Review: Populous DS

PopulousDS.jpgIt is now twenty years since the original ‘god game’ was released. While perhaps not the first of its’ kind, Populous was the seminal incarnation of the genre on the PC platform and has defined it ever since. The lineage includes games such as Sim Earth, Black & White, The Sims and Spore. Now the classic returns in a faithful reproduction of the original for the Nintendo DS. Is the glory maintained? Read on and find out!

The DS has become the home for many classic PC games, but the quality has varied widely, from lousy games such as The Settlers, to average games such as Sim City and Zoo Tycoon, to solid games such as 1701A.D. and Age of Empires. However, the best of those games were the ones that were updated or reimagined in some way. Since Populous is pretty much a straight port of the original, my expectations were fairly low in terms of evaluating this as a ‘new release’, but my hopes were still high that this would peg my ‘nostalgia meter’ in a way that the awful The Settlers failed to do last year.

The concept of Populous is simple: you are one of five deities who needs to build up your land and your followers while a rival demon is simultaneously building up his forces. This all leads to an epic final battle that is decided by who prepared and nurtured and exploited their worshipers best. In many ways this sounds like a classic RTS formula, but the difference is that rather than directly manipulating situations, you are using your divine influence to enable your followers to complete tasks for you. So instead of building houses, you shape the land to be favorable for worshipers to build houses, and so on.

Controls are handled entirely through the stylus, and it is an excellent system – once you get used to it. The bottom screen is where you work all of your divine magic, with the results shown on the top screen. So to alter the terrain you simply drag the wireframe up or down on the bottom screen and watch the actual terrain change on the top screen. You also use the bottom screen to manipulate your divine powers and move your relics around to attract followers.

The graphics are sharp and crisp but retain a very retro feel – which works very much in the favor of the game. Populous looks and sounds like an old classic, with nice variety in the different areas and a very limited soundtrack that you will happily just turn down after a while. I was amazed that The Settlers suffered from poor framerates and load-times, so I was thrilled that Populous looks great with very short loads and no signs of slowdowns at any time. There is nothing that gets in the way of enjoying the game.

There is a load of content here, but also a minor complaint: in the twenty years since the original was released, the concept and mechanics have been used and reused and expanded upon greatly, to the point that Populous DS often feels like doing the same few simple tasks over and over again. It is fun and will keep you busy for hours on end, especially if you grab some friends and engage in wireless multiplayer battles.

But the question comes down to the initial attraction – if this is a game you have played before but haven’t touched since Sinead O’Connor was comparing things to the letter ‘U’ (or whatever that song was about), then it is a fairly easy ‘Buy’. I know I have greatly enjoyed it, but as I always do in cases like this … I gave the game to my kids to play around with on a outlet shipping trip with an old friend. They enjoyed it initially, and between two of them it consumed the entire hour or so we were driving. But for the ride home they had no interest – nor have they desired to touch it again since. It was a novelty with little to hook them for longer than a few minutes, which is how I think it will feel to many gamers … so I advise trying the game before buying.


+ Looks good
+ Excellent touch screen control
+ Faithful reproduction of the classic

– Feels twenty years old
– Limited appeal
– Soundtrack gets annoying

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: XSeed
Developer: EA Japan
Release Date: 11/11/08
Genre: Strategy
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!