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Game Spotlight: Eufloria

November 5th, 2009 No comments

Eufloria, formerly known as Dyson, is certainly one of the most interesting game releases of this year. The game refers to itself as an ambient real-time strategy game, which pretty much sums it up. Nonetheless it manages to develop a drawing fascination that will keep you playing for several hours.

Dyson

The player is given control over a swarm of seedlings, who pretty much resemble little flying blossoms, except that they are able to shoot tiny laser beams from their peduncles and furthermore possess the ability of interplanetary space travel. Each level starts with you occupying a small number of asteroids in an unknown sector of space. After gathering at least ten seedlings on an asteroid, you may sacrifice them to build trees that can grow more seedlings. By constantly expanding your territory and increasing the number of seedlings under your command, your goal is to eventually capture all asteroids in the sector. Soon you will encounter hostile swarms of seedlings which you will have to overcome in order to succeed in your quest.

The game mechanics are very simple. There is only one supportive unit type besides seedlings and only two types of structures, breeding trees and defensive trees. Each asteroid can carry a fixed number of trees which, once planted cannot be replaced. The pattern for winning is simple: Try to avoid the enemy as long as your numbers are small and build lots of trees until you vastly outnumber your enemy. Only in the latest of the 25 maps making up the game’s single player campaign you will have to carefully plan your strategy. For example, when there is a single very large asteroid on the map producing particularly powerful units, a brute-force approach is likely to fail. Yet overall, Eufloria is a fairly easy game, compared to common mainstream RTS titles. According to the game’s manual, the developers’ main intention was to create a unique atmosphere instead of challenging game, hence the term ambient gaming. As a consequence, the downbeat soundtrack and abstract, but colourful visuals amount to major parts of the game experience.

There have been quite a few of these ambient games in recent years. We had the games by Jenova Chen (Cloud, flOw and Flower), this year’s IGF winners Blueberry Garden and Osmos, as well as the czech flash adventure game Samorost (whose pseudo-sequel Machinarium will probably get its own article on these pages soon). And even the popular Introversion Software games (Darwinia, Defcon) featured several design elements that would qualify as ambient gaming. This is of course largely due to the limited budget in independent game development: If content can be generated procedurally, it saves you a couple of designers on the project; if content can be omitted completely by abstracting it away – even better. This makes abstraction and minimalism key design elements in most indie games today. There is however an obvious risk to this approach: If a game becomes so abstract, that no one understands it anymore, it risks becoming meaningless. It may still be fun, but with the high ambitions of current indie game authors, that often does not suffice. This is probably the biggest flaw of the whole ambient gaming approach. If all you aim for is creating an interesting atmosphere, you are likely to fail creating a game.  It is far too easy to use the ambient design paradigm as an excuse for bad design decisions.

Eufloria unfortunately makes a few of those bad decisions itself. All maps feature a certain degree of randomization, which will result in wabbly levels of difficulty. If you find yourself in a hopeless situation due to unlucky starting positions, a simple map restart may save you lots of troubles. Same goes for the enemy AI: If you’re lucky, two enemies of opposite factions may only attack each other, giving you enough time to build up your forces undisturbed. Another problem arises from the fact that the game mechanics are very simple. While the maps included show some impressive variety in their design, once you have completed the campaign you the gameplay gets a little tedious and it is likely you won’t return for some time. The game comes with the possibility to create custom maps through a Lua-based scripting system, but there is little to try here that you haven’t already seen in the campaign. Finally, the controls don’t scale well. While they are fantastically intuitive when you have only a few asteroids under your control, they show their flaws on some of the bigger maps of the campaign. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often with the included maps, but it does constrain the possibilities for custom maps.

Compared to more artistically demanding representatives of indie games like Braid or the recent Fatale, Eufloria may seem a little shallow. There is no deeper meaning, no clever message behind the cozy, minimalist surface. While there is a story accompanying the campaign and it even contains a little twist near the end, it won’t keep you thinking for too long. Eufloria‘s aim ultimately boils down to creating an enjoyable experience. And indeed, it is a fun thing to play, which is more than can be said of most big-budget RTS titles these days.

So if you’re just looking for a calm, pleasant experience after a hard day of work, Eufloria might be just the thing.  Fortunately, there is a demo available which gives a pretty good impression of the overall game experience.

The game is available for a total of 25 $ US/17 € from the game’s website, which is not the cheapest for an indie game, but still very reasonable given the game’s length. If you liked the demo, don’t hesitate.

Categories: Arthouse Gaming, Games