Reviewed: August 14, 2007
Released: June 26, 2007
Most of us are familiar with Charles Darwin and the theory that made him famous. “Survival of the Fittest”: the creatures best suited to compete in the global game of predator and prey will be the ones to survive and thrive. We become the best by adapting to our ever-changing environment through evolution, becoming stronger, faster, smarter. Darwin saw this process as very slow, taking millions of years. But when he put pen to paper to record his theory I doubt he envisioned it as a corny, cartoony kid’s game that only FEELS like it takes a million years. Such is The Adventures of Darwin, a title that borrows the great naturalists name but none of his brains.
Now let me be clear: I don’t really expect a video game, especially one aimed at kids, to actually adhere to science theory with textbook precision. And I think a game based on evolution could potentially be very cool. But you think a title driven by the motto “survival of the fittest” would be a little more…I dunno…competitive?
Here’s the scoop: Darwin is not a bewhiskered scientist but rather an ape – that’s right, an ape, complete with tail – who dreams of his village – yes, apes live in villages – being destroyed by a meteor. That inspires Darwin to better himself and snap his fellow apes out of their blissful reverie and start evolving! Only by adapting and expanding his tiny village, Darwin believes, can he save his people. Perhaps by learning how to build a giant meteor-destroying super laser or something…I’m not sure, they didn’t really get into it. As the player, your goal is to guide Darwin through the perils of the wilds as he collects the key items he’ll need to leave the rest of the flora and fauna in his genetic dust.
And how does Darwin do this? Well, by running. Lots and lots and lots of running. Through the same areas, over and over again. Returning to his village frequently – VERY frequently, like wow-I-didn’t-even-realize-you’d-left frequently, and then ranging out again to cover the same territory again and again. Your job is to collect a multitude of items, mostly foodstuffs and building materials like wood and iron. Everything you return earns experience points for the entire village, moving them up the evolutionary ladder an inch at a time. New items freshly acquired earn you mondo bonus points, making it necessary to explore deeper through the territories each time to find never-before-seen stuff.
Darwin is joined by a small band of like-minded knuckle draggers who follow his commands. The followers serve two functions: the aid Darwin in battle when the resident animals attack and they allow Darwin to carry more and heavier items. Each item has a certain weight point. A mushroom weighing 5 points, for example, requires five apes to lift it. Acquiring prized gold stars expands Darwin’s maximum queue of followers, making him a force to be reckoned with and allowing him to loot more stuff.
As your village evolves, more options become available to you. Acquiring wood, stone and iron will cause mills and refineries to be built. You can then invest in these budding industries and reap upgrades by providing more of the materials they require. Shops offer (occasional) useful items while armories can fashion weapons and a kind of gym will research new formations in which to group your minions. This as the challenge steadily increases to include meaner creatures and heavier items to retrieve.
On paper it may sound like a frolicking mix of “Donkey Kong” meets “Civilization”, but there are some serious drawbacks to the gameplay, namely that your advancement depends almost entirely on hobbling through the same areas so…many…times. Each territory you explore is laid out like a big, multi-chambered puzzle board, full of nooks and crannies, each little spot taking longer to get to the farther away from the start point you get. By the time you’ve acquired most of the common items and have to scout into deeper territory for better goodies, you’ll have run over the same looping roundabout route 20 or 30 times.
All items and enemies are pre-set and unchanging so your hunts become protracted exercises in déjà vu. There are little warp tunnels that can take you back to your village from certain areas in the field, but the tunnels are one-way only! You STILL have to retrace your steps to get back out to them. New areas of the boards are blocked off either by walls or giant rocks. The walls can be pushed over, but only if you have sufficient followers to do the job, while rocks won’t budge until you get the tools to dislodge them.
So advancement of any kind demands a great deal of real-old-real-fast leveling up and wandering the boards looking for more gold stars. It takes too long to acquire the items needed for any decent upgrades that might accelerate the gameplay, such as a good weapon. But three hours and nine levels in and all my upgrades were still locked and blank. I persisted, but tedium set in quick and didn’t let go.
Though there are a multitude of mean critters wandering the board, combat is rarely necessary, especially in the beginning. Darwin and his posse can simply bolt past most foes, whose attacks are as predictable as their placement on the board. The only advantage to engaging a fellow beast is to acquire the meat they drop, which can either be consumed for health or returned to the village for still more points. Once in a while a worthy foe will throw down, most often while you’re trying to sneak an item past him.
As the pack leader you can command your followers to attack in a variety of formations, but nearly all encounters can be won with the default melee formation, which is basically a dogpile not too different from you average mugging. There is always a risk of biting off more than you can chew and losing your prized followers, but those can be easily replenished by snagging a red star which, unlike their gold cousins, is as common as trees.
Naturally the combat – when necessary – gets heavier as you evolve, especially when you start squaring off against mammoths and wolf packs. The nascent puzzle element of the game also improves, or at least becomes a bit more critical to your success. Still, in order to reap any of those mild and underwhelming examples of your progress you have to do a whole lot of run, lift, repeat.
Now, lifting heavy objects and running with them is not something I enjoy in real life, so I can’t imagine how doing it in a video game is going to hold my attention. I’m struck by how vastly improved the gameplay would have been if the designers had simply made the warp tunnels two-way instead of one-way. If players could simply teleport to different parts of the board and back again to the village it would’ve cut down on the monotony greatly. Alas.
Here the “Donkey Kong” comparison is apt since Darwin and his universe strongly resembles the gaming world’s most famous monkey – funny, cartoonish and super colorful. The screen is positively saturated with primary reds, yellows and greens, and the design reflects the wonky nature of the game. Darwin’s village, which you navigate through via the main menu, is an ever-growing heap of outlandish, super-deformed buildings that could only come from a Frank Lloyd Wright wet dream. The environments are busy without graduating into lavish but the textures are clean and pleasantly devoid of processor lag despite the huge quantity of animals and other effects onscreen at any time.
Camera control is free but clunky. It seems to have a hard time keeping up with Darwin, constantly trying to self-correct by drifting into a top-down view that narrows your vision. Navigating around all those tight corners and half-hidden passages plays hell with your view. Expect a lot of wrestling with the right analog stick.
The music here is a highlight, one of the few. The game makers elected to go with a soundtrack that reflects the primitive, sub-tropical setting, adding lots of soft flutes, tin drums and high, soothing natural sounds like wind chimes. It’s actually a pleasure to listen to while you’re exploring the field. They even included a tear-jerking harp/flute number for the “graveyard” section where Darwin can pay his respects to his fallen followers.
There are no voices to speak of (heh…voices…speak…get it?) so the rest of the sound section rests on the quality of the effects and here “Darwin” drops the ball. The sound board is tiny and many of the effects are lazily recycled. Wolves, lions and mammoths all seem to sound exactly the same. Would it have killed them to toss in a couple of different roars and groans?
This game is marketed toward kids 10 and up and I had a hard time deciding whether a 10 year-old would be more or less entertained by the slow pace of the game than…well, me. The simple puzzles and routine chores certainly didn’t hold my interest, but the watered down role playing/ sim element might be enough to keep your average tow-headed youth in it ‘til the end.
That said, the game would not take longer than 10 to 20 hours to complete depending on how meticulous you are, and the replay factor is virtually nil since the outcome of your hunts are pretty much always the same. Combine that with no two-player option and you’re generally not looking at a sound investment.
“The Adventures of Darwin” is a good idea poorly implemented; a whole lot of unrealized potential. As a more adult-oriented sim it could’ve made for a fascinating challenge, micro-managing your village to maximize resources, forge new tools, discover advanced techniques, etc. But as a kid’s game it falls prey to the monotony of its overly simple and boring tasks and the uselessness of the action. I realize there is a certain educational benefit to this game – teaching science through fun – but in this case both the science and the fun are lost in the tedium. It’s survival of the dullest.
At best this would be a good hand-me-down game, passing from one kid to another to try to impart a lesson or two about natural history before he or she moves onto something a whole lot more fun. But that’s a stretch of Biblical proportions. Darwin probably wouldn’t approve.