I’ve started four different variations of this review since I began playing this game. Each one of those articles had a different tone. Excitement. Confusion. Annoyance. Acceptance. While there were a great many revelations during the week of E3, the biggest revelation for me was that I finally nailed down how I’m feeling about Happy Birthdays.
When I attended the NISA Presser in February, I wrote that “Happy Birthdays just lacked the direction I need to really have a good time.” That’s partly true to this day as well. But at the NISA event, if there was one game I thought I was going to hate, Happy Birthdays was it. Now? I’m less bullish on that stance. It’s easier to appreciate Happy Birthdays for what it is rather than what you were expecting it to be.
So what is Happy Birthdays, exactly? It’s a “God game” that dropped on June 5 where you are given the ability to shape various worlds. A little alien sprite named Navi appears to walk you through all the ins and outs of how your choices will affect plants, reptiles, dinosaurs, fish and other species. Honestly, this part of the game is extremely well done. If there’s one thing Happy Birthdays nails, it’s the tutorial. If you are patient, read through it and actually focus on what Navi is teaching you, you tend to get a better handle on what you can accomplish and how those choices affect things.
The nuts and bolts of the game boils down to the fact that you control time, have the ability to raise mountains and drop water to absurd depths. How you build the terrain of your world changes the dynamics for the creatures living in that world. Add more mountains and the temperature drops. Add more water and the temperature rises. Certain animals can only exist within certain parameters. Plants require a specific temperature to survive and flourish. Dinosaurs need a climate that allows them to prey on little critters to survive. And with all of that going on, you also have the ability to accelerate time in the game to see the consequences of your choices. Those rolling hills you put in the corner? Yea, now the Triceratops is extinct. Drop the terrain to allow for more water and see more fish. More fish means bigger prey swimming about. And on and on you can go. You will be fast-forwarding through time thousands of years at a clip and the game lets you know how the species are doing.
That’s not to say the game lacks objectives. Navi will occasionally let you know that the next goal is to create an environment where a certain type of mammal can exist. Fulfill that objective and get points. When new species appear, stars will pop up on your map. Collect the stars and the points available and you can use them for special tinkering options like the Skills. Skills are shown on the skill menu and selecting one over the other can greatly enhance your world. The “Water of Life” skill, for example, costs 500 points but lets you select an area to use the skill. Once used, the likelihood of species success in that area is raised. Drop it in some water and you’ll notice some new fish in a thousand years. Looking to create an ocean? Use “Primordial Drop.” The terrain drops immediately. You get what looks like a swimming pool. Watch life take flight in that new patch of water. All of these skills will also affect the climate in your world so choose wisely.
The game itself is a very passive experience. It looks really pretty, truth be told. But even though the animals and dinosaurs look cute, your interaction with them comes down to stats, circumstance and luck. You have to tinker with what you can until your HP gauge runs out, hop out into the overview, fast-forward through time and see what happens. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s interesting and fun for the first few hours. And then? Well, and then your mileage is going to vary.
Really cute art style
Top notch tutorial
Too much passive gameplay
Very nuanced and complex
Probably too unique
Happy Birthdays is a video game version of what happens when a nine-year old is given a terrarium and absolute control over the elements of that terrarium. Does he adequately feed his pet snake or does he push the limits and see what happens? And is any of that really thrilling at all? For me – meh.
After four different reviews that I started and stopped, I realized that what I enjoyed most about Happy Birthdays is that it’s just so dang unique. It feels different and engaging for a few hours. But after that effect wears off, what happens? Then it becomes a game I struggle to recommend to anyone. The ability to replay it over and over again just isn’t really there. I appreciate and accept that Happy Birthdays is a unique science simulator now available on the Switch. You get to play God. You get to watch the dinosaurs flourish and then fade away. Whether you think that’s worth 40 bucks, however, is entirely up to you.
Unique, relaxing broth that lacks a lot of flavor. Inventive yet uninspiring.
Download code provided by NISA America for purpose of this review.