October 28, 2009 1:16 PM | Michael Rose
Eufloria, previously Dyson, winner of the TIGSource Procedural Generation Competition in 2008 and IGF finalist this year, is all about being an almighty conqueror. Strip away its beautifully simple universe and ambient medium, and you've got an army sent out to destroy anything that is in anyway different to itself.
This kind of gameplay would normally involve tactics, planning and strategy on the player's part, yet Eufloria turns out to be nothing like that whatsoever. What could potentially have been a solid RTS title falls awkwardly into more of a casual market where the best option a player has is to have patience, build up their seedlings and finally launch a full-on attack to wipe out the enemy.
That's not to say the game suffers badly for it, of course - it's still feels devilishly fun to send an army of hundreds powering through enemy lines and the whole experience feels incredibly polished. The lack of difficulty and actual need for strategy, however, will most likely put many hardcore gamers off.
Each of Eufloria's 25 campaign missions begin with an asteroid planted into a seemingly simple world. Said rock is inhabited by small seedlings which grow from Dyson trees planted into the ground, and these seeds can flap around using their leaves as wings. Surrounding your home rock are others similar asteroids, ripe for the taking. The key is to order your guys to waft over to neighbouring rocks, plant their seeds and make it part of your empire.
It's never going to be as easy as that, of course. You'll find that you're not alone in this strange world, and other colonies are doing the exact same thing as you. But once all the planets are gone and there's no empty rocks left to take, it's time to start showing the other camps who's boss.
This involves sending a beefy army of seeds over to the enemy's planets one by one, killing all his seeds in a surface shoot-out, then uprooting one of his trees and planting one of your own. Then repeat until fin. There are a couple of battle-deciders to consider implementing including 'defensive trees' and flowers, but this is how the main core of the game works.
I'd already decided from the word go how I was going to play this, as will others who give it a try. It's all about building up your borders, having strong defenses, then going in for the kill once you have a reasonably-sized squad ready, right? Well, that's one possible method of play. The other is to simply not worry about your asteroids and attack attack attack.
See, the problem is, the enemy don't attack. Ever. Well, ok, maybe a small amount towards the end of the game, but the majority of the time they sit around and wait for you to make a move. They're also a little bit stupid and will make horrible decisions. I've attacked asteroids where the enemy seeds haven't even planted trees, or where they've started planting then all scurried off elsewhere to leave their trees completely open to attack. Put simply, the AI doesn't have a clue what the word 'tactics' means.
Hence, you don't need tactics either. If you build up a nice big army, it's then a case of storming each asteroid one by one until you own the map. This means the game is rather easy - it's technically impossible to lose. This point is made even clearer when you finally get to the last world and realise that you're using the exact same tactics you have been through the entire experience, and it hasn't gotten any more difficult at any point.
There are definitely signs that Eufloria wants to be a strategy game. Each asteroids has a set of values based on Strength, Energy and Speed and any seeds grown from that planet will have those characteristics. It's clear that in some cases, tactics might help you go far - for example, sending a bunch of speedy seeds to tackle a slower enemy is a great idea. However, throwing a whole mixture of all different types at your foe seems to work just as well, and tactics go out of the window.
So, Eufloria isn't a great choice for those looking for a strategic experience. That's not to say it's not worth playing full stop, though. Once I realised that not giving my full concentration to the world made so much more sense, I had a really fun time with it. Leaving the game windowed, I found that setting up my trees then doing other things (checking email, reading news etc) while I waited for my army to grow was the best way to experience the game. In fact, the game initially boots up windowed, so I wonder if the developers had this in mind themselves.
Whether this form of play will suit everyone's tastes, I have no idea. Of course, there will be people who give the game all their attention and get a great deal of enjoyment out of it. It's one of those 'the experience is what you make it' situations, since the lack of real challenge opens up the opportunity to tackle it in a variety of ways.
The gameplay mechanics themselves are pretty much spot-on. Moving seeds between planets is a doddle, and the interface is clear and very easy to understand. One feature I felt was missing was the ability to create 'convoys' - i.e. to automatically set seeds to move between asteroids. For example, if I wanted to get a nice little army going, I'd have to go back to all the asteroids I'd already taken, and send the seeds from each planet manually to where I needed them. If there was the ability to tell seeds from one of my initial planets to automatically move to a more useful place every time they are 'born', that'd be so incredibly useful and save a bundle of time.
The whole gaming experience has a very distinct style to it. You may be aware that the majority of the visuals in Eufloria are procedurally generated at the start of each level, meaning the textures, asteroid placement and player startpoints are all randomly generated and will be different each time. Even the way the trees are planted and dig their roots is done randomly in real-time. It's a lovely idea and forms some fantastically ambient worlds to explore and conquer. The sound and music go far to help this feeling linger, too, with a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack provided by Brian Grainger.
The main campaign will take a hefty amount of time to work your way through, while the extra modes (Skirmish and Dark Matter) provide that little bit more playtime. The huge missing factor, however, is the lack of multiplayer. The is a game screaming for some human vs human action and really we've come to expect multiplayer as a given with this kind of game. In the FAQs on the Eufloria site, the developers explain that they're "not experienced in multiplayer games yet and haven't planned multiplayer in from the beginning". It's such a shame, as it really does feel like there is a huge opportunity missed.
Eufloria is a beautifully immersive world that many gamers will find themselves losing many hours to. There's a distinct lack of challenge, however, and those looking for a strategy-fest should probably search elsewhere. Clever gameplay mechanics and great visuals will pull many in, but I believe the missing multiplayer option will put many potential purchasers off.