Review by slownerveaction

Reviewed: 12/07/03

Flawed, yet fascinating

Artdink is perhaps the strangest video game developer to ever manage to get widely published and distributed. While they first came to prominence with their A-Train series, a sort of train-themed take on the SimCity formula, their most distinctive work can be most politely
described as ''eccentric.'' Starting with the free-form ocean vacation of Aquanaut's Holiday, through the mech-programming of Carnage Heart (which launched an entire sub-genre in Japan) and surreal puzzle-action of No One Can Stop Mr. Domino, they've consistently pushed the boundaries of defined genres. Tail of the Sun most closely resembles Aquanaut's Holiday in its emphasis on open-ended exploration, but it also throws in some clearly defined traditional gaming ''goals'' to make for a more compelling experience.

If a label had to be applied to Tail of the Sun, it would be ''caveman simulator.'' You play as the leader of a tribe of primitive humans, gathering food to survive, increasing your numbers, and advancing your technology to gain more powerful weapons. There is an eventual ultimate goal,
building a tower to reach the ''tail of the sun,'' achieved by killing mammoths then building the tower out of their tusks. However, killing a mammoth at the outset of the game is nearly impossible, and there's no urgent need to build the tower. While after reaching a certain level, it
becomes fairly easy to take down mammoths, the amount of mammoth tusks need to build the tower makes it more of a peripheral objective, to be tackled over the long term in between other tasks.

Even if the game concept wasn't so unorthodox, the aesthetics of Tail of the Sun are downright bizarre. Sound is minimal, with ambient sound effects mixing with the occasional tribal/ambient/techno music track popping up. It all fits the style of the game quite well, and the
music, while simple, is well done and contributes nicely to the overall atmosphere. The graphical design is similarly basic, although it possesses a unique artistic style. The main cavemen (and women) have a squashed, deformed look with a mishmash of realistic and cartoon-ish facial features. For every person that looks remotely normal, there's several more adorned with odd masks or colorful abstract patterns. The large world you wander is filled with animals, trees, flowers, monuments and landmarks (like a Stonehenge look-a-like nearby your tribe's village) all rendered in the same crudely psychedelic style. There's also a full day/night cycle and weather effects like rain and snow, although both are strictly ornamental in nature. The draw distance is short and the blocky models are strictly the stuff of first-generation Playstation games, but this is somewhat balanced by the distinct lack of loading as you transverse the massive world and the strangely endearing artistic style.

Tail of the Sun is all about exploring the world and hunting animals to feed your growing tribe. Once you choose a leader, you'll be thrust into the world with nothing but a loincloth and your bare hands (you'll also get weapons automatically as your ''cultural level'' increases). There are small power-ups, which bizarrely enough, take the form of sugar cookies, but killing animals and eating their meat is the best way to build up your tribe. The actual execution of combat and exploration is primitive. Control and physics are a bit on the floaty side, you get used to them eventually, but there are a number of quirks. Combat is mostly a matter of hit or be hit, sometimes it's possible to just stand still and hit the enemy whenever it approaches, although taking down a bigger animal requires a bit of strategy to avoid being attacked. You'll also have to deal with... sleepiness. Your character needs to sleep, and will regularly drop like a rock without warning. Thankfully, you can wake him/her up fairly quickly, if necessary, and if attacked they'll wake up immediately.

When you finally do start powering up your leader, it also affects the whole tribe, and each individual body part is linked to a different skill. Power up your legs and you jump higher, or power up your arms to improve your attack power and take down animals faster. If you power up
your head, your tribe gets smarter, and this is especially important, since it'll help you raise your ''cultural level.'' Raising your ''cultural level'' nets you new weapons and your tribe will also build increasingly sophisticated homes. Despite the tribe raising elements, there really isn't too much in the way of depth, once you hunt a few animals your tribe will grow quickly and so will your ''cultural level.'' The main thing to watch out for is keeping your tribe numbers up in the early days, since when your leader dies (either from sustaining too much damage or old age) you'll need to choose a new one from your tribe.

It's almost as if Tail of the Sun is a game that purposefully evades critical analysis. The execution is flawed, even substandard and the concept is too unique too be compared with other games. It's also ultimately a very simple, repetitive game. Yet, somehow, I've found myself
engrossed in the game for hours at a time. Watching your tribe grow is oddly satisfying, and exploring the sprawling world is genuinely fun. Of course, it's far from a masterpiece, and its flaws eventually bring it down, but that's not what Tail of the Sun is about. It's an experiment in the ways the video game artform can be stretched and expanded, and if you find that interesting, then consider Tail of the Sun required playing.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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