Darwinia Review (PC)

Superbly designed with an 'old skool' façade coupled with cheeky references to a classic game culture almost forgotten. It delivers a great tale of virus-ridden woe for the small, green and cute sprites that are the Darwinians.

Jacking in to Darwinia
Clean and simple research

Upon starting the game I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to be faced with, how does one interact with this sprite filled World? I was left almost awe struck at how cleverly this was put together; it feels like something from the days when DOS was king and ‘supercomputers’ were the size of houses.

A new game will have you whizzing about a digital universe with data streams flowing from point to point, until you arrive at the polygon World of Darwinia. You’re contacted by Dr Sepulveda, the creator of this digital life form who’s in trouble and quickly enlists your help to save the Darwinians from the virus invasion.

Darwinia has several zones and the first is called ‘Garden’ and here is where you start battling the red viral menace. You soon come into contact with the Darwinians and see why they need your help desperately, they were designed for a peaceful life and don’t know how to defend themselves.

The graphics themselves are simple yet perfect; the sprites themselves are pixel thin, static green man shaped constructs, which makes them just so darn cute! Everything was designed with low polygon appearances in mind and crafted beautifully. The main virus is actually just a snake made from a series of red glowing arrows that glide along the floor. Now that wouldn’t really be much of an opponent in today’s latest real-time strategies and would earn nothing but the ire of gamers, except here it’s just what you expect and love to fight.

Other enemies range from centipedes, spiders, ants and even plant life. All are fantastically animated in old arcade style and make great opponents. The sky to Darwinia is a constant glide of semi-transparent square sheets on two different plains, that’s right even the sky is something to appreciate, the sky!

Though don’t think for a second that these ‘simplistic’ graphics can’t deliver hectic action as there are often intense battles, fighting the viral strains and blowing up bugs with particles flying everywhere is very satisfying.

There’s no base building and you’re not supplied with any initial ‘troop’ units of any kind. In a true programmer/hacker style you employ the use of programs, with create tools that can then be manipulated by the player to fight the viruses. Squad and Engineer are the first two you are presented and these will also be the most used. You can control up to three separate program instances at once, with more being made available through research. You can only start up Squads near control stations which are usually dotted about and control buildings. Engineers can be deployed in the same way but also in the radius encircling squads.

Squads are your military might and fire lasers as well as secondary weapons such as grenades or air strike beacons if you find the special research cubes ‘lost’ about Darwinia. They are easy to find and are always worth your attention to get. Other programs are Officers which can be used to promote Darwinians to be ‘directly’ controlled and Armor which can transport them or be turned into battle cannons.

The Mine zone
At least it never rains

Research is quite unique; you can select which specific program Dr Sepulveda will concentrate on and over the course of the game he will work on re-writing code. Once he’s updated enough he will inform you he’s released a new version of the program. These can be invaluable, I first concentrated on letting him improve the Darwinians themselves; once he’d reached v2.0 they could then use lasers to start defending themselves.

You use the TAB key to access the Task Manager, from here is where you select which program to run, select a new research area or get an overview of your objectives for the zone. You can also draw out special gestures to access the programs quicker, much like ‘Black & White’ for quick access to spells.

Music is yet another great feature, as it all adds to the arcade feel but can still pump out midi style performances and an impressive piece when you complete a zone by fulfilling the objectives. Additionally all the Darwinians jump for joy, reminding me another classic game Populous.

Moving a Squad, Engineer or any program requires you to select it and left click where you want it to go, simple and like any other RTS game. Squads attack by themselves if a virus comes within range but can be easily overrun. I found it best to just use a lone Squad, holding down the right mouse button will get them to fire their lasers and clicking left simultaneously will let you fire off a grenade. A single Squad can quite easily wipe clean a zone of the virus as long as you don’t go storming through.

When a Darwinian or virus ‘dies’ they leave behind a ‘soul’ which is a unique digital ID. These can be used to either create more viruses or put into an Incubator and create more Darwinians. So using Engineers to collect these and securing an Incubator is a vital strategy as it latter zones you will need to use the Darwinians to operate devices like the mines or solar panels.

This game really does offer a unique setting, as you battle to kill off a virus that threatens to engulf an entire artificial life form. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the little sprites and have been enjoying this digital adventure, even more than some of the other latest titles around at the moment.

The zones are usually made of small islands which are linked by Radar Dishes, controlling a dish lets you aim and communicate with another so you can transport Darwinians or Squads about. This is vital for some as certain islands need workers but don’t house an Incubator. Usually each zone will also require you to reactivate a Trunk Gate which links to other zones and lets you progress through Darwinia.

The AI isn’t really something I can comment on much, even though this entire game is based around artificial life. The virus doesn’t actively hunt you but you’re required to wipe it out and certain enemies have certain things they can do. Spiders for instance can jump quite long distances and attempt to land on or rush your programs. Centipede-like viruses will try and ram through, even when you destroy a link they can split into smaller versions until each segment is destroyed. So it’s more the case of learning how each particular foe acts, and trying not to get swamped.

The airstrike weapon is a beacon a Squad can fire out like the grenade. Much to my delight the bomb in question is dropped off by a rather suspect craft. One could even say the bomb is delivered by an invader … possibly from space.

Too even add more rad geek testosterone into the mix, the start-up to the game changes from time to time. You could be treated to a fake ‘greetz’ message to other hackers, or have the Darwinian code of life principle explained to you, all bundles of quirky fun – and a poke at the programming community.

Darwinian Universe
The zone purged, the sprites rejoice!

Darwinia is something special, something you can’t help but love when you’re inside it sprite filled universe. Trying to explain how great and genuinely fun the game is can be difficult, you really need to try it first to understand the ‘old skool’ joy it brings – when games knew they were games!

Top Game Moment:
Everything, there isn’t a single moment of this game that I could not class as ‘top’.