Populous DS

Twenty years ago, the God genre was kick-started by the work of two men, Peter Molyneux and Will Wright.  While Wright introduced the world to Sim City and went on to produce arguably some of the most commercially successful games in the God genre and it’s Jesus offshoot, Molyneux created the original and purest form of God game in Populous.  Developed by Bullfrog in 1989, Populous  became an award winning classic, spawning  two sequels across various platforms, and firmly fixed Molyneux’s star in the gaming cosmos.  It seemed only logical, given how well the DS’s interface lends itself to games of this nature that Populous and it’s ilk would eventually arrive on the handheld.

Populous is a simple tale of good versus evil – the gods who created the world (Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Harvest) pitted against demons of similar powers who sprung from the wicked hearts of men and dare to challenge the gods for control over the world.  Each faction draws it’s strength from it’s worshippers and paradoxically, even a god cannot function without the devotion of it’s people  to give it it’s powers.  Gods need Psyche Energy in order to perform miracles which is generated from the houses of your worshippers and is stored up to be used to either aid them or hinder your foe.  Your worshipers need space to build so you have to flatten the landscape and remove obstacles which allow houses to expand and generate more Psyche Energy.  Should you take too long, your worshippers will lose Spirit and eventually die and your rival will gain ground on you.

Simple orders can be used to control your worshippers, but their most important function will be to build. Worshippers alone cannot win the game for you though which is where the disruptive element comes into play in the form of Miracles.  Depending on the god you play, Miracles will vary, however, access to the nastier ones is withheld until you have amassed a sufficient amount of Psyche energy, so unleashing a meteorite to devastate your enemy’s followers requires patience and much landscaping.  In fact, everything about Populous requires patience and much landscaping and this is unfortunately where the game loses it’s charm and becomes grating.

Thankfully, control is simple and landscaping can be done with simple stylus movements which admittedly can prove problematic if you are too hasty, resulting in creating  town levelling peaks with clumsy ease.  The top screen shows  the changing world and results of your actions in the isometric work map which is assigned to the touch screen, along with the bars, gauges and order buttons where you will exercise your powers, all of which are intuitively laid out.   Miracles are also located here while the animations are played out beautifully in the top screen, but the most important thing, aside from the Armageddon clock is the gauge representing tribal influence which compares rival worshippers  – if the bar is more red than blue, you need to swing the balance, or come Armageddon, your backside will be toast.

As entertaining as the Miracles can be, the novelty wears off quickly as you will be so preoccupied with endless landscaping that you won’t have much time for anything else but listening to the suitably dramatic underscore.  Even the stunning and detailed world occupying the top screen is sadly wasted as your attention will be focussed on repetitive stylus sweeps on the work map while occasionally taking a moment to send an earthquake or tidal wave to blight the enemy.  The orders which you can give your worshippers are largely irrelevant, as is ordering them to battle – the occasional Miracle is a far easier way to put a crimp on a demon’s day while you keep your worshippers building…do enough to swing the gauge in your favour and victory come Armageddon is assured.  And that is it. 

When you scrape away the novelty of the Miracles and the gimmicky landscapes such as fairytale, outer-space and 8bit (featuring  Nintendo consoles past and present…yes, you read that correctly), the game is simple and actually quite dull.  The repetitive grind of constant landscaping isn’t enough to justify the occasional fun piece of devastation and  it is too easy to fall into a pattern of scrabbling to nudge the gauge up and then triggering  Armageddon as soon as possible to save any further tedium.  Armageddon is perhaps  one of the most entertaining aspects of the game with legions of little worshippers in red and blue swimming trunks bitch slapping one another to the strains of Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth.  It is almost worth the wait.  Almost. 

Sadly Populous however, was not.  As one of those games that launched a genre and is remembered as the classic  it was, now, however beautifully revamped, seems sadly dull when not viewed through time’s rose-tinted window.  Some will undoubtedly love it, and as a quick time filler it is entertaining enough…it just won’t nuke your world.







4 responses to “Populous DS”

  1. Prout avatar

    This so-called review is plain wrong. What is described here is just what you see when you play one or two of the early stages, which is of little interest. But afterwards, you will have to cope with fewer spells allowed to you, while your opponent will get more spells than you. In the last levels, it is a very complex game indeed, due to the difficulty and to the random behaviour of your followers (and no, you can’t “control” them).

  2. Lorna avatar

    It is always easy to brand something ‘wrong’ when you personally don’t agree with it – at the end of the day it boils down to opinion.

    Irrespective of how many Miracles you are allocated, the gameplay remained dull and repetitive. I rarely used what Miracles I did have as most time was devoted to trying to tip the balance so that Armageddon could just be triggered to get it over with. And ‘control’ was meant in as much as you can order worshippers to gather, battle, and build – nothing greater than that was suggested.

  3. Dave Irwin avatar
    Dave Irwin

    Firstly, a decent review. It is always hard to touch on a game that has such a strong pedigree behind it with a sense of constructive criticism.

    Much as I tried to give this game a chance, I found it to be as dull an experience as described in the review for much the same reasons. One that retains the retro feel that fans of the game loved back then (a good thing), but still a dull one compared to future entries in the God Sim.

    One thing you didn’t include in the review was that there is a little side-game which involves searching for a specific worshiper. But I can see that the possible reason for it is that it doesn’t really add anything to the package.

    As for the notion of the latter game restricting what you can/can’t do, that isn’t really the basis of a good game, but more of a tease. Its like playing Resident Evil 4 and halfway through the game taking away the Quick Turn ability, or making Leon not be able to jump through windows/climb ladders/kick a zombie when stunned.

  4. Lorna avatar

    Thanks Dave, it’s always nice (and a relief) to get some positive feedback for something like this.

    You’re right, I felt that the side game was unecessary to mention for the reason you stated and you’re right about this game in general…something with this sort of pedigree is tricky to review as it will always have a strong fan element regardless and it’s easy to forgive flaws if you’re not careful.

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