Sony’s Playstation 2 has by far the largest library of any console system, with a whopping 3874 official releases on record. With a saturation level that high, competition is naturally extremely steep and as such many games sadly get overlooked and left behind, particularly from smaller studios. The Adventures of Darwin falls into this such category, a truly intriguing hidden gem that never achieved fame but brought something very cool to the table.
Developed and released as a budget title reasonably far on in the Playstation 2’s market cycle, the game is a real-time strategy puzzle experience highly reminiscent of Lemmings and most noticeably Nintendo’s Pikmin. You wield control of Darwin, leader of a tribe of apes exploring their surroundings and trying to survive day to day, while fundamentally not succumbing to the range of voracious predators they come into contact with.
While you start with a small band of loyal followers, collecting gold stars littered around the landscape allows you to add more members to your party, which in turn will allow you to surpass stronger obstacles and carry more resources at once back to your village. These stars might be the reward for a puzzle, concealed by a powerful boss enemy or simply lying in plain sight. In general your goal is to build your team further and further by collecting every star available.
There’s a huge variety of the aforementioned resources available to you in each area, such as plants, metallic elements and lumps of wood. Returning them to your tribe will cause your village to make new technological developments, earning new buildings, items for you to use and even new weapons. Defeating the boss of each level yields a tool tem crucial for the evolution of your people, unlocking the next area and allowing progress into previously inaccessible areas and shortcuts.
In terms of core gameplay mechanics, I actually really loved the game. Unlike Pikmin, you cannot drop off items at the base multiple times within the same day - you have to be very selective with what you pick up and what you leave. Furthermore, the combat system is a little different in its own way: your tribe can switch between a variety of weapons as they are unlocked, allowing you to change strategies on the fly to deal with different enemies.
"you have extremely limited control over the fine movement of your tribe beyond some mostly useless preset formations, making
navigation occasionally frustrating"
The comparison however ultimately doesn’t come up in Darwin’s favour. Despite its release in 2007, three years after the Gamecube’s glorious Pikmin 2, the level of polish and attention to detail seems woefully inadequate at times. While the first couple of levels are highly engaging and colourful, this rapidly goes downhill to the point of ridiculousness as you reach the final level of the game. Whether this is a symptom of rushed development or simply lack of expertise, there is a distinct decline in level design and ‘choreography’, for want of a better word. This final stage particularly just seems like a mishmash of objects and enemies from previous levels with no care for placement.
It’s also really rather difficult, but this is again more due to fundamental flaws with the game design itself than planned mechanics. Collision detection seems rather erratic, which can make combat frustrating as hits fail to register for no apparent reason. Furthermore, you have extremely limited control over the fine movement of your tribe beyond some mostly useless preset formations, making navigation occasionally frustrating and resulting in a high propensity for followers getting stuck on sharp edges. The game’s solution to this problem seems to be simply killing them off when you move far enough away, which while a pragmatic solution is not the most endearing trait.
I did however appreciate the technology evolution aspect to be novel and interesting, as it felt as though the game was really reacting to what you chose to interact with and prioritise in the environment. Bring back enough wood and a lumber mill becomes available, allowing even faster processing of tree-based resources. Certain items will also unlock new options in the shop too, so your best bet if you come across something new is to get it back to the village as quickly as possible.
Theming of the levels was also really nice, and while as I have said the layout is generally poor, there are distinct mechanisms to play with in each stage and they really do feel like separate, distinct experiences. The underground caves, for example, are much richer in rock and mineral resources than the forests or river-based area. Enemy design is also highly variable and the game cleverly eases you into understanding their range of attack patterns and combat solutions.
Graphically it’s unfortunately fairly lacking for the release date, with the same being true of the soundtrack. In a strange quirk of fate, because of the game’s enjoyably short length, neither of these features bugged me long enough to make any lasting impact, but it will be noticeable from the get-go. Ultimately with this one I think it’s a mixed bag - if you liked the core gameplay mechanics of Pikmin and are willing to give up some creature comforts for a similar experience, I highly recommend you give it a go, but for a highly polished strategy experience, I’d say look elsewhere.