Ninjabee's Xbox Live Arcade hits A Kingdom for Keflings and A World of Keflings are like digital crack. If you ever spent hours on any Settlers game, the Keflings games let you do the same kind of thing -- but from your comfy couch -- for hours on end.
Sadly, PlayStation 3 owners have had to do without with the fun gameplay that the XBLA exclusives provided. That is, until Ninjabee's latest Akimi Village arrived for PlayStation Network. But is Akimi Village an Asian themed spiritual successor to the Kefling series, or simply a mere reskinning of the XBLA games?
If you are unfamiliar with the Keflings games, they put you in control of a giant-sized avatar who constructs buildings by placing components on the ground while following a simple schematic. Components get constructed in manufacturing buildings and cost resources of a varying kind. And of course, those resources need to be harvested by your tiny minions and later refined into the more advanced resources required for advanced building components.
What sets it apart from traditional building sims like Settlers or Anno 1404 is that you can walk around as the avatar giant, and move around the map to place new buildings, help with resource gathering, and manage your minions. Minions can be picked up and dropped on a resource to turn them into harvesters, or on buildings to set their drop-off location. You can also do the same to turn them into transporters that take one processed resource from a factory to a component manufacturing building.
It works really well with the consoles' controller scheme and you find yourself walking around to slowly build your little city from scratch. Akimi Village follows the gameplay of A Kingdom of Keflings almost to the letter, but there are a couple of changes that set it apart.
Whereas in A World of Keflings you had to build houses that required elusive "hearts" you had to earn in order to create new Keflings, Akimi are created through numerous buildings and can now be recruited from "the Gloom." The world of Akimi Village is a magical floating island governed by a weird and self-conscious elder raccoon man-creature thing. The island has fallen under the spell of a dark gloomy aura, which also limits the protagonist's ability to return home after having woken up in the village.
By constructing buildings you earn Culture which, when accumulated, can give you a magic acorn that you place at empty Spirit Wells inside the Gloom. That sounds more complicated than it is, because you just pick up the acorn and drop it in a hole to remove an area of the Gloom. This in turn doesn't only give you more space to build in, but Gloomy Akimi will turn into regular Akimi that you can put to work, and it reveals more resources and hidden goodies in the process.
Unfortunately, there is only the one island to play on -- just like A Kingdom for Keflings only had one big map. A World of Keflings on the other hand had multiple yet smaller maps and a story that progressed you from location to location. World also gave you the ability to push buildings in four directions after you completed them, instead of having to "destroy" the building and pick up and place every single component all over again at another location.
And while the last game gave you a couple of "hero" class helpers that would automatically construct any building you started to build as long as the components were around, that element is absent here. As such, it feels like Akimi Village was either created by a different team at Ninjabee or was designed sometime between the two Keflings games. However, it provides its own improvements on the formula in the process as well.
Akimi -- who are basically like little Asian Zoidberg Pikmin -- get a different color skin and clothes depending on their job. Transporters use a rickshaw which also helps a great deal to set them apart from other wandering Akimi. You can also build a Dojo to increase the efficiency of harvesters, which gives them a little basket on their back to set them apart from other harvesters, and a Rickshaw School to make your transporters move faster by giving them wings.
It's not always easy to see which Akimi you've upgraded and not though. The basket is easy to spot once you know what to look for, and although it might take a while to spot the wings on their back, they cannot be unseen once you do see them. Because you'll play Akimi Village from a zoomed out perspective most of the time, it does get really hard to see some of the other Akimi upgrades -- like the colored feathers that the Akimi receive on the top of their heads if you place them in education buildings.
It's odd that as colorful as the game is, these Akimi upgrades can be so hard to spot because their colors match the used palette a lot of times. Thankfully this never becomes a real issue, as you only educate an Akimi to immediately place it in a finished building that requires a certain educated Akimi. Still, I used to lose trained Keflings in the Keflings games before and I might have been looking for a long time in Akimi Village if I didn't already know how to play the game.
Other changes are the inclusion of portal buildings that can speed up transport between two regions on the map immensely, and a focus on a lot more "filler" buildings than before. There really are a lot of cultural buildings that don't seem to do anything, but which still need to be constructed in order to progress through the build tree of the game. This gives players a lot more customizability to create their ideally laid out fantasy village, but it can also feel make Keflings veterans scratch their head. If you are among the latter group, you'll probably just dump them somewhere in a corner where it doesn't interfere with the Akimi's harvesting and transport routes.
These culture buildings also project an area of flowers on the ground, but the game never tells you properly what the different types of flower auras actually do. It makes things look lively, but some buildings upgrade Akimi efficiency in certain regards and project the same type of flowers as other buildings that seemingly don't do anything. The only hint of the flower function is that huts and houses make nearby Akimi work harder if they touch the flowers.
On the gameplay-centric side -- and this will please Keflings fans to no end -- all manufacturing buildings now share a common resource pool. So no longer do you have to direct Akimi to transport resources to different buildings, and neither do you have to manually move resources from one building to the other just to construct building components.
Building construction is also a lot clearer this time around, with geometric shapes that indicate where a component should be constructed. The whole building process feels more accessible and easier to understand than before, even if it was already pretty clear in the past games.
Some other head-scratching occurs when you start to think about what it is you are doing. Keflings had a medieval theme with gnomes who just liked to work and worship you. In Akimi Village however, the Akimi appear to be productive Asian critters who only live to work. You can build houses that slightly improve efficiency through a flower aura, but because you will quickly have flowers all over your economic zones you'll probably only build one of each to progress the build tree.
That means you keep grabbing Akimi from the dark regions that is the Gloom, and put them to work without pay, food, or proper housing. In a nutshell, you are a slaver overlord that is pushing the traditional Akimi society through a fantasy version of fast-paced Asian capitalist development. And not the best kind either, as you are encouraged to strip mine all stone and cut down all trees without a single thought towards sustainability.
You do all of this as efficiently as possible for only one reason: so you don't have to wait, work, and walk around as much yourself. Basically, you are applying Ford-style scientific management to the poor creatures to save them from the darkness of underdevelopment. Despite all that, it's also a game you can play with your child to teach it how to set up supply lines, build an economy from scratch, and marvel at the well-oiled machine at the end of the game.
It at once provides educational benefit and a critique on the inescapible nature of production cycles and continuous economic development. The Akimi can change their careers by swapping jobs, but in the end they are entirely dependent on the benevolence of the player as the supreme leader. That is, if you don't kick them all over the place for fun. And in the end, the Akimi island encapsules its entire population in an eternal cycle of work without personal progression for as long as the island's natural resources last.
If you did play the other games and own both consoles, Akimi Village sits between A Kingdom of Keflings and A World of Keflings. Some of the big improvements from World are lacking in Akimi, although you won't miss them enough to let it detract from the overall fun you will have with it. And despite the games being very similar, Akimi Village offers a fresh enough experience to take yet another plunge into Ninjabee's world of console sim games.
Hopefully Ninjabee can incorporate the best of the three games to create something like A Dimension of Keflings, in which you travel back and forth between the games' worlds and set up supply lines between all of them. I'm pretty sure I'd die of an overdose if that game existed.
THE VERDICT - Akimi Village
Reviewed by Maurice Tan