Birthdays the Beginning, at first glance, looks like an interesting oddity. "God games" where you oversee the progression of an entire world and everything within aren't terribly common these days--much less one with cute, stylized visuals and a funny title. But beneath the charming veneer of Birthdays the Beginning lies a very complex simulation that takes you from the foundation of planetary life all the way to the creation of human civilization. Unfortunately, the road from plankton to the apex of humanity is so rough that you might not make it all the way through.
The game begins with a (rather unnecessary) framing story where you stumble into a cave one day to discover a strange cube and a voice asking you to help create and build life on its surface. The game then proceeds to guide you, via a series of overly wordy tutorials that are somehow simultaneously too long and short on information, into jump-starting the process of birthing life and the cycle of evolution and extinction that comes to define the game.
Interaction with the world is done primarily through flying around a time-frozen grid, raising and lowering blocks of land to form valleys, mountains, and oceans. These simple acts have a tremendous effect: lowering land below sea level creates oceans and heats up the entire cube, while creating peaks and mountains makes the world an overall colder place. Limited-use items allow you to create freshwater rivers, bringing essential moisture to areas that would otherwise be parched.
These various factors--elevation, temperature, moisture, and water type--determine what sort of life will come into existence and flourish. Once you're done shaping the land, you can step away and set time in motion, watching as the world moves on and waiting to see how your guiding hand affected the life on your cube. Some species will thrive, some will die out--and sometimes, if things are just right, you'll witness the evolution of something that sets an entirely new epoch in motion for your little world. When a new species comes into being, you can go down to the planet again, seek it out, and "capture" it, preserving its detailed information in your in-game library.
The process of birth and death is interesting to watch, and seeing how creatures interact with each other in a complex web is an engaging process...for a while, anyway. Unfortunately, things start to go sour quickly after you get going. Since free play isn't available until you've completed story mode, you're stuck in a long campaign where the game forces you to evolve life on your little planet in very specific ways. This generally means bringing species into being, which then serve as a touchstone for other species down the line.
Except sometimes, that doesn't really matter, such as when the game asks for a species that feeds on a creature that went extinct hours ago--meaning you now must spend far too much time figuring out how to bring them back into existence. At other times, it looks like you have every condition you need to cultivate a species that's required to progress, but despite fast-forwarding millions of years, they never begin to propagate in the cube due to some unknown factor the game fails to make clear.
The lack of information is perhaps the biggest frustration you'll encounter throughout the game. You're constantly left guessing as to why certain factors just aren't playing out the way you expect them to. For example, when you sit back and watch time pass and the lifeforms of your planet either propagate or die out, you can't get specific details as to why they're thriving or dying. This is particularly irritating when you need certain species' numbers at a particular level--are these creatures not reproducing or advancing because it's too hot? Too cold? Do they lack water? Food? Is there not enough habitat? All you can do is look at the library info, harbor a guess, mess around with some elevation, and cross your fingers for the next time you start the clock, because all the in-game help button does is parrot the objective of your next progress goal back to you.
It feels like there's a fantastic game somewhere in the heart of Birthdays the Beginning, ready to claw its way out of the primordial ooze of ideas to evolve into a wonderful god-game experience.
Interface issues compound the game's structural problems. Sometimes you'll decide to make drastic changes to your cube, such as flattening out mountain ranges or raising the sea, in order to hasten to birth of certain forms of life. You'll find yourself flying around an ever-expanding cube, raising and lowering the blocks you're hovering over with R1 and R2. While you can select multiple blocks to raise/lower at once with the D-pad, finicky analog controls can make selecting specific land areas feel imprecise.
Options that would help streamline drastic revamps, such as "make everything in this selected area the same height" and "start a river from here," are only available as limited-use items. The lack of an easy undo option means that it's shockingly easy to make mistakes, such as accidentally killing off that river source you just used. Topping it all off is an arbitrary HP system that determines how much land-shaping you can do in a particular period. Given the easy recovery of HP via recovery items and resting, its entire inclusion is an unnecessary annoyance.
It's a shame that the story mode is mandatory, because the game really starts to improve once you've unlocked free play mode. You're free to mess around with your cube however you want, observing with no pressure as life transforms, evolves, and mutates in response to the world you craft. This allows you to watch all of the game's cute visuals spring to life as new beings come into existence. The finer nuances of the game really come out when you don't have anything telling you how your world needs to work, and though a lot of the same frustrations with interface and lack of information remain, they're considerably less pronounced. A challenge mode is also available: Here the game gives you pre-made cubes and asks you to do things like evolve a certain species within a set time period. These challenges wind up being considerably more fulfilling and interesting than the main campaign.
It feels like there's a fantastic game somewhere in the heart of Birthdays the Beginning, ready to claw its way out of the primordial ooze of ideas to evolve into a wonderful god-game experience. But the conditions for it to thrive just aren't right: The interface is ill-conceived and cumbersome, the campaign's frustrations bring progress to screeching halts, and the frequent lack of information turns what should be a fun micromanagement experience into an exhausting guessing game.