A fun game that stands out from the crowd.

User Rating: 8 | Darwinia PC
It could be argued that independent works, be they in the medium of games, music, or film, should be judged on a different scale than their counterparts with corporate backing. I think this argument is nonsense. Works of utter garbage and works of pure genius have in common the fact they don't know how much money was spent on them. In that same vein don't expect this review to pull any punches when criticizing Darwinia; it will be pitted against other games of its generation, regardless of how much, or little, money went into it. That being said, as small as the development team was for Darwinia there is nothing quite like it on the market today. Even though it does make a few mistakes, its presentation, along with its mix of different gameplay styles, is anything but derivative.

Everything about this game feels like a throwback to 80's computer and video game technology. The graphics alone are enough to convey that feeling. All terrain is visibly constructed from triangles, and the main characters, the Darwinians, are simple green stick figures. The enemies and buildings also have a blocky look to them. Although this sounds low-tech when compared to today's multi-million dollar titles, the developers have managed to make Darwinia (the location, not the game) feel like it's inside a computer. That said, everything from the colouring of the landscape to the way the Darwinians move make the game feel alive.

The whole story revolves around a virtual world, Darwinia, which was initially a staging ground for Dr. Sepulveda's experiments into digital life forms. As time passed, the Darwinians evolved and advanced into a society. Unfortunately a virus has broken out that threatens to destroy everything they have achieved. The player is tasked with cleaning up the virus and helping the Darwinians take back their land.

The premise of this game raises a lot of questions about the nature of life, evolution, and even the role god plays in a society. Unfortunately the game merely touches on these points, such as the mention that the Darwinians believe Dr. Sepulveda to be a deity. There is nothing in the course of the game that even attempts to answer these questions, although the manual contains a nice article on whether the Darwinians are alive or not. All told the story is just an excuse to immerse yourself in the game, which is fine. Why the story raises questions it doesn't even attempt to answer is anyone's guess, and quite frustrating when you realise there's no payoff.

Luckily the gameplay is much more solid than the story that drives it. Darwinia plays as a cross between a real-time strategy game and a classic arcade shooter, and has a minimal amount of unit types. In keeping with the computer theme there is a task bar with which you create new units. Any current units take up a slot in the task bar so the number of active units is limited. However, all units are free to create, so even if you lose a unit in combat you can create a new one at a spawn point. You can even terminate programs (units) to free up room. The only exception to this rule is Darwinians must be spawned from incubators, which need to be supplied with souls from fallen units. Also, Darwinians can't be controlled directly. Instead an officer, who can issue orders to the Darwinians, must be created in the task bar.

Every stage in this game consists of clearing out viruses from an area, and then moving Darwinians to an objective, be it a safe house or a building which they need to control. To keep this from becoming too repetitive, the developers have made each level important to the story somehow. For example, one level requires you to mine a certain amount of material, then in a following level that material is used to construct something useful. Confusingly though there is one level that has no influence on the rest of the plot, and it doesn't even confer an upgrade like some other maps do.

While the simplicity of the game is attractive it leads to too much micromanagement. Often times the Darwinians will be under attack, but you won't know it unless you are viewing that part of the map or hear them shout (if it can be called that). Annoyingly this shout is also the same sound the Darwinians make when they're celebrating, so you can imagine how annoying those false alarms get. Also, there is no way to zoom to a unit, so often times you find yourself scrolling back and forth across the map. Even the interface has issues, as Alt-Tab is supposed to be a valid command in game, but instead pressing those keys took me out of full screen mode.

Even with the problems it has Darwinia is a fun, immersive game. The gameplay may have its limitations and the campaign is fairly short (around 10 hours), but this game presents a world that feels alive and enemies that actually feel viral. With all the powerful hardware flooding the market these days it's nice to see a game that isn't based on photo quality graphics and fully destructible environments. Darwinia is simple, engaging, and probably unlike anything you've played.