Monday, April 02, 2007

Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children Review

Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children, developed by LDW Software and published by Big Fish Games.
The Good: True real-time gameplay
The Not So Good: More skills would result in increased variety, sluggish pace becomes boring quickly, extremely slow scroll speed, user interface needs a lot of work, AI is not self-sufficient enough
What say you? A town management game with serious interface issues that’s meant to be played in short bursts over a long period of time: 5/8

The popularity of The Sims franchise has shown that people like to order other people around, controlling every action they take and watching them progress through life. And by “people” I mean “women.” Instead of limiting you to just a family, Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children lets you control an entire village, guiding the population as they learn skills, make babies, and discover the secrets of their island (something involving the Dharma Initiative, no doubt).

Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children features low resolution (800x600) and low detail graphics. The villagers aren’t animated very well and it’s hard to tell sexes and ages from their appearances (12-year-old with gray hair?). There are hardly any special effects in the game as well. Of course, this means that Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children will run on pretty much any system, so that’s one bonus of the drab presentation. To be fair, the focus of Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children isn’t really on the graphics, but they still don’t impress at all. Even worse is the user interface, which takes up too much of the screen. Since manipulation of the environment is a key portion of the game, the fact that only a fraction of the game world is rendered at a time is inexcusable. The character information sub-menu also takes up the entire screen, making it impossible to see attributes while navigating the landscape. I don’t really have a problem with games that have outdated graphics, but a user interface that gets in the way of efficient gameplay is a definite problem. You also can’t zoom in or out, and moving around the map takes an extremely long time as the scroll speed is very, very slow. The audio in the game doesn’t fair much better: there is no voice (not even Sim-like gibberish), just a paltry assortment of sound effects and some tropical background music. I don’t expect much from essentially independent games with a small budget, but Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children fails in every aspect of the graphics, sound, and especially the user interface.

You start out with a village of seven individuals: two adults, a couple of teenagers, and mostly young children (not surprising considering the title of the game). The goal of the game is two-fold: construct a working island environment and discover the island’s secrets along the way. Each older citizen of your village can be skilled in five areas: farming, building, research, healing, and parenting. Each of these skills are learned by dropping the character on an object. For example, placing a person on an unfinished hut will increase their building skill as they complete the project. Every other area is done in the same way, and harmony is found in your village by creating a balance in the number of people assigned to each task. This is complicated, however, since you are not given enough people in the beginning to fulfill all of the needed tasks. It’s not very nice of the developers to impose arbitrary restrictions on the player right out of the box. Theoretically, once you teach a villager a task, they will complete it ad nauseum, but this is not always (or hardly ever) the case, as your AI villagers get easily distracted. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that like the other LDW games, Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children progresses in true real time, whether you are actively playing or not. This would be fine, if the AI was good. I went out of town on vacation for four days, and when I got back all of my villagers had died, even though I taught them all of the basic skills needed to survive. Apparently, the villagers tend to forget their skills if they aren’t taught over and over again, kind of like the guy from Memento. Clearly, Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children is meant to be played for five to ten minutes at a time over several months, as nothing really happens in the short term and most of your time is spent re-teaching forgotten skills and assigning newly grown adults to a job.

Finding specific villagers is a gigantic pain (remember the user interface issues I mentioned earlier?): you can sort the villagers by age or skill level, but there’s no drop-down menu to choose from, and if you select one, the game takes twenty seconds to scroll over to them. There is also a lack of an idle citizen indicator, and the current action of a citizen is never indicated from the search screen. This makes keeping sure that everything is running smoothly extraordinarily difficult, until it’s too late. Most of the skill areas are pretty straightforward to execute: gathering food by fishing and later farming, constructing buildings, healing others, and making babies are all intuitive and shown in the tutorial. Research needs to be constantly conducted, because eventually (after quite a long time) you’ll unlock better skills relating to farming, medicine, exploration, engineering, science, and culture. Other than the basic survival objective, you’ll also use children to collect objects like butterflies and shells (I knew they were good for something) and solve the game’s sixteen puzzles by reaching certain milestones, like discovering fire. This gives a set of long-term goals to the game, and if you can weather the horrible user interface and AI issues, the satisfaction of successfully developing a civilization is pretty rewarding.

Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children has a good idea but it is poorly executed with a number of curious design decisions. I like the idea of true real-time gameplay and directing citizens to learn and eventually accomplish specific tasks for the betterment of society, but Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children falls short in producing a smooth gaming experience. The poor graphics not withstanding, the outdated user interface makes playing the game a chore instead of fun: finding and ordering people around should be much easier. The AI doesn’t help the management issues, either: people will routinely get off-task even if they are adept at a certain task, so checking back in to the game is a requirement. People who like instant gratification in a game will be sorely disappointed with Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children, as completing concrete goals takes a long, long time. In fact, it’s rare that anything of real importance will happen during a single game, so if you play Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children, you’re in it for the long haul. Unfortunately, I doubt that many people will manage to look past the fundamental flaws in the game. I will give Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children some credit for a solid and unique idea, but some polish needs to be added to the title before the next version is released.