Yes, the long anticipated and climactic chapter in the Virtual Villagers saga has finally arrived as a fantastic present for the New Year. Virtual Villagers 5: New Believers picks up where Virtual Villagers 4: The Tree of Life left off, exploring who or what could be sabotaging the magical island of Isola. Created by Last Day of Work, this is the latest chapter in what is the giant of the casual sim/village simulation field, and boy does it deliver!
At the end of Virtual Villagers 4 we were left wondering who or what could have interfered with the magic of the island. In Virtual Villagers 5 we learn precisely what as our intrepid villagers once again go exploring further abroad, this time going into the heart of darkness itself, the inner island. What will they find there? How will it affect their lives? Will there be fishing again? Answers to all those questions and more can be found within this breathtaking chapter.
The game begins with a rather scary story and introduces the newest feature of Virtual Villagers: actual original inhabitants of Isola. Not your old villagers, refugees from an exploding volcano, nor abandoned children, but actual original natives. And the natives are not friendly. They immediately take your team prisoner and you will spend the rest of the game helping your little folk forage for food, shelter, and knowledge while dodging scary and unfriendly guards.
As usual, you start out with a small mix of villagers to begin your adventure. As in Virtual Villagers 4, you can actually choose the mix, creating an exploration team to your exact specifications before the game begins. Once it starts you are faced not only with the resource gathering challenges but the usual mix of problem and puzzle solving, made more difficult by the fact that all of the useful places (fruit bush, science lab, hospital, etc.) are guarded and manned by both hostiles and magical totems. One of the main tasks of the game is trying to figure out how to get around those so you can get the resources needed to grow your small band of people into a thriving settlement.
The latest twist to this increasingly popular genre is the presence of the hostile natives (or "heathens" as they are called in the game). There are several different varieties, from apathetic to outright aggressive, and learning how to deal with each type while trying to keep your own villagers alive and healthy makes up the bulk of the game. It is possible to recruit (or "convert") them to your village, you just have to discover how while simultaneously keeping your villagers fed, sheltered, and learning. A nice conundrum that takes everything you know about Virtual Villagers gameplay and stands it on its head. There is another new twist with the introduction of "god-like" powers, allowing you, the villagers' "god" to intervene directly into the flora, fauna, weather, and life-cycle of your intrepid followers.
Analysis: Let's address the Elephant in the Room, shall we? For some people, the word "heathen" is not a nice one, used historically against native inhabitants as an excuse to shove them aside while destroying their culture. It doesn't help that Virtual Villagers 5 has you "converting the heathens", as if the native peoples were somehow inferior and needed your "help" to be all that they could be. Fortunately, the game addresses this in hints and glimpses of the original inhabitants' past. These folks aren't really "heathens" or "barbarians" or "savages" per se, they were originally as advanced as the newcomers who make up your villagers. Someone or something has turned their lives upside down, and they are actually pretty depressed and angry about it. You're not so much converting them as reintroducing them to the way things used to be before the great tragedy that struck Isola (revealed at the end of Virtual Villagers 3: The Secret City).
Gameplay hasn't changed much from the original Virtual Villagers: A New Home. Drag and drop your characters onto places you want them to interact with, be it a berry bush for food, a lab table for research, an area that needs to be cleared, or a building that needs to be...well, built. Each villager has its own character screen where you can view their statistics and set their "preferences" for the type of work you would like them to do. This has always been a bit "god-like", and in previous games you can sometimes see the villagers "worshipping the hand from above" (i.e. the cursor with which you click and drag them around).
Now Last Day of Work has intensified the "god-like" experience by adding the extra powers, allowing you to unleash insects, weather, and in the more advanced levels the ability to de-age a villager or even bring them back from the dead. Again, some folks might be put out by the whole "playing god" routine, but it adds a fabulous extra layer to the already multi-layered casual gameplay.
The actual village area is larger and even more beautiful than ever, with spectacular backdrops that draw the eye even as you frantically attempt to get things done. The controls scheme is just like Virtual Villagers 4 with the addition of a "power" bar and the icons for your powers. The character animations are still the same, a little jerky, but by this, the fifth in the series, the player is used to it and perhaps even a little nostalgic for those spastic little villagers. After all, you do invest a lot of time and effort into raising and training them, and they become a little virtual family that even after all of the puzzles are solved you can keep going for an unlimited time.
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So, despite the fact that it may be offensive to some in its use of non-p.c. language, Virtual Villagers 5: New Believers is a brilliant addition to the genre and ramps up everything that is fun about the series. The puzzles are tougher as are the challenges, which is a good thing for those who love this series of village sims. The story has a darker, more sinister edge as you explore what the destruction and grief have done to the original inhabitants of Isola. There's much to love and recommend in this fantastic new adventure. Go explore!