Escape from Paradise
Escape from Paradise (Windows/Mac) is a simulation/adventure game similar to Westward and Virtual Villagers where you lead shipwrecked castaways on a quest to build a tropical paradise. The interesting twist is the inclusion of minigames that help you earn supplies as well as distract you while your villagers work. It's an intriguing genre-bending concept that puts you in the role of resource manager and resident puzzle solver, and despite its not-so-polished presentation, pulls it off quite well.
The first question I found myself asking: if this is paradise, why bother escaping from it? Around fifty passengers of a cruise ship have been stranded on this island, so I guess they're pining to get back to their posh lives of pressed polo shirts and bits of things stacked on crackers served on shiny trays. You begin with just a few castaways and a couple of run-down huts. One of the tiki mask-clad natives appears to guide you, saying that if you harvest 50 wood you'll get a surprise. Axe in hand, select your villagers with the mouse and drag them to some trees to start chopping.
As you accomplish goals set by the tiki folk you'll uncover almost 20 minigames. Some are found by exploring the island, others as a natural progression of the game. While the villagers build and harvest, set your synapses on simple games like Word Jumble, Chinese Checkers, and Towers of Hanoi, all of which earn you a handful of food and wood. You also get skill points which can be used to upgrade your castaways' proficiency in carpentry, wood chopping, and providing for the village. In addition to managing resources and minigames, you'll also need to keep an eye on each villager's needs, such as hunger, thirst, and overall happiness.
Analysis: Ok, let's get this one out of the way: Escape from Paradise versus Virtual Villagers. The similarities aren't subtle, as both share a common story theme and setting, but these games really are two different animals. Escape from Paradise lays out challenges on a map, making progression smooth and linear by comparison. Its heavy emphasis on minigames makes it more varied than its counterpart, though it does break the immersion factor Virtual Villagers happily provides.
Standing on its own, Escape from Paradise pulls all of these disparate shards of casual genres together into a very entertaining final product. The interface and visuals are a little rough around the edges and could use some buffing up, but that doesn't detract from the game too much. The minigames are a nice addition to the village sim genre and are playable from the main menu, adding some replay value to the game. Unfortunately they're all rehashes of games we've seen before, but at least they weren't butchered beyond playability.
The game is a bit slow-paced, especially at the beginning, and relies on gathering materials to lengthen the overall experience. Fortunately the minigames allow you to pass the time, but even with the occasional word jumble you'll long for an in-game speed throttle.
A great addition to the village sim world and a light-hearted way for simulation newbies to ease into the genre.