When I first saw the little three-eyed guys who populated the various stages of my preview of The Mims: Beginning, I didn’t give the game a whole lot of credit. Sure, it was a real-time strategy game, but how hard could it be when it was populate by such silly-looking creatures? When I started hearing the little fellas screaming in horror as I screwed up my aim with my Psi powers, setting a good portion of them on fire, I chuckled a bit. It sounded funny, and with the bright, colorful locales and the goofy character designs, I just couldn’t make myself think the game would be a challenge. As I permanently screwed my economy and drew in various predators, I was still laughing, but that laughter was becoming more nervous and half-hearted. Soon, my mouse pointer was hovering over the Restart button, having learned the hard way that Squatting Penguins Studio had built a challenging game under the adorable hood of The Mims: Beginning.
A lesson I learned in a hurry was about the interdependency of many of the aspects of the game. For instance, most things cost biofuel (fruit juice) to create; which is essentially the easy-to-mine resource for the game. Even so, biofuel is actually a little hard to get, as you need plants to create the raw materials, a machine to refine it into a useable state, and then a place to store it in. If you don’t have those three buildings, you are pretty much out of luck in terms of what you can do. for instance, when I found that I was having trouble with some enemies that were spawning on the other side of the island, I wanted to take them out with some of the attack powers I could use. The shame was that I couldn’t hit them since they were out of range of my main tower, and the only way I could increase that range was by building two other types of structures. This meant that I had to be very careful about what and how I planned to build, and forced me to shake the cobwebs out of my head and build a strategy.
I had to pay even further attention since biofuel isn’t the only thing you need to create structures. You also need to have crystals in order to build most of the things in the game, and crystals are far harder to get than biofuel in the preview build. The plants that create the fruit for biofuel come in many different types, were relatively cheap to create, and often start working within moments. Crystals, on the other hand, can only be created through galactic trading of animals that you raise on your planet. This is a whole lot harder to do, as it requires creating an animal (Which costs biofuel and sometimes even crystals), raising it to a saleable age (which means keeping it fed and safe from predators), and then loading it onto a ship (which require a shipyard and biofuel to fuel the ship) to send into space. With so many steps, if you don’t put a priority on creating new animals, you are bound to run out of crystals fast.
I learned this the hard way when I didn’t start each stage by raising animals. You typically start with enough crystals to create most of the structures you need if you are frugal and know the game well, but for someone like me who was learning, I often overspent on the wrong things. This came from the fact that there was a goal in each of the stages I played, requiring me to create certain creatures and plants or having to reach and attack an area. I’d start building things that focused entirely on those goals and forget all about the complex process of raising animals, and then often find myself in a bad spot where the only thing I could do was restart the level. Once your crystals are gone and you have no animals to replace them with, you are just about completely screwed. You can try to raise small amounts of animals without crystals, but if you’ve been having trouble keeping animals alive with the buildings you have, there’s no way to redesign your setup short of restarting the entire level.
You’re probably thinking that I’m just an idiot who should have created more animals at the start, but doing so has its costs. If you’re thinking you can just hoard animals and biofuel until you have a decent stockpile of supplies, you can’t. Having too many plants or animals during a given stage will draw in predators who are very, very interested in what you’re up to. There are meters at the top of the screen that tell you how interested they are in your planet, and once they start showing up, they’ll begin eating your product and screwing over your plans. This was annoying with plants, but the time and costs involved in creating saleable animals means losing a few of them to predators can be a disaster that’s hard to recover from.
You can try to counter this with the right buildings. As I said, you need to build certain ones in order to build others, so there is a huge temptation to burn through buildings with your opening funds. This was especially true of my main building, as upgrading it gives you a greater range of influence over the stage and lets you build or attack over a wider area. It seems like a pretty sure bet at first, and since creating animals draws in predators, maybe I’m better off having none of them until my defenses were beefed up. It was often expensive to build up everything I needed to get those upgrades for the main tower, though; usually far more expensive than I could afford with my starting funds. I could often build out quite a distance, though, extending my iron fist far out onto the landscape.
That meant I could just go ahead and start building, right? Well, I still didn’t have the easiest time since the terrain doesn’t always let you have your way. I might want to build something, but there were dips and rises in the land that made it impossible. Those are annoying, but trees were an even bigger nuisance — mainly in that I could do something time-consuming about them. Trees can be burned down to clear more room to build, but you have to do so with your Psi powers. These take time to recharge (Again, depending on what you built), and it can take three to five shots of it to burn a tree down completely. What’s worse is that if you leave a tree with even the slightest bit of health left, it will completely regrow. I often would burn a tree down to a tiny nub and then get sidetracked with a build or predator attack, then come back to find that the spot I thought I’d cleared was just as tangled as before. More than once, I thought I’d burned the tree down completely since I couldn’t even see any hint of it and had it grow back, so I’m really hoping there’s some visual indication that the tree’s gone in the final build. Then again, having the tree burn down in fewer uses of the power would be even better. It might affect balancing, but it really bugged me to have to burn the same tree five times to get rid of it.
What about the little guys that are doing all of the work, though? The Mims are pretty good at self-regulating themselves, gathering fruit and creating biofuel on their own when not being told to do something else. They do get tired over time and will begin to work slower if you don’t build them a home to rest in, but a quick restoring shot from your psi powers will also have them moving again. You can also create a soldier version of a Mim if you find that enemies are giving you a hard time, and these guys will patrol the camp to look for any trouble without you. It’s nice that they know what they should be doing, but you can also give them more direct commands on where to go if you have somewhere specific in mind. I could select the soldiers and give them a location to head to, and if an enemy was nearby they would attack it. Overall, they seem like fairly intelligent little guys, often taking pressure off me and letting me concentrate on building the right structures and raising animals.
That being said, it can be hard to find the right guys when you need them for something. Since the game puts the Mims to work on tasks without asking the player most of the time, there didn’t seem to be any particular way to select a soldier or worker when I needed one. The two Mims look very similar from the distant view I used for most of my building, so I’d often have to zoom right in to see if I was looking at the right kind of creature. The zooming and camera movement works, but is a little clumsy if you’re looking for a single tiny creature on a map, resulting in some major frustration when an enemy is ripping through my animals and I’m unable to find a soldier. A tab to select soldiers or workers, even a random one, would make this issue a whole lot easier to take. There’s not much in this game that’s more frustrating than seeing a predator attacking your things and being unable to find any of your soldiers to fight it.
If none of those things were challenging enough on their own, the game also has events going on during each of its levels (which each take place on their own unique terrain and stage). In one early stage, there was a broken machine down in a poisoned valley that I had to reach with some Mims. It didn’t sound too bad at first, but only a few minutes passed before it started spawning enemies, throwing off my careful plans every time I played the level. While each of the things I’ve discussed so far can make a player’s life difficult, a careful strategy can easily get players through. The events are what spice this up and make it interesting, as having enemies spawn before I was ready for them (Knowing I’d grown too many plants or animals) meant having to make changes on the fly. This resulted in a lot of bad decisions on my part, making this the most challenging aspect of the game.
This is all a lot to keep track of and to be able to adapt to, creating a game that can only be played with a careful but fluid balance. It’s a solid balance most of the time, but having only a single, complicated way to create crystals felt like it made things a little bit too hard to fix if certain things went south. If you screwed up any step, it felt like the only recourse would be to reset. You can’t get crystals back for destroying structures, so unless you’re keeping your animals alive by doing everything right without fail, it feels like it’s really hard to come back after you’ve made a mistake. I appreciate that the developers are working to create a game where everything needs to work together to complete stages, but this one step feels too narrow and complex for how integral it is to every other part of the game. It does create an interesting fail state, though – one where the player is the one who admits defeat rather than having the game tell them they failed. Making me quit because I don’t have enough crystals was annoying, but it does seem to be an effective way of letting the player know they failed.
I can’t stay annoyed at this game when I run out of crystals, though, since it’s so dang pretty. While I’m usually looking at them from far away, the Mims are cute aliens with three eyes on stalks, looking like happy little creatures from some kid’s nightmares. The animals you raise also have an odd design to them, appearing to take inspiration from Dr. Seuss. The predators are a little darker, and as such seem a lot less visually interesting than the animals you can raise. Still, once you have some animals being raised and your city comes together, the bright art and fun character designs give it this feeling of liveliness. The island bustles with natural and city life, and a part of me just wanted to watch it all exist for just a little while before I got back to the game itself. It’s a charming look, one that made the game’s challenge take me completely off guard. It goes far in making it stand out in the genre, even if it does hide how hard the game can be.
I’m sure RTS veterans will have an easier time with the challenges of The Mims: Beginning than I did, but I’m still willing to practice. With its cute look and the goofy nature of the Mims themselves, I don’t mind putting in more time to adapt to the challenges the game throws at me. Its complexities still manage to surprise and beat me, forcing my pointer to the Restart button quite a few times, but the interrelations of the various structures and life forms always seem just within my grasp. Also, there’s something really humiliating about failing these little guys. This build does have a few minor issues to clean up as it heads to release, but otherwise the game is looking good as an oddly-adorable and silly entry in the genre.