Play God of a Pixellated Tribe in Reprisal

Have you ever wanted to play god to a tribe of virtual people? Veteran game designer Peter Molyneux created a genre focused on just that in 1989 with Populous for Amiga, DOS, and a bunch of other platforms. Populous turned out to be one of the most influential games of all time, mixing terraforming, strategy, tiny autonomous people, warfare, and godly power-wielding unlike anyone before (and few after).

Reprisal, a free web game (with paid desktop versions), recreates Populous for a modern audience. More homage than clone, despite the obvious similarities, it’s fantastic proof that a 23 year old idea can still be fun, addictive, and fresh. There’s catchy chip tunes music, 30 levels, a separate Skirmish mode, and cool pseudo-retro graphics that simultaneously bring nostalgia and a wow factor.

I Have the Power

Reprisal starts you off with the ability to raise and lower terrain, creating mountains out of sea at the click of a mouse button. Unfortunately you have to press the space bar to switch between raising and lowering, rather than alternating between left and right mouse buttons (which would be more natural). On the flip side, you can click and drag to quickly level large sections of the map. You can also spawn forests and set a gathering point for the people of your tribe. Every use of a power costs mana, which you earn automatically as your followers develop their settlements. Flat terrain allows larger (and more) settlements, which can’t be built on a slope, so you spend most of your time — at least early on — getting a big tract of flat land.

Raising land from the water and lowering hills allows your tribe more room to build and expand its settlements.

Terraforming is the cheapest power, costing only 10 mana to raise terrain one level and 20 to lower it. Some powers cost significantly more, and must be saved up for. You unlock more powers as you progress through the Campaign mode, mastering the three elements wind, fire, and earth (there’s no water element, for some reason). Each element has five powers in total, ranging from minor to world-destroying.

Many levels task you with recovering a totem, which represents a particular power, while others are a straight-out war to conquer the map. You’ll encounter three other tribes, each led by a rival god and identical except for their color. Reprisal is basically a strategy-sim twist on Highlander — there may be only one tribe, one god, and it’s your job to make sure that becomes you and your followers.

Many levels require that you guide your people to a totem, which grants you a cool new power.

The mechanics are fairly intuitive. You get clear visual feedback from every action — the ground rises or falls, a fire breaks out, your tribe’s leader turns into a weird golem-like beast and goes on a rampage. The whole game revolves around clicking on map tiles and powers.

Not Quite All-Powerful

As great as your godly powers get — even to the point where you can effectively kill everybody, including your own followers, in one fell swoop — Reprisal never quite manages to make you feel all-powerful. Levels start with a sense that you’re weak and vulnerable. One well-timed attack from a rival god could send you reeling and put you at a huge disadvantage. That never last for long, though, because the A.I. opponents are too inept to really punish you. Once you get off the back foot, you’re unlikely to ever be stuck on it again. Winning when in the lead becomes a test in endurance, rather than a vicious battle for dominance.

The early parts of a skirmish or level are the most challenging and interesting, despite — or perhaps because of — your vulnerable state.

Rose-Tinted Glasses

We like to imagine that the games of our childhood looked good, but most have graphics that are so low resolution or simple that they look awful on a modern display. Reprisal gets around this issue by presenting retro-style sharply-defined high-resolution 2D graphics with cool depth of field filters and effects. The borders of your viewing-window are blurred, drawing your eye toward the center. Use of destructive powers such as Whirlpool, Fire, or Lightning Storm comes with stylized particle effects giving the entire world a coherent blocky 2D vibe.

Isn’t it pretty? I wish the original Populous looked like this.

Music similarly bridges the gap between retro and modern with ease. The upbeat chip tunes soundtrack begins to grate after extended play sessions, but it’s otherwise catchy, fun, and a perfect fit with the broader aesthetic of Reprisal. If you don’t like music composed of electronic beeps and bloops — reminiscent of Commodore 64, Amiga, or Atari games — you can turn it off in the options. The game works just as well with podcasts or other music in the background.

Skirmish

A Skirmish mode lets you drop into a quick game against two or three opponents of random aggressiveness, with a selection of powers at your disposal. This is a bit of a let-down in that you can’t manually tune the difficulty or tweak any other variables. There’s also no multiplayer, so you’re out of luck if the computer opponents are too simple for you. Your only motivation to play Skirmish mode, then, is the opportunity to drop straight in to a random map and see how long it takes to destroy the computer players. That’s likely to get old pretty soon, with no great room for emergence built into the systems.

Skirmish mode randomly chooses a map, a group of powers, and an A.I. aggressiveness.

Better Than a Time Machine

Reprisal isn’t perfect — it doesn’t get hard enough for skilled players, it suffers from the limitations of Flash, you can’t play custom skirmishes, and there’s no multiplayer. But it’s the best Populous-style experience you can get on this side of 1989 — except perhaps the desktop version of Reprisal, which adds a fun Challenge mode, higher-resolution graphics, local storage, and stereo music at a cost of $4.99. The mechanics are sound enough to let the graphics and audio shine, and it’s great fun being god of a virtual tribe hell-bent on map domination.


Summary

A stunning homage to the classic god game Populous, Reprisal sheds the baggage from its source material to deliver a fun and gorgeous free web game. Only a few rough edges and missing features mar what is otherwise a flawless experience.

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