiddling with the composition of the land until you have a world filled with all manner of shrubs, trees, fish, reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, and, eventually, humans.
The game is divided into several Episodes, each focused on evolving certain types of life. Every time you evolve your goal organism, the guide tells you about the next lifeform your world needs, along with condition requirements for it. Of course, there are dozens of other organisms to evolve besides the one in your current objective, so you must fill your world with diverse environments for all varieties of creatures. But at the end of each Episode, your world expands to allow for more creativity and more life.
Throughout Birthdays, you focus on three main variables: temperature, elevation, and moisture. Each organism has a specific range for each factor that you must meet in order for it to evolve and thrive in your world. The temperature is lowered when water is added and raised when land is added. Moisture mostly rises when water is added nearby, but it’s also influenced by sun exposure.
To shape the land, you’re given a small cursor that can only raise or lower its selected area. This means you can’t move the land horizontally like in Minecraft, so features like caves and tunnels are unfortunately impossible. When you level up, your selection tool expands, but only in the shape of a square. You can’t make specific shapes or even simple lines with this tool, which can make building larger areas, like mountains and seas, monotonous and frustrating, but at the same time addictive and always worth it.
Items make altering your world easier, though their descriptions aren’t always very clear. Some items construct small mountains, while others provide a freshwater source or change the moisture level in a given area. A few items are more mysterious, like the aptly named Mysterious Glass Jar or Rainbow Coating. While the game might not spell out an item’s effects, finding out through experimentation adds to Birthdays’ theme of venturing into the unknown. There are even items that cause mutations and bring about evolutions, though you won’t 100% the Episode if you force evolution that way.
As your world expands with varied landforms and ecosystems, life will take off on paths you often times won’t expect. Populations fluctuate constantly as time progresses, so you’ll spend a lot of time going back into your world to see what condition is making those Ichtyostega die out. More often than not, an animal–or plant–will spawn in an area that doesn’t have its proper environment, so you must shape the land around the organism. There seems to be no way to manually move an organism, so sometimes an hour of work on a cool new area must be completely reworked for your new animal to flourish.
Also, it’s incredibly easy to put too much effort into evolving one lifeform while accidentally letting another critical part of the ecosystem go extinct. Every organism needs food, and some organisms need to be food. You must constantly pay attention to requirements for all organisms you both have and are working towards to prevent making a U-turn in your evolutionary timeline. The experience can be taxing, but it’s also a great representation of how intricate an actual ecosystem is.
Sometimes you do actually want an organism to dwindle and go extinct in order to make way for newer, better lifeforms. Evolution and extinction are the cornerstones of the natural ebb and flow of life, and Birthdays does a wonderful, albeit frustrating, job of demonstrating that flow.
The organisms you create are always cute, but they aren’t always that interesting. Animals generally shuffle through a few different animations, like a T-Rex eating a hunk of meat, bobbing its head adorably, taking a couple steps, and then going back to the meat. They don’t really interact with the environment or other animals in the way you want them to, and they often behave illogically, like continuously walking into walls or flying against the invisible edge of the world.
Another flaw I encountered later in the game was something I call the cluster effect. Even though I had evolved a variety of life and given my world many different types of environments, all the animals were clustering in one or two areas. So there would be a couple 20×20 areas with thirty species of animals between them and handful of random spots with another species or two, while the majority of the land–honestly about 75%–was barren expect for some shrubs here and there. Even though evolving life was a thrill every time, the cluster effect rendered my world generally uninteresting.
But hey, maybe I went about my first playthrough a bit wonkily and my next world will, in fact, be teeming with life. Birthdays is definitely packed with replayability, even though the dive into the game has a bit of a learning curve. You’ll undoubtedly want to take your accrued knowledge from your first playthrough into a new blank world and approach your role as creator very differently.
Ultimately, Birthdays the Beginning is a solid and unique sandbox simulator. Shaping and evolving a world is incredibly addictive and fun, but the limited influence, less-than-user-friendly controls, glitchy lifeforms, and nuanced conditions hinder the experience from time to time. It’s an amazing premise with a bit of a flawed execution. Many of my issues with the game could–and hopefully will–be patched with updates. Regardless, Birthdays the Beginning presents the player with an engrossing creator role packed with hours of playtime. Life really does find a way.
Note: This review was based on a PS4 digital copy provided by the publisher.