Eco Creatures: Save the Forest is an environmentally minded real-time strategy game for the Nintendo DS, developed by Lightweight and published by Majesco. Its story and presentation are charming but the game's strategy elements are largely frustrating and uninspired.
The game's premise begins with an industrialized "evil kingdom" encroaching upon the territory of its neighboring Mana Forest, polluting its waters, stripping the land bare, and unleashing genetically modified crop monsters that are jeopardizing the peace of the forest. However, this forest is the domain of a mountain deity who would be angered by the progressive industrialization, so to prevent the god's wrath, the forest's protection is charged to a master wizard and his trusty yellow ogrelike subordinate, Dorian.
It's your job to guide Dorian throughout the game's 40 missions to defend the forest from the kingdom's destructive machines. The average mission charges you with destroying all enemies/enemy structures while protecting the Mana House, Dorian's life-replenishing base that also spawns your army of "wood spirits." There are three unit types to summon from the Mana House: ecolis (squirrels), ecomon (flying squirrels), and ecoby (beavers). Each of these unit types come with base stats of defense, power, and speed. The bulk of the gameplay has you guiding the eco-creatures to defeat the machines and their spawn buildings or weaponry by circling them with the stylus then tapping a destination or foe.
The wood spirits feature basic attacks, as well as unique "special moves," that add some much-needed strategy to the gameplay. The ecolis grow trees to provide Dorian with the mana he needs to summon spirits or cast spells. Depending on seed placement, the ecolis can also grow select trees tied to spawn specific eco-creatures. For example, growing an ecomon tree in tall grass increases the number of available ecomon by one. Additionally, the ecolis are able to grow healing trees to recover your army's health, as well as house trees to serve as secondary eco-creature spawn points. Similarly, ecomon serve to transport items to Dorian while the ecoby build bridges, slopes, or dams to allow creatures that can't swim to cross bodies of water.
Lightweight added more than the usual stat customization and leveling options, enabling you to speedily level a small group of eco-creatures with mana drops, as well as adjust their behavior patterns. For example, a "timid" ecolis will avoid battles, while a "brave" one will fight to the death. These personality adjustments are made via situational cutscenes that prompt you to select a desired reaction to an event. Your choice slightly alters the appropriate stat and rewards you with colored mana drops to modify base stats.
Unfortunately, managing this large army can get irritating. The controls are far from intuitive; to give your wood spirits an order, like grow a tree, you must first select the eco-creature mode, tap the appropriate colored icon, then select the ability and location to prompt the animal to act. The problem is that you're constantly switching between Dorian mode and creature mode to issue commands. So you'll often instinctively move to circle the creatures you want to maneuver without realizing you're in Dorian mode, or vice versa, costing you precious time as you switch back and forth in the midst of battle. Another interface quirk occurs even if you intend to cast the same spell back-to-back. To do so, you've got to reopen Dorian's spell menu and manually select it to cast, but because the spell menu takes up the whole screen, you're unable to spot approaching foes. There also seems to be an issue with selecting a destination or opponent near the menu because the game voids the command. This requires that you relocate Dorian to move the camera so you can position your desired destination away from the menu--a silly nuisance that gets frustrating quickly.
The artificial intelligence is decidedly worse than the game's tricky controls. Your wood spirits often continuously frolic into fences, fall behind, or run off exploring map corners if they get separated from the group. This is especially troublesome when you "die" and are returned to the distant Mana House because eco-creatures free from their master scatter across the map. In the event that this happens you have to manually recollect them or wait at the Mana House while they die so you can resummon. To combat this, you can manually enter a command to keep the spirits around Dorian or put effort into adjusting their behavior stats to create a more obedient army, but it's still an annoyance.
A compounded aggravation occurs when your eco-creatures wander into areas beyond Dorian's reach because you cannot both move the camera independently of Dorian and tap the touch screen to retrieve lost animals. Once again, you could wait for your warriors to die to resummon, but you're out of luck if there aren't any foes nearby. While the creatures usually attack approaching foes on their own, occasionally you'll have to manually instruct them to attack, which is another frustrating aspect of the game's AI. Don't be surprised if they guard an enemy structure rather than attack it.
The game's pacing is also detrimental to its level of enjoyment. Many of the gameplay aspects are slow and can easily vex you because you're forced to wait for elevators, squirrels to plant trees, beavers to construct bridges, or your mana to regenerate so you can actually do something. There's a significant amount of backtracking if you're prone to near-death experiences or have a difficult time keeping the wood spirits on Dorian, and this amounts to a lot of wasted time.
While Eco Creatures's multiplayer should be an automatic boon for anyone giving the game a second glance, it fails miserably at establishing any fun or replay value. The nonviolent multiplayer entirely consists of collecting acorns by planting trees or bumping into your opponent within a five-minute limit. The game does sport two ad-hoc options with multicard and download play. It also includes a level-create and sharing mode, but competition is sparse. Should you be lucky (or unlucky) enough to find an opponent, occasional lag and this single, limited multiplayer option greatly diminishes its value. The final insult is that multiplayer must be first unlocked and then selected within the single-player game itself--there is no quick stand-alone option.
Eco Creatures's presentation is perhaps its greatest aspect, featuring adorable cel-shaded wood spirits, vivid colors, and flashy spell effects to complement Dorian's spell roster. This roster includes lightning strikes, tornados, and other "natural" attacks or effects. Cute cutscenes abound, and the game features catchy background music that is just as endearing as its visuals, with the exception of appropriately fast-paced role-playing-game-like boss music. Other ambient sounds, such as Dorian's footsteps and the squeaks of the wood spirits, add to the aesthetic charm.
Eco Creatures is an adorable real-time strategy game with a solid presentation, a decent level editor, some multiplayer options, and cute creatures to lead into battle. However, it's simply not strategic enough and ultimately devoid of depth. You'll spend more time trying to figure out how to outsmart the game's annoying quirks than you will pondering in what order you want to plant trees or build bridges. When you toss in how rarely you'll use the multiplayer feature, as well as the game's overall shallowness, it simply doesn't compare to other, better, games in its genre.