Title: Populous: The Beginning
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Bullfrog Productions
Date Published: 1998
Platforms: Windows 95/98
The original Populous game was perhaps the first game in which the player was truly granted God-like powers. Through resource management, a liberal use of more or less destructive miracles and his loyal followers, the player would strive to wipe out the opposition.
Populous: The Beginning is the third in the series and a prequel to the first two. The player takes command of an a shaman with aspirations to divinity and up to 199 followers who will attempt to gain control of twenty-five planets from between one and three enemy tribes with their own shaman.
The player usually starts out with the shaman, a few followers and a reincarnation circle. The shaman is essential, since she can cast a number of spells ranging from the good old lightning bolt to more constructive spells which can raise or lower the land. Should she be killed, she'll also be reincarnated after a short while, but only if she has any followers left. The player will often have to rely on the shaman's spells, some of which can be very destructive (and spectacular) indeed. They do, however, consume mana, as does training followers. All followers also generate mana, although relatively slowly, and the most powerful spells such as volcano can take an eternity to charge. However, there are often stone heads somewhere on the planet which, when worshipped, dispense one or more single-shot spells.
The followers usually start out as braves, who are the only ones who can construct whatever buildings the player has access to, although they are easily killed. Warriors are tougher and better armed, while firewarriors can cast fireballs. Priests can, given enough time, convert enemy followers, although they are easily disturbed. Spies can sneak into enemy settlements and set fire to their buildings. In order to acquire the more destructive followers, it is necessary to either train them or use priests to convert them from the enemy.
In order to train the braves, special buildings must be built. There is a training hut for warriors, a temple for priests and so on. In addition, it is possible to build a boat house and a hut which can be used to build balloons. More followers can be gained by building huts, which will be automatically upgraded to house as many as five followers as long as there are braves living in them. Guard towers are quite useful. They allow firewarriors to gain extra range for their attacks, warriors to spot enemies further away and so on. The only resource needed to build is wood, which is rarely in short supply.
Once the player feels that sufficient strength to trample the unbelievers beneath the feet of his horde of fanatics has been amassed, the best and, indeed, only real strategy is to select them all and order them to attack. Since the enemy shaman will often employ the swarm spell, which conjures up a swarm of stinging bugs to scatter the player's followers, control over them will soon be lost. It is possible to order the followers to guard the shaman, but even at the best of times, the only real decision will be where to attack.
Despite the inclusion of boats and balloons (both of which are very difficult to use effectively) the player is left with a very limited number of options, and one planet is, strategically speaking, much like any other. The developers seem to have understood this, and there are many planets where they force the player to defeat the enemy with limited means or within a relatively short time limit. On one planet, the shaman will even have to defeat three enemy tribes on her own.
To the left on the screen is a rectangular bar which shows the total number of followers and a small map of the planet. In addition, the player can choose to display either the spell, building or follower panel at any one time. The spell panel lists all available spells, how many are available and whether or not they are currently being recharged. The building panel simply shows an icon for each building. Click on one and place it somewhere, and the braves will start building on the chosen spot. The followers panel is very well done, and makes it easy to see how many braves, warriors etc. are under the player's command and what they are doing. All this is explained in a very good tutorial in the form of a planet where the player can control the shaman and acquaint him/herself with the basics of the game.
Graphics and sound
I have seen few games as beautiful as Populous: The Beginning. Each planet is done in 3D, with the Shaman and all the followers in 2D. The terrain can be changed, and creating valleys, hills and plains with the terraforming spells is one of the features which strongly counts in the game's favour. The individual planets are quite different, some being cold and covered with snow while some are wastelands with scorched earth and lava instead of water. The music is mostly inobtrusive, but does a lot to add to the mood of the game with soft chanting and flute music.
As a strategy game, Populous: The Beginning is relatively simple, and there is little to distinguish it from other games in the genre. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that it can't be fun. Even if it is relatively short and lacks complexity and innovation, there are many worse ways to while away a couple of hours or days.