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Five design decisions that put the suck into Populous DS

11:45 AM on 11.20.2008 // Niero Desu

Populous DS had promise.  The Molyneux classic primarily involved pointing and clicking, so this game should have translated beautifully with stylus controls on the DS platform. Instead, playing this game is like trying to rescue a french fry that's fallen into the deep netherworld between the seats of your automobile. It is known that it is physically possible to salvage, but the process requires both hands, a fair amount of focus, struggle, and not a hell of a lot of visibility to aide you in the rescue.  It's also not worth the trouble because you know it's not going to be covered in filth when it resurfaces. Let me save you the trouble.

I was compelled to vent my disappointment with the title as I am a huge fan of the classic and really had hoped that the mobile update would rock my retro socks off, wet my grandmother's panties, etc.  Instead, I spent the entire time squinting and cursing at what little I could see of the screen. What's more upsetting is that there is a good game in there but various design decisions hold it back from being enjoyable. I'd like to offer up five observations for debate that might have saved this game in the hopes that future Populous ports don't go the same route. Beginning with:

1.  The amount of fluff on the screen is redunkulous

Populous DS falls into the category of hand-me-down development (Bullfrog was bought out by EA in 1995, Xseed made this one) where a new design team had to make modifications to the original concept.  The big challenge was how to deal with a game that's essentially turned at a 45 degree angle with context menus hugging the four poles. Obviously, that adds clutter. Their solution? Display the game TWICE.

On the top screen you have a rasterized view of the landscape which, on occasion, lets you see your God yelling when you summon a miracle. On the bottom you see the same exact view of the game in a more clear iconic form.  In other words, there is rarely any reason to look at the top screen.  It's fluff.  You can paste a photo of Chad Concelmo over the top display for a more enjoyable experience.

2. Only half of the bottom screen is useful 

As it wasn't bad enough that the top screen was worthless, half the bottom screen is full of cluttered UI design which includes buttons, borders, a mini-map of the entire world, and the page-of-a-book design cliche that Populous became famous for.  The travesty here is that the design team attempted on retaining as much of the original design of the game as possible at the expense of the visual quality of the game.  This butts heads directly with their desire to have everything controlled by touch, as it now left only a portion of the screen to manipulate and monitor.  Less than 4 houses fit on the screen at once and the peasants are tiny.  Skirmishes on the micro map can barely be seen.

Why they couldn't add a button or hotkey that allowed me to switch between grid mode and reality mode on the same screen and use BOTH screens to show more of the map is absolutely beyond my comprehension.A braver design decision would only have offered that framed view by holding down the R button (instead of making it interchangeable with L) and letting us see more of the map at once.

Instead, I can't see shit.

3. The Gods are more than angry, they're obnoxious

The updated Gods concept in this game is actually cool, but falls apart in execution. You have five elementals of varying strength and weakness, all of which have been rendered in updated beautiful 3D and make cameos in the worthless top screen when you summon them.  While that may sound like a good idea, imagine how much fun it is to watch that animation and its accompanying SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAACH!!!! every time you want to set down marsh, make an earthquake, or throw down a meteor.  You'll want to do that at least 20 times per round, so this gets old fast.  It reminds me of the early Final Fantasy games where you're forced to watch the Summon run its course.  Anyone paying attention in game design class should know better.

What's worse is that these design decisions don't gel with the rest of the game. Case and point: the classic book design and it's accompanying animatronic-jawed opening screen is followed by updated God graphics it leaves the vintage parts of the presentation looking dated or lazy.  I feel like they should have gone one way or the other and been more successful instead of trying to cram it all in there.

The game isn't ugly.  It just looks like 3 different games.

4. New usability that was almost cool

A neat feature in the DS version is the ability to automatically flatten the area around your houses in one tap by holding the L button, which allows you to spend more time expanding your empire and making life miserable for the other God.  Unfortunately it doesn't take into account the median level of the rest of your developed lands so if one town idiot decides to build in high elevation and you use this feature, it will just raise the rest of the land by his example and break everything else you have going nearby.  So you end up using this feature less. Clicking and dragging on the mini map is a terrific way to quickly move around the map but since the graphics have been so compacted it's hard to tell what you're looking at and moves too fast, so you end up navigating with the D-pad instead more than often.  Could have been cool but other factors hold it back. 

5. There is no buildup to the climax in Armageddon

This is more of a pet peeve than anything, but it was the last nail in the coffin for me.  When you summon Armageddon you may as well go get a sandwich because for some reason they freeze all of your controls so you can't scroll around to watch your people walk from far and wide in masses to the final confrontation.  They also hide the power meters so you have absolutely no clue whats going on.  Instead, you can watch a little peephole of the final confrontation happen a few minutes after the dots on your micromap make it to the main area. 

I'm not sure who this game is for.  Fans of the original will also be disappointed that the fighting sound (which used to sound kooky and metallic) has been replaced by a beat-em-up sound.  Where's my fan service? The original parts of the game are all there in painful execution, so it isn't for the old timers unless you have excellent eyesight and don't mind playing this game like you're perpetually smelling your DS.  There is a really interesting 4-way multiplayer feature and other bells and whistles that may take your mind off of how bad the game is presented.  The core mechanics are all there though.  It's a shame. I really wanted to love it, but playing it is such a chore.

In other news, IGN actually gave this game a seven. Maybe I'm just picky? Surely there must be a Dtoider that enjoyed it.  If you're more forgiving and can make a case why this game is just fine the way it is, please sound off in the comments below.

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Niero Desu, Blogsmith
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