Birthdays is kind of game I'd dream up when I was young(er) giving you fine control with a multitude of possible outcomes. Simply put, it hopes to simulate 500 million years of evolution (thankfully shortening the several billion year period before multi-cellular organisms appeared). That's a pretty big task, in fact Birthdays: The Beginning earned its colon and subtitle as the original concept was thought to be too large for one game.
You'll be responsible for ensuring human life is created on your very own cubeworld. This may look a little Minecraft but couldn't be further from it in terms of gameplay... apart from the whole placing and destroying block part. The art style is simple and cartoony, with a charming hand crafted quality, which may sound unusual for a simulation but you will be toying with the world itself and crafting both the environment and any life within it. It's also so much better than staring at numbers and wireframes all day and it turns each new creature into it's own reward as if you'd just won a plushy dinosaur in an arcade. The world starts off as a grey lifeless slab but after a thorough run through of the basics your cube will be a colourful hive of activity in no time... or several million years.
There is a story mode which helps prepare you for a more sandbox experience but gives you plenty of scope for experimentation and discovery. That could take you around ten hours or much longer depending on how doggedly you chase the story objective or if you're aiming for the additional chapter challenges. Once complete you'll have a good understanding of how things work and be granted access to a freeplay mode, no missions or story requirements, just you and your world, you can either carry over story progress or start from scratch. Either way this gives you free licence to experiment, want to create a water world? Perhaps you want to see if dinosaurs can adapt to freezing temperatures? Or you've been reading too many X-men comics and want to create the Savage Land? As it goes, I was quite proud that I still had a thriving Mammoth population by the time Modern Humans showed up. You can even divide up your world and see what life appears in each segment.
If you're looking for more challenge there are a number of Dinosaur Challenges, you're tasked to birth a specific dino within a timelimit on a preset world with the occasional modifier (e.g. using no items). These don't quite make up for the lack of full blown scenarios common to Civilisation games, a few disasters to survive would add some more variety and longevity to the game.
The actual gameplay, at first glance consists of simply raising or lowering land... but this can have a massive effect on your world. I had so much fun with this mechanic in the old Populus games because there's just something satisfying about that kind of power. You'll create seas, hills and mountains, all of which will affect moisture and temperature levels. These two variables are measured on your HUD and happen to be key to spawning different lifeforms. There are other less obvious variables too and you'll have to do your best to judge them. Higher land tends to be cooler and enough highland will cool the cube as a whole. What at first appears simple can lead to infinite possibilities, a realm of oceans and ice, a lush tropical world or one large cube containing numerous biomes.
Gameplay does get deeper as you set up ecosystems and food chains with a number of discoverable items to tweak your creations. There's also an encyclopaedia of lifeforms to complete, if you've ever felt like you gotta catch'em all then you'll have plenty to keep you busy. However there is one downside to this... the mechanic of actually capturing data for these creatures is a joyless mess. Swooping in to experience your world in first person is great but the controls are awkward and not well thought out. It feels more like you are adjusting a game camera rather than actually floating around the world. Being able to speed up helps you cover large distances but you lose all control over your direction potentially slamming into a mountain there's no penalty for this but you do then have to slowly readjust to clear the landscape. All of this would be forgivable if capturing was more fun, discovering a new species is always a thrill particularly for rarer creatures, however the system relies on you selecting the grid square of your quarry. difficult with the camera controls, harder for fast moving targets and downright frustrating for anything that flies. If this was all replaced with some refined controls and a slick photo mode capturing mechanic I'd be much happier. Hopefully this isn't too hard to fix through a software patch. I'd also be happier if I could switch between a selected entity to the encyclopaedia and back but that's a minor niggle that didn't really hinder my gameplay. UPDATE: A day one patch has fixed the control and capture issues and they are no longer frustrating greatly benefiting the game as a whole. It's great to see the developers were very responsive in supporting their game. (The review score has been adjusted to reflect these changes.)
In contrast Birthdays has many high points; the sense of exploration and discovery, the feeling of achievement and progression from evolving species, the tough choices that lead to making entire species extinct, even seeing how cooling of the Earth or the formation of mountains might have led to new life. It's a very unique experience, with themes and mechanics you won't find anywhere else. Your view is never overly cluttered and the charming presentation makes for a more relaxed, pleasing experience.
Birthdays: The Beginning is a colourful toybox of possibilities designed to appeal to your inner mad scientist. There's fun and challenge to be found if that's all you're looking for but the potential for experimentation is what will keep you coming back despite the frustrations of capture mode.