Good Old Reviews: Populous

Good Old Reviews: Populous

Populous Box

Peter Molyneux's classic god-game Populous can be found at GOG for $5.99

Populous, for me, is one of those classics that I'd heard a lot about over the years but never really knew much about first hand. I'd played and enjoyed some of its "god-game" successors (Black & White 1 and 2) and knew who Peter Molynex was, of course, but the game itself never really caught my attention. That being the case, I now wish it had. While I won't go so far as to say that it's perfect, Populous manages to convert its themes of omnipotent warfare into tangible RTS mechanics that are both clever and extremely addictive.

At the very center of its concept, of course, is the idea that you, the player, are a bona fide deity. We're not talking the peace, love, and be-good -to your-neighbor sort either. Nope, you come packaged with all sorts of nasty powers including earthquakes, floods, mountains, and even an-honest-to-god (nyuck nyuck) Armageddon spell that you can use to trigger a final confrontation between the forces of good (your followers) and evil (everyone else).

As impressive as these powers may sound however, they'll generally play second fiddle to your godly skills as a large-scale landscaper. For your followers to make the most of each world you land in, they'll need you to push down mountains, fill in the seas, and otherwise just give them some nice flat terrain that they can live and build on. It's not just enough that your followers expand, though. Their growth needs to be handed intelligently, in no small part because you're not alone. In each map, you'll share the land with a group of outsiders who foolishly worship another god controlled by the AI. The point of the game, in turn, is to conquer said heretics before they grow strong enough to put your followers to the sword.

In some levels this is relatively easy. The AI will give you all the time in the world to let your people build up gradually until you have yourself a massive continent filled to the brim with believers to power your magic and fight in your name. These mellow maps are a lot of fun, but they're also not the meat of the game. The real competition comes from the levels where the AI god puts up more of a fight, hitting you with spells and moving swiftly to invade your lands and burn your believers to the ground.

The only way to really counter opponents like these is to adopt an aggressive stance of your own. Even when you go the route of swift force, however, Populous doesn't feel like your typical strategy title. While you can exert some limited direct command over your followers, you'll mostly just set them to a particular mood (kill all baddies) and then leave them to their own devices while you continue molding and shaping the landscape to manipulate the battle in your favor. In my eyes I was more like a commander watching from afar, directing my spells like artillery and guiding my soldiers with general directives rather than direct orders. It's a take on combat that perhaps sound disconnected but, in reality, manages to keep you pretty busy, and by extension, entertained . Even if your followers are more or less autonomous, you'll never run out of things to do. There's always some spell to cast, damaged land to repair or borders to expand. Even as battle rages, you'll keep cultivating your civilization, raising new followers to keep your powers and numbers strong. Put shortly, it's a danged good time.

Which isn't to say its combat isn't without issues. While the game will keep you busy, you'll generally wind up doing a lot of the same things over and over again. Granted, this isn't necessarily a problem if you're someone with a tolerance for repetition. That said, if you like challenges with a variety of solutions, Populous may turn you off. Now, I should point out that I didn't beat every level in the game (there's 500 of them for heaven's sake). That in mind, it's very much possible that a few hundred levels down the road I might have encountered something new that wasn't in the earlier maps I played through. The fraction that I did finish, however, were, by-and-large, won by my repeating largely the same tactics over and over again. This is made all the more grindy by the fact that some maps can take an overly long time to beat. There just generally comes a point in most levels where it's clear that you're going to win. The fact that I'd often wind up stuck playing for another 10 to 15 minutes to seal the deal (aka: collect enough mana to cast Armageddon) was a regular annoyance.

The user-interface was also an occasional point of frustration for me. Now, to be fair, at first glance I loved it. The way it presents levels as pages in a book fits its theme perfectly and really helps to sell the idea of the player being a god looking down on the world below. Nifty looking as it is, though, it wastes a ton of space. Some might disagree, but I just generally prefer it when a game devotes as least half the screen to the actual gameplay.

Whatever complaints I might have about Populous, however, are overshadowed by the excellent time I had with it as a whole. While the UI is perhaps a bit indulgent and there are moments where I wished things would hurry along a bit faster, the game overall is a fast-paced batch of fun that still holds up really well today. Yes, you will spend an inordinate amount of time essentially just clicking on empty spaces to make dirt appear. That said, there's a joy to the game that very much supersedes the outer simplicity of its mechanics. Maybe you won't get lost in it the way I did. That said, for GOG's $5.99 asking price, you won't lose much by trying.

Come back next week from Marshall Lemon's review of Anachronox.

Permalink

I really don't get why people feel like Populus is a good game. I can get why you can have fun in an addictiveness sort of way, but after you play for any decent amount of time the experience feels hollow and underwhelming right?

There's so much in the game that feels like it's doing the opposite of what it should.

Instead of creating and rich and exciting world, full of your passion and creativity and crafted to be exciting and interesting... you build a flat featureless plain. In fact you take a moderately interesting world and make it boring. That's how you tell that you're winning. There's no variety, there's no self expression.

And that makes every single combat experience identical to the last. The game says go, you create a flat featureless plain as quickly as possible. Every now and then you get to cast some kind of spell, but apart from Armageddon (which is just the 'I give up, lets just count the money' from Monopoly), they basically destroy a little terrain and a few towns and contribute nothing to your success as much as levelling land does.

And the difficulty is so clearly artificial. All you do is set how quickly and accurately the AI can level land. If he can level land faster than you, then apart from a lucky spell in the early game, he's going to win. If they've set the AI so it can't level land fast enough, then you win.

It's not like you ever need to do anything different whilst levelling land. You don't have to deal with terrain features or sculpt special patterns to create certain settlements, or even defensive fortifications (because the AI can just as easily undo any defensive shape you make). No, if the land is higher than you plain then you click lower, if it's lower you click higher. Strategy.

Hours spent on tnhis game back in the day on my master system

I actually have a Origin key for populous question is: Is it worth installing Origin?

Donzacuceron:
I actually have a Origin key for populous question is: Is it worth installing Origin?

it just lurks there not doing much these days so pretty harmless

the UI always annoyed me you never could see enough of the ground in populous but it was an innovative idea for the time

The main problem with Populous is that Populous 2 is the same price and much better, with more effects, a variety of heroes and the high level spells like volcano are actually really damaging.

I just can't get into the first two Populous games. I think mainly because the interface really hasn't aged well and I never played them when they originally came out so I find it hard to adjust.

Populous The Beginning however I absolutely loved, though that game did depart from Populous' original gameplay to a more traditional real time strategy. Still fun to summon a volcano in the middle of an enemy village though.

The Artificially Prolonged:
I just can't get into the first two Populous games. I think mainly because the interface really hasn't aged well and I never played them when they originally came out so I find it hard to adjust.

Populous The Beginning however I absolutely loved, though that game did depart from Populous' original gameplay to a more traditional real time strategy. Still fun to summon a volcano in the middle of an enemy village though.

Exactly my thoughts. I own the first Populous in Origin due to the EA's last Humble Bundle and I just couldn't get into it, but The Beginning on the other hand, the moment I'm given control of things, I'm able to summon fireballs and lightnings.

If people like the first two Populous games, good for them, as for me and Artificially Prolonged, we're sticking to The Beginning, thank you very much.

You forgot to mention one of the most fun things to do in the game. Let the enemy god invest time into creating a champion to destroy your villages only for you to sadistically drown the little bastard by dropping the land under him into the ocean and continue to remove land around him while the ai desperately tries to get ground back under his feet.

SupahGamuh:

The Artificially Prolonged:
I just can't get into the first two Populous games. I think mainly because the interface really hasn't aged well and I never played them when they originally came out so I find it hard to adjust.

Populous The Beginning however I absolutely loved, though that game did depart from Populous' original gameplay to a more traditional real time strategy. Still fun to summon a volcano in the middle of an enemy village though.

Exactly my thoughts. I own the first Populous in Origin due to the EA's last Humble Bundle and I just couldn't get into it, but The Beginning on the other hand, the moment I'm given control of things, I'm able to summon fireballs and lightnings.

If people like the first two Populous games, good for them, as for me and Artificially Prolonged, we're sticking to The Beginning, thank you very much.

This is true the Beginning is super fun and addictive and much more fun that the first two although they they have their fun points.

Huh, I don't remember the 500 levels part. I definitely wouldn't have finished it had there been that many. Or maybe I'm thinking of Populous 2 or a console port. Still, the Populous series is classic and beats the hell out of RTS borefests like Age of Empires, C&C or Warcraft.

i think i have still somewhere on my pc. used to play it a lot but after a wile it does get a bit boring. still a ncie game never the less.

I remember being late to the populous craze, but also being obsessed with it for awhile. Fun game for what it was.

On a side note I was a much bigger fan of Molyneux's Powermonger. Building an army, outfitting them, converting enemy villages, and collecting a rogue's gallery of captains was amazing fun. If you're into older games, than it's worth a look.

BrotherRool:
I really don't get why people feel like Populus is a good game. I can get why you can have fun in an addictiveness sort of way, but after you play for any decent amount of time the experience feels hollow and underwhelming right?

There's so much in the game that feels like it's doing the opposite of what it should.

Instead of creating and rich and exciting world, full of your passion and creativity and crafted to be exciting and interesting... you build a flat featureless plain. In fact you take a moderately interesting world and make it boring. That's how you tell that you're winning. There's no variety, there's no self expression.

And that makes every single combat experience identical to the last. The game says go, you create a flat featureless plain as quickly as possible. Every now and then you get to cast some kind of spell, but apart from Armageddon (which is just the 'I give up, lets just count the money' from Monopoly), they basically destroy a little terrain and a few towns and contribute nothing to your success as much as levelling land does.

And the difficulty is so clearly artificial. All you do is set how quickly and accurately the AI can level land. If he can level land faster than you, then apart from a lucky spell in the early game, he's going to win. If they've set the AI so it can't level land fast enough, then you win.

It's not like you ever need to do anything different whilst levelling land. You don't have to deal with terrain features or sculpt special patterns to create certain settlements, or even defensive fortifications (because the AI can just as easily undo any defensive shape you make). No, if the land is higher than you plain then you click lower, if it's lower you click higher. Strategy.

As someone who's spend most of his childhood with populous... you're not completely wrong, but somewhat so.

Even if he can level land faster, there are quite a few ways how you can use spells efficiently to turn this around.

For example, you can try to save up mana to grow a lot of forests in his land and then start a forest fire.

Or you could wait for him to breed a superleader and then drop some baptism water around him (if he's got a leader that has 20% of his army strength, you could steal that in one go by converting him)

Or cast a pestilence and wait for it to spread among most of his people. When it has, the armagaddon spell doesn't turn pestilenced people into heroes.

-----

I like to replay old retro games and really can't play populous 2 the way I can replay other games of my youth. Most of your time is spent creating dull flat land and it's very RSI inducing and boring. So yeah, you're mostly right and somewhat wrong.

dunam:

As someone who's spend most of his childhood with populous... you're not completely wrong, but somewhat so.

Even if he can level land faster, there are quite a few ways how you can use spells efficiently to turn this around.

For example, you can try to save up mana to grow a lot of forests in his land and then start a forest fire.

Or you could wait for him to breed a superleader and then drop some baptism water around him (if he's got a leader that has 20% of his army strength, you could steal that in one go by converting him)

Or cast a pestilence and wait for it to spread among most of his people. When it has, the armagaddon spell doesn't turn pestilenced people into heroes.

-----

I like to replay old retro games and really can't play populous 2 the way I can replay other games of my youth. Most of your time is spent creating dull flat land and it's very RSI inducing and boring. So yeah, you're mostly right and somewhat wrong.

The issue is, mana generation is also linked to how much flat boring land you have. So if the computer is better at generating flat land quicker than you are then it essentially wins because it's got more spells to cast at you if it comes to that. And almost all the spells basically have a '-to generation of flat boring land' penalty which can be overcome by producing more land quicker, or just temporarily damage their mana by destroying some houses that will be rebuilt.

Or it creates a problem with is directly solved by raising and lowering land again. It doesn't feel tactically deep and if they programmed that computer to flatten land with robot precision all the spells in the world can't save you.

Yes, but as I was saying, tactical usage of mana makes a difference, even if you have less.

Man, there are not adequate words to explain how many hours I spent as a wee-kid playing this game. I was never particularly good at it. I certainly did not win all my games by any stretch of the imagination. But the fun I had role-playing around Populous amazed me.

When I played it as an adult, I could just crush my opponents - but the role playing really had faded out.

Odd, I guess that I was happier playing the game when I was less good at it.

I also loved the conceit that a God could lose - and that indeed you were that God. Reminded me of a neat story I read in Analogue a long time ago about a guy who buys two colonies of "insects" out of a magazine and they turn him into a god.

Anyway, fun to read the review!

 

Reply to Thread

Log in or Register to Comment
Have an account? Login below:
With Facebook:Login With Facebook
or
Username:  
Password:  
  
Not registered? To sign up for an account with The Escapist:
Register With Facebook
Register With Facebook
or
Register for a free account here