You know when you’re watching a wildlife documentary and they’re showing some cute baby wildebeest or something, then five minutes later scraps of that same baby wildebeest are stuck between the teeth of some nasty hyena? That’s nature for you. And that’s SimAnimals, too. Don’t worry – the animals reproduce to replace the ones that got torn in half by predators during the night, and it’s your job to promote the overall wellbeing of each small section of a larger forest by making sure every living thing is finely balanced and in harmony with its environment.
While it’s all quite sanitized and Disneyfied, with clouds of dust obscuring the carnage, there’s a complete ecosystem at work beneath the surface of what we assumed was a completely original and unique game – until some killjoy from a neighboring gaming magazine pointed out that it’s suspiciously similar to Viva Pinata.
Plants need to be cared for and will contribute to the positive energy of a forest area. You can pick up and replant trees and bushes, positioning them in their favoured type of soil. If you need more plants, rubbing them with your disembodied hand-cursor makes them spit out seeds that you can plant nearby or pop in your backpack to take to another location. The plants are also food for the animals that aren’t intent on ripping one another to shreds. Once you gain the trust of an individual animal – as you’ll have to in order to complete many of the objectives – you can hand-feed it to prevent it eating your carefully tended veggies. Curious visitors lack such good manners, though, and will tear through their favorite food in no time.
Watching your favorite animals become lunch, simply because they trusted you enough to tag along into a more dangerous area, can be mildly upsetting – even the safe havens can turn hazardous once you’ve met the larger predators later in the forest. After you’ve unlocked a type of animal that just loves the taste of rabbit, the rabbit paradise you created earlier may well become something of a living larder. Little gravestones pop up at the side of the screen, complete with a picture of the latest victim; Tiddles has been eaten. Sensitive children will cry.
Once you’ve generated a certain level of positivity – signified by happy faces floating out of satisfied plants and animals – you’re able to move on to the next part of the forest, after a lengthy loading pause. Some areas have slightly more complicated objectives, such as planting a specific type of tree to retain water or getting beavers to build a dam that will stop pollution running into a stream. However, every task you’re asked to perform is time-consuming rather than challenging – and even then, none of it takes very long. There are bonus objectives that award you special plants with otherworldly effects, but by concentrating on the main ‘story’ thread through the forest, we reached the end in a single sitting of under four hours.
After that there were still plenty of minor things to do, such as improving areas we’d only passed through briefly on the rush to the finish, but the game’s unfriendly menu system conspired to fool us into switching off without saving and we lost all our progress.
We’d do it all again, though, because it’s fun in an organic, slightly clumsy sort of way. While the interface could have done with some polish (rubbing things to interact with them often takes a while to register) and the graphics are monstrously crap, it’s a game that’s quite well suited to the Wii and its expanded audience of gaming novices. The hardcore will bust this open in an afternoon and whine about the way it looks, but in the forest life goes on.
Jan 22, 2009