Looking down at the teeming masses of unwashed, ant-like peasants meandering around the rugged landscape building cities and waging war in my honor, it’s hard to ignore the intoxicating feeling of power with every flex of my godly muscles. With a flick of a finger, mountains rise from the earth. Another simple motion sends terra firma crashing down into the watery depths. A glance summons a fiery apocalypse to destroy the cities of the unbelievers who oppose my divine glory. Being a pissed-off deity in the pixilated world of Populous DS is frequently awesome, but it can also feel surprisingly limiting at times.
Peter Molyneux’s seminal PC god game first put players in the role of dueling rulers of the universe almost 20 years ago. Back then, Populous was revolutionary in its design. Instead of merely forcing you to run errands for some omnipotent deity, the game had you playing as the deity, letting you indirectly orchestrate the actions of your mortal servants from on high. For better or worse, the DS remake of the award-winning game stays very true to the original, while expanding in some areas to reward fans of the series. The classic gameplay now feels a touch outdated. Still, the nostalgia factor is significant, and stamping out a large swath of tiny adversaries with a well-placed meteor offers a tremendous level of satisfaction.
By design, Populous DS is best enjoyed in short sessions. A simple introductory story about godly conflict and a demonic uprising sets the stage for what are essentially a series of timed cage-matches between the good deity of your choosing and a rival demon god. This time around, you’re given the opportunity to pick from five different gods (once you’ve unlocked them) that each possess a unique set of elemental abilities. At the onset of battle, a small number of followers from each side are dropped into colonies in different regions of the map. By raising and lowering the landscape and directing your peasants, you’ll provide prime real-estate for them to expand their infrastructure, grow in number and raise your pool of precious psyche energy needed to unleash powerful attacks upon your adversary and its minions.
Between expanding your mortal empire and attempting to hinder your opponent from doing the same, you must race to accrue the most power before time runs out. When the clock strikes zero (or the balance tips enough to one side to trigger it manually), a glorious Armageddon erupts. Amidst an orchestral din and bolts of cataclysmic energy, the followers of both sides will congregate to a single point on the map where they will pool their strength and engage in a final melee of epic proportions. The last one standing is declared the victor. Unless you manage to gain a sizeable advantage over your opponent from the get-go, battles will often wrap up a little too close for comfort. It sometimes seems like only a handful of extra mortals on one side or the other can make the winning difference.
Since it was so long ago, my recollections of playing Populous as a youth are hazy at best. The redesigned DS interface initially appeared deceptively complex, at least until I realized everything really boils down to just a handful of basic actions. Touching the stylus to the isometric battlefield and then dragging it upwards or downwards raises and lowers the terrain respectively. This smoothly implemented mechanic works well, and you can execute it at a rapid pace. Most of the time leading up to the eventual clash of the titans is spent creating plateaus to encourage the growth of your mortal population. During occasional lulls in the action, you can tap buildings to jettison its occupants and send them out to do your bidding. However, this must be done sparingly, since your peasants only generate psyche energy when they’re resting at home, and they’ll eventually die if left to wander for too long. You’ll have to take care to strike a successful balance between outward expansion and holding tight to bolster your might. Also, any opportunity to launch one of your devastating elemental attacks at an opponent and its minions is worth taking – for the destructive benefits as well as the entertainment value of watching their cities crushed.
Frantically working the terrain over the course of multiple battles can be hard on the wrists and the nerves. Aside from the combatants, the special powers and the landscape, the battles are largely the exact same routine from one level to the next. Though entertaining, the gameplay is highly repetitive to say the least. Fortunately, the visual style shifts frequently between levels, ranging from standard fare like grassy terrain and magma flowing rock outcroppings to more wacky locales like a haunted forest and even a Nintendo-themed world. Aside from a few short, well-produced cutscenes, the game has a very retro visual style. Whether that’s a good or bad thing largely depends on a) whether or not you enjoyed the first Populous and b) how high your expectations are for DS titles.
Moving mountains is fun and all, but over time you begin to feel like less of a god and more like a master landscaper riding a one trick pony. The solo experience of Populous DS is enjoyable in brief bursts, and dueling against friends in the multiplayer mode extends playability, but those who don’t have a particular fondness for Populous are going to find it difficult to stick with the DS remake for very long.
Bottom line: After two decades, Populous is still a heck of a lot of fun.
Recommendation: If you enjoyed the original game many years ago, it’s absolutely worth picking up this solid DS remake. Otherwise, consider a rental.
Nathan Meunier is a freelance writer. He can shoot fireballs from his eyes on command.