Sunday, January 10, 2010

City Rain Review

City Rain, developed by Mother Gaia Studios and published by Ovolo Entertainment.
The Good: Neat concept, tougher in later levels, special buildings
The Not So Good: Repetitive, limited normal building count, superficial strategy, lacks online play, not challenging for most of the game
What say you? Part Tetris and part SimCity, this puzzle game lacks long-term appeal: 5/8

With the high level of success shown by the SimCity series of games, I’m frankly surprised there isn’t a proliferation of city builders on the market. Sure, there’s the City Life/Cities XL games and Haemimont’s series of historical titles, but other than those examples, the genre has largely been played out: how many different ways can you zone roads and residential sectors? Using the city builder game as a base is City Rain, which infuses the extreme excitement of placing houses with puzzle games like Tetris. That’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we appreciate here at Out of Eight, and it deserves some reviewingness! Take that, spell checker!

City Rain features acceptable graphics and sound for a $10 casual game. The title is rendered in the classic isometric perspective, and each of the tiles has an average amount of detail. Your towns never really “come to life,” as the game lacks vibrant animations or even realistic transit to make City Rain anything more than a simple collection of buildings. I do like the dynamic, changing backgrounds that have time-of-day effects. Still, the visuals certainly lean more towards the simplicity of Tetris rather than the detail of SimCity. The music is good listening the first couple of times you play the game, but after that it’s tiring. The sound effects are sparse and action-based; none of the instructions from your advisor are voiced, not that I would expect them to be for a $10 price point. In all, City Rain does not surprise in terms of the presentation.

In City Rain, you are attempting to construct environmentally-friendly towns by placing falling buildings in optimal locations: just like real life! The campaign consists of twenty levels, but since each individual map only takes two or three minutes to complete, adept players will complete the campaign very quickly. There are a series of objectives you must complete within a time limit for each level, usually involving placing a specific building (nuclear silo, sewage treatment station, garden, et cetera) or reaching a certain profit level. The difficulty arises from having very specific objectives that must be completed within short time limits, like having all green attributes and pollution cleaned up in only two minutes. Also, pieces start falling faster as you progress through the game, requiring faster decision making. Unfortunately, this level of challenge doesn’t develop until much later on in the campaign: early levels are much too easy, and I suspect most players will tire of the tedium before they reach more demanding content. After you are done with the campaign, you can enter “quickplay” mode, where you select a difficult level that determines game length, speed, and the frequency of city blocks, along with the board size. You cannot fully customize the “quickplay” games, selecting lots of blocks but a short game length, for example. This is partially because scores are recorded online, I suppose, but more freedom is always a good thing. Finally, City Rain has a “blockmania” mode that is identical to Tetris but less interesting. City Rain does not feature any sort of competitive or cooperative multiplayer, either on the same computer or online.

City Rain is primarily controlled with the mouse, as it’s the best method to quickly move across the map and select buildings. The overall goal of the game is to have good ratings in six areas: sustainability, jobs, health, leisure, security, and education. This is done by placing specific buildings: factories for jobs, police stations for security, hospitals for health, schools for leisure, and so forth. There are four groups that will magically appear from the top of the screen, and you can scroll through the various buildings to choose the one you want: residence/shop/factory, school/landfill/square/police/hospital, power plants, and set blocks of buildings that can be rotated. City Rain always has the same buildings grouped together, which results in some very predictable and uninteresting gameplay: you know that schools and police and hospitals are always together, so when you see one, you know all the others are readily available by simply turning the mouse wheel. It would have been better to have a random selection of buildings to at least inject some anxiety into the game.

Money is earned from the buildings: houses make cash (presumably from taxes) while most other things cost money. Money is used to purchase special buildings that grant a wide variety of bonuses: alternative fuels, reforestation, gardens, nuclear waste facilities, stadiums, subways, and a big tree. There is one special building unlocked in each campaign level (for a total of twenty), and they are available any time thereafter. This is a nice feature of the game that helps to break up the predictable monotony of the “normal” buildings. Buildings can also be improved by placing the same type on top of it; this helps to conserve precious space.

You lose the game if you destroy too many buildings (by placing different types on top of each other) or place trash outside of landfills, in addition to simply not completing the objectives. Unfortunately, the long-term appeal of City Rain is pretty small for a couple of reasons. First, the game lacks variety: the constant influx of special buildings is nice, but the normal structures remain static and easily anticipated. There is also a very linear relationship between needs and buildings: there are no complicated resource connections in City Rain: if you need security, just build a couple of police stations. This means success is less about city planning and more about thinking faster than the buildings scroll down the screen. Thus, City Rain is more of a casual game than a more advanced city builder and people who expect more depth will be disappointed. Of course, the game is only $10, so exactly how much depth do you expect for that price tag?

City Rain takes an interesting and unique premise and makes a passably interesting game out of it. Taking two successful genres, puzzle games and city builders, and combining them is a neat idea, and this is enough on its own to make City Rain appealing for a little while. The problem lies in the repetition of the title, more specifically the limited number of buildings you have to play with. The game becomes an exercise in simply placing a variety of buildings that will increase the stats of your town; since the relationships are very linear and fixed (police increase security, hospitals increase health, schools increase education, et cetera), there isn’t much strategy involved in designing your city. As long as you don’t spam a single building type, things will be fine. Things get more difficult later on as you get more set blocks of buildings and pieces fall faster, but it takes quite a while to become more engaging. The objectives inject a minor amount of purpose into the title, buth you will generally meet the requirements by designing an efficient layout anyway, except for the more obscure location-based requirements. The twenty-level campaign is over very quickly, as most levels are completed in two minutes. The quickplay mode does offer more longevity, requiring you to survive for a specified amount of time against the onslaught of incoming structures, but it’s only marginally engaging because of the lack of multiplayer modes and the inherent repetition. City Rain can be good fun once you advance past the slow, easy introductory levels, but I doubt many people will stick around that long and the game is over too quickly after that.