It's time to travel back to Isola! Yes, that magical island paradise with the odd wildlife and mysterious ruins is back in Virtual Villagers 4: The Tree of Life, the latest installment in the Virtual Villagers casual sim series by Last Day of Work. The powerhouse of the field, the game by which all other village simulations are measured, is back to delve deeper into the secrets of the island!
The story begins with a recap of the first three games. After fleeing an erupting volcano, some of the descendants of the original settlers accidentally find the west side of the island, complete with abandoned children, and make another thriving settlement. The second settlement having gotten too big to sustain them, the villagers send out a scouting party that discovers ruins at the north end of the island, and learn much about the history of those who have gone before. Now, the chief of the northern settlement is uneasy. The magical plants and animals that make Isola such a welcoming place to live have begun to die off. What to do? Why, send off yet another expedition, of course!
During the intro, the first of the new changes found in Virtual Villagers 4 kicks in. Rather than being stuck with a randomly generated group, you get to customize an expedition party of five. Choose from a plethora of characters of different ages, genders, talents, and personality quirks. Once the selection is made, the real fun begins. Create a thriving settlement using those five people while simultaneously investigating and solving the riddles of this new area of the island. Find food, build shelter, research technology, and explore every inch of this strange new place while keeping the villagers happy, healthy, and thriving.
For the four or five of you who have never heard of the series it's simple. Complete tasks by picking up a villager and dropping him or her onto a particular area, like a berry bush to gather food, or the foundations of a hut to build shelter. Set some villagers to research and use the resulting tech points to purchase more advanced technology, allowing the village to grow and prosper while attempting to solve the mysteries of the island. Villagers who stay on task will accumulate knowledge, skill, speed, and expertise. Help them solve the riddles while keeping them dry, warm, and fed.
Virtual Villagers 4, like all the games in the series, runs in real time. That means even when the game is off, time is passing and events are happening. If you're going to be away for very long, slow down or stop time for your little friends. Otherwise, when you come back, well, occasionally it's not very pretty. Villagers can die of disease, starvation, or old age, leaving behind nothing but a skeleton and it's not fun to come back to those. Because of the time it takes to accomplish some of the tasks, Virtual Villagers 4 is a game best played in short segments, rather than in a marathon live session.
Gameplay has changed little from the first of the series, but new tweaks have been added, along with new puzzles to solve, new collectibles to collect, and a new mystery to solve. At the center of the story is the titular Tree of Life, a banyan tree that is near death. The central story revolves around this tree: why is it dying, how can it be saved, and why is it affecting all other life on the island.
Analysis: Virtual Villagers is one of the most popular village sim games around, if not one of the most popular casual games series in general. Virtual Villagers 4 doesn't change the formula much, but adds new layers of complexity that lengthen the gameplay and gives the player something to do beyond solving the central 16 puzzles. The later puzzles are especially complex, requiring a vast interwoven synthesis of technology, nature, manufactured goods, and manpower to solve. More fun for the Virtual Villager fan!
The hand-painted backgrounds and cutscenes are even more gorgeous this time around, enhanced by a wonderful, haunting soundtrack to set the mood. The menu controls which obscured the left side of the screen have been condensed and moved to the bottom, leaving the view of the stunning vistas unimpeded. The collectibles, a carryover from the last two installments, have been incorporated into the gameplay itself instead of being tacked on as an unnecessary side task. The little villagers have a wider range of clothing, hair colors, hair styles, and personality quirks than ever before, moving them ever closer to real, live virtual people rather than disposable pawns. If there's any complaint at all about Virtual Villagers 4 it's this: the jerky little animations of the villagers are getting a little old. It would be nice to see their movements smoothed over and made less cartoon-like.
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Nevertheless, Last Day at Work has upped the ante and produced some fascinating, engrossing, occasionally frustrating but still marvelous casual gameplay that is fun for the whole family. Fans of the series will find a whole host of new things to love, and new players are sure to be hooked by those charming little islanders. Long after all the mysteries are solved you may find yourself revisiting your industrious little people to make sure they keep on thriving. Check out the gift of gameplay that keeps on giving!
Note: Virtual Villagers 4 is as of now only available from Last Day at Work in a Developer's edition, which includes their official game guide, the heartfelt soundtrack in mp3 format, and gorgeous desktop wallpapers.
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Also available: Developer's Edition
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