Populous DS Review
Posted by James Newton
Handheld heaven or a portable pariah?
A few years ago, EA tapped a rich vein of old-school strategy games by revamping Theme Park and Sim City for the DS's touch screens. A few years later, Bullfrog's famed God game has received similar treatment, but is it the second coming or just a slap-headed Samson?
The DS's twin screens are a natural fit for many strategy games, and here the view is split between a detailed map on the top screen and a pared down "work map" displaying the world as coloured squares - blue for houses, green for grass and so on.
In theory it's a good system, meaning the raising of land and other tasks can be done in an uncluttered space, but it detracts the real meaning behind it as you're only really focused on working with coloured squares, not worshipers and their houses. Granted the top screen shows the full detail of the world, but 90% of game time is spent looking at the work grid, so it's a case of clarity over character.
Although the map itself is clear enough, the same cannot be said for the rest of the game's structure. The very first (compulsory) tutorial shows you four screens of text before presenting you with the first challenge for your godly powers: touching the touch screen. It seems even gods take baby steps.
After tackling a futher four levels of tutorials you're into the main meat of the game, which resembles the tutorial levels as much as my head resembles a plate of chips. Despite having played Populous on its first launch and having cleared all tutorials levels twice, the intro level doesn't flow from its intro, pitting you against an aggressive demon whose followers appear in your camp in two minutes flat.
Surrounding your work screen is all your commands, bars and meters, showing your worship level and which mighty miracles are available. Squeezing all the options on this screen limits the room for on-screen labels, meaning you have to memorise each button and its effects, and the icons themselves aren't always clear enough to distinguish a meteor from a marshy plague. The manual places sixteen different labels on the bottom screen alone, some of which bring up further menus and options, making it a very tough game to get straight into.
Once you've got to grips with the miracles on offer you can take on ten different gods and goddesses over ten very different map types, my favourite being a plain populated by Nintendo systems - yes, really. There's also a range of customisable options and different gametypes, ranging from super-difficult extra levels to a Where's Wally-style game called "Warrior Hunt", but the real longevity comes from a range of local multiplayer modes that allows four Populous DS owners to match their deific skills against each other over all available maps. WiFi Connection play would have been most welcome but is sadly absent.
Graphically speaking the game is nothing special, with only the artwork of the gods themselves and the brief animations accompanying each miracle standing out as drastically different over the original 16-bit release all those years ago. In audio terms the game is nothing special either, with the effects and music never rising above the functional.
Populous DS is a disappointing remake of the classic original. The touch controls and greater detail afforded by the two screens should have created a rare handheld strategy gem, but the pieces never quite come together.
If you're a DS strategy fan you could do much better with Lock's Quest, Age of Empires or of course the outstanding Advance Wars series. Even die-hard Populous players will find it hard not to lose their faith with this poor effort.