There's a genre of video games referred to as god games, so named because they let the players take absolute power over the world. The granddaddy of the god game is Simcity, but no game takes the god game name more literally than Populous. In Populous, you ARE God... Or to be more specific, you're A god. It's your job to gather worshippers by doing nice things for them, smiting the worshippers of the other god on the playing field, and eventually being the overseer of Armageddon, when your worshippers fight the other god's worshippers for supremacy!
Populous is a strategy game, and lord knows it certainly demands a lot from its players. You have to balance pleasing your own worshippers while doing everything you can to increase their numbers while trying to fend off the inevitable attacks from the other god on your own people, and attacking his worshippers at the same time. You and the computer go at it until Armageddon comes to the playing field, when a giant rock slams into it and your two gangs engage each other in an all-out battle royale to see whose god can piss further. Basically, you get to play the god of the Abrahamic religions, and you get to smite people!
There are rules, of course. Here's what's supposed to happen in a typical match between the gods of Populous:
1 - You move around the playing field tilling the land, because it needs to be completely flat in order for your worshippers to build their homes.
2 - You place a little marker into a single square on the playing area and command your followers to gravitate it, where they will build new settlements. Sometimes, they'll meet followers of the local rival god in a small-scale fight which could go either way. Eventually, you start to build more of a following.
3 - You smite the other settlements.
4 - Armageddon comes. Your two sides battle to the death. Whoever has the most followers wins.
The gameplay is controlled almost entirely through an icon menu. The only thing you have direct control over is the land tilling. Everything else is done by icon, including creating the plagues and controlling the worshippers. Orders to worshippers are given collectively to the entire worshipper base at the same time. So bear that in mind as I now explain what ACTUALLY happens in a game of Populous:
1 - You till the playing field and watch your worshippers build little homes. The opposing god and tribe do the same.
2 - You try and grab more of the playing field by placing the marker and ordering your worshippers to move toward it. Your worshippers don't listen.
3 - The computer worshippers begin to increase in number, and they slowly start to take over spots in your worshippers' territory. Your worshippers let this happen. Worried about your influence, you order your worshippers to fight and drive the other worshippers off their land. Again, they don't listen.
4 - Worshippers finally begin to gravitate toward your marker and start settling there. Unfortunately, they're the computer's worshippers.
5 - You start smiting the computer's worshippers with every plague in your arsenal. Somehow, this only serves to increase the number of computer worshippers.
6 - You begin trying everything you can think of to take back the worshipper advantage: Attacking to keep the computer off your land, placing your marker deep into the computer's territory, ordering them to build homes. Somehow this all increases loyalty to the computer.
7 - Armageddon comes. Your worshippers are outnumbered by about five to one now, and you lose.
That sound like fun? That's the incredible thing about the gameplay of Populous DS: It doesn't work, like, AT ALL. Any order you give to your worshippers is taken as some sort of vague suggestion which they might probably do, maybe, someday, if everything else is in peak condition. I started to get so fed up sometimes that what I did was simply turn the disasters against my own worshippers, just to smite their asses.
The number of miracles you're armed with doesn't mean very much. I was never able to attain anything after the starting god, so all I know are his weapons. The miracles include tilling - which rarely extends beyond your own territory and worshippers, making it a real pain in the ass that your worshippers are incapable of doing anything you tell them to, or reproducing. They also include positioning your marker, which means there's theoretically a limited number of times you can do both of those things. Those are the only two powers that are available throughout most, if not all, of a match. The others, you pick up by doing, well, I'm not entirely sure. Those would be the fun, destructive powers like Earthquakes, swamps, and a big meteor. They also include the ability to create a knight, but that one gets marred because the knight will mostly just wander around aimlessly. The other powers don't do very much to deter opposing worshippers. The only other miracle is Armageddon, and you have to be really powered up in order to use that. The only purpose of Armageddon is to basically ascertain victory once the playing field is mostly in your control. You would probably be best off using Armageddon at the beginning of every level, but the game doesn't allow that.
The DS version is made more difficult by the fact that so much of it is reliant on the stylus. I realize this might be a sort of moot point because the stylus and touch screen are the schtick of the Nintendo DS. But to move around the map, you have to use the DS to guide a window across a smaller map in the upper left hand of the screen. It's very easy to lose what you're looking for, or overshoot something you've been looking for and found. It's also very easy to overshoot what you were trying to do while tilling the land as well.
The computer seems to have some kind of pattern for every level, and it will abide to that pattern no matter what you do to deter it. In one level, my god started out with three worshippers and three settlements, and no matter what I did, these three astutely refused to get up and leave their settlements, no matter what. There was no tilling land very far away from them, they wouldn't chase the marker, and when they set out, they came off as royally confused. When my settlements finally started to increase, it was close to the end of the countdown to Armageddon, way too late for them to build up anything but a token resistance.
The graphics are tiny but detailed, exactly what you could expect from a game so similar to Simcity. The worshipper animations are weak, but you won't be looking at the picture view on the top screen most of the time anyway. You'll be concentrating on the bottom screen, which has the topography map where you perform all your little movements. The sounds are better, but that's only for the dramatic classical music which plays during the Armageddon war scenes. Everything else is simpleton work which could be heard on an eight-bit console. The Armageddon war scenes take longer than they need to sometimes, and there will often be points where the two opponents spent upwards of two minutes duking it out in what looks like an epic slapfight. This feels like the computer just trying to rub it in.
Populous is a classic, but it got lost in translation to the Nintendo DS. My advice is to just avoid it completely unless you really, really want a version of Populous for the Nintendo DS.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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