Unusual punctuation notwithstanding, Japan has always had a bit of a habit for giving things weird names. All it takes is a quick scroll down the lists of various anime streaming apps, and you'll see such wonders as Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor, Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! and I Can't Understand What My Husband Is Saying, to name but a few of Crunchyroll's more unusual offerings. And as Birthdays: The Beginning proves, it's a trend that doesn't just stop at TV either.
Fresh from the noggin of the father of Harvest Moon, Yasuhiro Wada, Birthdays the Beginning supposedly derives from a Japanese word that relates to the fleeting nature and continuous cycle of life. A game all about 'giving birth' to hundreds of different creatures over the course of billions of years of evolution, right from the beginning of life itself, Birthdays is a game that gives evolution a chibi makeover, with adorable plasticine-like dinosaurs, monkeys and cavemen.
At its most basic, Birthdays: The Beginning is all about shaping your terrain to create the right sort of ecosystem for the animals you want to create, and watching evolution unfold. It may not sound like the most gripping of games on paper, but by micromanaging your mountains, carving out your canyons and shifting your seas, you'll be able to create the perfect climate to evolve everything from prehistoric jellyfish to a terrifying T-Rex, and even modern man himself - not to mention everything in between. Surprisingly addictive, and a relaxing way to wile away a few hours, Birthdays is vaguely reminiscent of Rare's gardening-come-virtual-pet simulator, Viva Pinata - just with less sweeties, romance dances and cackling evil garden-wrecking professors.
Starting out with only a boring, flat cube world, totally devoid of life, it's up to you to tailor the terrain as you see fit, attracting various organisms in the process. A few simple rules govern life, with every creature or plant having their own specific requirements for the terrain type, temperature and moisture levels at which they thrive. But getting the right conditions is trickier than it sounds, as you can't directly alter the temperature/moisture levels yourself - instead, it's up to you to influence them via a series of clever landscaping modifications. Obviously, moisture levels are affected by the amount of water on your map - but open expanses of water are also the key to raising the temperature, while hills of varying sizes decrease your overall temperature instead. In order to get the right conditions, particularly as time moves on and new species are born, evolve and go extinct, you'll need to constantly tweak your planet to push evolution down specific paths and unlock a particular creature.
Given Birthdays: The Beginning's somewhat open-ended structure, the game itself is split into three parts - Free Mode, Challenge Mode and a Story Mode. The open-ended Free Mode is just what it says on the tin - a cube planet where you can go nuts, with no objectives whatsoever, as you simply play for playing's sake, perhaps trying out a different evolution path or hunting for some new creatures. Challenge Mode meanwhile tasks you with reaching a specific creature - Nessie perhaps, or a T-Rex - within a time limit of several million years - something which is much tighter than it sounds on paper, as terrain changes, and the evolution of new species can take hundreds of thousands of years.
The Story Mode however is a bit of an odd one - the mode you'll kick start your Birthdays: The Beginning experience with, it's really a short story-come-tutorial-come-challenge mode in one. Split into four 'scenarios', each of which tasks you with moving up the evolutionary tree to a target creature, be it the first grass that ventured ashore, the first dinosaur that walked the earth, or creating the conditions for the ape-like ancestor of modern man, Australopithecus, there's no specific time limit as such, with a friendly omnipresent voice guiding you through the basics of the game, nudging you in the right direction to unlock each of the organisms - all while a slightly oddball story unfolds, as a kid reading books in an attic gets sucked into a prehistoric world that they need to evolve their way out of, working their way up from the primordial soup to the present day. Giving you a useful grounding in the ways of Birthdays: The Beginning, the Story Mode serves as the perfect preamble to the Challenge Mode, where you'll graduate to tackling specific creatures and scenarios whilst keeping one eye on the ticking clock instead.
However, Birthdays: The Beginning isn't without issues - in particular, those stemming from the random nature of evolution. You see, just like in the real world, where evolution happens through seemingly random mutations, you'll sometimes find yourself waiting for a good long while for a particular species to appear, despite having created some perfectly favourable conditions for its appearance. Sometimes pretty much instantaneous, sometimes annoyingly slow, it can feel somewhat unfair at times, especially in the more time-limited Challenge modes, where a slow evolutionary stage can scupper you further down the line. Fortunately, items are pretty plentiful which let you make species reproduce faster or encourage differentiation, but they still feel a little like cheating, particularly as there's often bonus points for completing missions without using items, or Challenges where they're prohibited.
We also had a bit of a headache with the save system, which tells you you need to save manually, but then appears to auto save something at the end of each completed scenario regardless. Don't be fooled into thinking that this saving between levels is in any way, shape or form a substitute for saving manually yourself, though - we lost a good afternoon's worth of progress that way. Instead, it seems whatever the game saves at the end of each scenario, it's not at all related to your progress - if you don't save manually, you'll lose everything you've done so far.
Despite seeming more like self-contained levels, the Story Mode scenarios do follow on directly from one and other, meaning there's no way to jump straight in at say, the 3rd level, should you have forgotten to save - you'll be forced to start over from wherever it was you last manually saved, which could be as far back as halfway through the 1st level, when the tutorial voice prompted you to. It's a bit of a weird format, truth be told - once you've finished one scenario, you actually need to start up the next level, and skip through the initial mission briefing before you can save and stop playing, which means you're likely to have lost track of what you're doing by the time you pick things up again later. Once you know, it's not a big deal to remember to save every now and then, but mildly annoying to find you've lost several hours of progress by daring to assume it was saving anything worthwhile with that end of level auto save.
While it may not be a game for everyone, there's something nice about Birthdays: The Beginning's laid back dinosaur management that's strangely addictive. Making changes to your landscape and seeing what happens can be pretty engrossing, especially once you move out of the era of seaweed and jellyfish, and into the cuter PlayDoh-style dinosaurs and mammals. However the random nature of evolution can mean it takes some species a bit too long to appear - an issue in particular during the timed Challenge Mode levels - which can see you losing out through no fault of your own. Elsewhere it's much less of an issue though, as Birthdays: The Beginning is a relaxing little game that's sure to be a hit with fans of similar games like Viva Pinata.
Format Reviewed: PC