The casual village sim Many Years Ago drops itself in a crowded genre, competing with games like My Tribe, Virtual Villagers, Escape from Paradise, Totem Tribe, and many more. Why, then, should anyone bother with another village sim? In four words: laid-back and relaxed gameplay. In one word: dinosaurs!
Your island civilization has been wiped out by a volcano (my, that sounds familiar). After customizing the tribal chief (a.k.a. you), start the villagers off by assigning a few basic tasks such as gathering resources, constructing buildings, finding tools, and so on. Before you know it you'll be charged with completing major tasks that require tons of resources, several tools, and a little effort on your behalf.
Building up resources will take up most of your play time, the rest goes by in a flash. Navigating the island paradise is smooth and easy, featuring three simple ways to get around: click and drag, scroll at the edge of the screens, or click the inset map to jump from place to place. Put a villager on a task by left-clicking the villager followed by his or her destination.Your people will happily take care of themselves, dropping their tasks to eat and drink, take a nap, or visit with friends or family and occasionally making a new little villager. They can also be surprisingly picky eaters, forcing the player to keep a wide variety of foods available.
Whimsy is a cornerstone of Many Years Ago. Chuckle as your villagers chatter to each other in their incomprehensible language, each voice unique to the person speaking. Ponder what the little furry creatures are for. Worry that once the bridge is built the dinosaurs will wreak havoc on your little settlement. Yes, dinosaurs. That is indeed a helpful pterosaur occasionally flying by to drop coins into nests which can be used for experience points. The sauropod and hadrosaur living on the other side of the river will wander by, feeding on the trees near your village and checking out the toddlers in the corral. Yes, toddlers. Yes, a corral.
Yet another thing that sets Many Years Ago apart are the tasks — many practical, some just out and out funny — like building a wooden corral to keep the village children from running amok and disturbing your workers at their appointed chores. Some duties can even be surprisingly complex. Baking bread, for instance, takes several steps, including the construction of three separate areas along with an intricate sequence of harvesting and milling the corn, transporting the flour, baking, and storing the bread.
And hey, how about those mini-games? Familiar fare such as match-3, pipe puzzles, and pair matching have been beefed up to an almost ridiculous degree in Many Years Ago. Two games feature an astonishing 49 levels each, moving them into the category of mega-mini-games.
Each mini-game has a nice little "twist" on the standard setup. Match-3, for instance, features a cute sabre-toothed kitty who you must lead along a path inside the grid. Make matches that allow him to follow said path to a treasure chest and you can win resources, but only if you've managed to break all the blocks and chains before he arrives. The pipe puzzle is a maze atop a plant that needs to be manipulated for the seedling to grow to the surface so it can bloom. However, the plant is already growing, so rotate the pieces fast before it hits a dead end and dies. Beginning several of the tasks also leads to little one-shot, micro-mini-games that are fun and quick and can also be skipped if you're not in the mood.
Analysis: To begin with, Many Years Ago is filled with lush scenery and animations throughout its environments. The palm trees have that lovely interwoven bark that makes you want to run your hands over them. (Note: Not advisable in real life, since that dense bark in some varieties of palm trees harbors a nasty breed of scorpion.) The palm fronds are a luscious, verdant green, and gently sway in the tropical breeze. Small furry creatures shuffle around on the ground, perhaps searching for food. Water in the spring and your storage area is actually running. Listen closely and you can almost hear the pounding surf. Perusing the backgrounds almost makes you feel as if you were on a vacation, and the "kick back and sip some tea in the shade" gameplay fits the visual setting perfectly.
The tutorial gets you started and nudges you in the proper direction without being too obtrusive. Objects that need to be found are in plain sight, no monkeys or other visual aids needed. The nicest feature of all? Three mega-mini-games are entirely optional. This leaves you free to play the mini-games as you wait for your villagers to rack up needed resources, to gain more resources or experience points, or just for fun. Or you can just ignore them completely and watch your villagers spear fish in the river.
Many village sim games feature time management tasks so intense you can feel like a paranoid taxi driver on a three day coffee jag trying to navigate downtown New York during rush hour. The casual, laid-back atmosphere of Many Years Ago takes a complete 180 from that mind-set. There are no hidden items to collect, no mysteries to solve. Everything is laid out in the task directions so some might consider the game too easy. This, however, is missing the point. While many of these type of games can be as stressful as a day at the office multi-tasking, playing Many Years Ago feels more like hanging out in a hammock, watching the sunset, enjoying the beach, and hoping the vacation never ends. True casual gameplay.