Something taken for granted nowadays, especially within the community, is just how difficult gaming can be. While progress has shifted towards inviting newer players nowadays, there are times where games are not welcoming. A strong example of how this can affect a franchise is the Monster Hunter series, which despite a spike in popularity thanks to Monster Hunter World, was very much different just a few games ago.
An avid Monster Hunter fan now, I almost wasn’t able to get into the games due to a steep learning curve of controls, systems, and menus. These caused me to almost give up when starting Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, and I’ve talked to many who had similar experiences. The opening to a game, how they welcome and ease you into the world, is the major difference between a positive or negative reception. With this in mind, it was with some hesitation that I began Happy Birthdays.
I have never seen nor played a game quite like it before. A sandbox game, it’s easiest to describe as Minecraft meets Spore, with more a terrarium simulation vibe where your specimens evolve rather than captured. The Minecraft likeness comes from the blocky visuals that focus on cube based terrain. Another similarity is the manipulation of the environment, with lowering and raising the land key to gameplay. Spore inspired design shows with the evolution aspect of the game, with you creating the phenomenon, not by manipulation of the creatures, but rather the land.
Starting off the game, you’re tasked with selecting one of four starting biomes; Green Plains, Scorched Earth, Stony Prairie, and Frozen World. Which one you choose starts you off with different stages of life, and this idea was a nice way of getting some variety in the game. The problem with this set up though is that starting out, the basics need to be taught. Starting you off with a large number of lifeforms to manipulate, as some biomes will, with little to no understanding of how to do so creates an endless well of problems.
Happy Birthdays will task you with reaching a certain end goal of evolution. To reach this, there are multiple steps involving huge quantities of factors. Evolution is forced by the climate and temperatures reaching certain levels, which is caused by two main components; land to sea ratio, and elevation. By altering the height of the ground, and by adding more or less water, the atmosphere and the world will start to shift. Specific thresholds need to be met to cause the growth of a plant or animal, though hitting them can be quite challenging.
Rather than sit in the map the entire time, you’ll switch between manipulating the landscape by moving around the map, and then backing off, letting time move forward while you watch from afar. This balance can be quite nice and does, in theory, make change happen at your command. This theory falls short when you consider that waiting, hands-off, causes a reactionary rather than proactive response, and trial and error becomes the norm.
Another issue in Happy Birthdays is the HP mechanic. Each biome starts you at different levels, and your ability to change the land is halted by a numerical system. Each square takes away a point of HP, and once you hit zero you need to progress time to earn it back. At early levels, this gets very frustrating when large temperature and climate shifts are needed, as you’re powerless to adequately make changes in a timely manner, instead of doing so bit by bit.
The organisms also exacerbate the process of evolution by being needy little jerks. A feature intended to help is the ability to see the needed factors to allow a new species. What isn’t beneficial is that there is little explanation as to how necessary changes are made. Certain areas that promote evolution, such as food sources, aren’t conveyed properly and make them more of a guessing game than anything. It also creates a rabbit hole of complications, as trying to follow the species tree get confusing. Often it will take two large species populations to promote one, yet you need another four to make those two, and so on.
All this is hindered by Navi, the annoying fairy from The Legend of Z—I mean the strange little light ball of some unknown race. Navi serves as the narrator of the story, where your alien looking avatar is thrust into being a god for a small world. Also serving as your guide in the gameplay of Happy Birthdays, Navi does a terrible job at setting you up with only the basics at the beginning. More complex controls are fed occasionally as you progress, but the lack of knowledge often causes you to have made a huge mistake that’s hard to rectify without a large amount of evolution grinding.
The audio is yet another misstep. In a game that tries to be calming, and preaching patience, the music does an awful job. The background songs are next to silent and were so lacking in memorability that I couldn’t describe a single noise the game had. That is, except the one that overpowers everything— the piano step noises. A twang of a piano key echoes from the speakers with each landscape movement but is so out of place it had me turning down the sound more often than not.
The visuals are the sole high point, as the stylized world inhabitants have a sense of uniqueness to them. While there is a fair amount of color alteration on models, in the context of the game it makes sense. It also allows there to be a visible progression the few times you manage to achieve it. The worlds are similarly stylized and have a charm to them that the bad design of systems can’t take away. Even your avatar is fresh and new, invoking a sense of mystery about your own origins.
As a whole, the concept of Happy Birthdays appears to be highly intriguing, but the execution wasn’t on par. Between the unexplained controls and mechanics, there’s no sense of fulfilling anything the game intended to. It’s quite possible that I wasn’t the audience for this type of game. It should be noted there is a free mode and a challenge mode, but I left these modes untouched due to the frustration the story feature left me with. By giving me a desired outcome, it made a goal that felt unreachable due to taking away so much control, while simultaneously demanding it. If you’re looking for a title that allows you to be an aloof god, Happy Birthdays is for you, otherwise, I can’t recommend it.
- Charming visual style
- Lack of control over any single feature
- Unexplained controls that hold back growth
- Complicated mechanics that never create a sense of fun
- Terrible audio that features underwhelming or distracting noises