Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: October 23, 2007
The Sims have had what can charitably be described as "interesting" lives: They've been pet owners, movie stars, millionaires, rock stars and been on more vacations than most Hollywood actors. As the Superstar expansion pack coincided with the success of "American Idol" and its UK equivalent, "X Factor," it was with dread that I imagined the latest stand-alone game, The Sims 2: Castaway, would be a "Survivor" knock-off. Thankfully, the title actually lands in new territory for the Sims, although it introduces the problem of altering the franchise's tried-and-true formula to bring some variation to the gameplay. As a result, Castaway for the NDS may not be a good selection for Sims veterans.
The concept is simple, mainly due to expositions being a trial to narrate because Sims sound like babbling mental patients when they talk, and most gamers aren't fluent in "crazy." Your Sim is knocked into a crate, put on a cargo vessel that encounters a storm and washes up on the shores of a mysterious tropical island. You weren't the only one with less common sense than a dish cloth, as others have also accidentally washed up, so you start to build a society around helping people get food, building shelters and essentially keeping yourself happy.
In an odd sense, the game is fairly linear since the standard Sims elements are absent (house, job, etc.), and progression can only really occur by helping people in order to get new items that can help you explore the island or decorate your shelter. I suppose the ability to dress up rocks with pretty lights and makeshift ornaments is Sim-like, and even though the game doesn't specifically demand that you help people and accomplish objectives in a linear fashion, if you don't, you will just sit around doing nothing until you or your Sim dies of boredom.
This is not a traditional Sim game, as it is far more of a point-and-click adventure and looks a lot like the offspring of Monkey Island, if the characters inhaled gasoline fumes until they forgot how to speak properly. The most entertaining part is in discovering the island's mysteries, rather than decorating your living area, and yet the game remained eminently playable, which confused me to no end. In previous Sims titles, my attention span lasted long enough to build and decorate the house before trapping my Sim between two toilets or being incredibly mature and naming Sims after my friends and making them gay. These elements are missing from Castaway, and yet I still had the urge to keep playing.
As boring as it sounds on paper, foraging for berries and collecting pieces of driftwood to fashion into Swiss Family Robinson-style objects is actually very addictive. I spent hours watering plants and finding the right objects to craft an easel out of discarded pieces of wood, and I got an odd sense of satisfaction for doing so. I usually deplore games like Harvest Moon, which make a game out of repetitive manual labor, but Castaway adds just the right amount of adventure to make the whole thing seem like it's going somewhere, and in this way, the linearity is a real plus.
However, the more you play it, the more you realize that it still falls into the same Sims rigmarole of asking you to do the same things over and over again. There are only so many times you can fetch people bananas from a nearby tree before you feel like cursing loudly and telling them to get it themselves. Unfortunately, despite the addiction of objective completion being the major draw of this title, after the first few hours of playing, the novelty wears off, and you're left with a perilously mediocre game.
The linearity also means that multiplayer modes are not present in Castaway for the DS, which is a shame, considering how importing friends' Sims and houses was such a big hit in previous iterations. Given the context of the game, though, it can only really be played as a single-player adventure title, instead of including more people in a neighborhood simulation.
The controls are very simple, which is the standard for point-and-click adventures, and all of the movement and exploration can be done on the touch-screen. Castaway is incredibly simple fun at the best of times, so complicating the control system could have been tempting for EA in an attempt to spice up gameplay, but as it stands, the controls perfectly suit the pace of play. The easy flow of the game and ability to make decisions quicker using the stylus shows how the DS is simply the best system on which to attempt this type of game. The d-pad moves the camera along rails to show the rest of the area you're in; this could have been made unduly complicated by taking the game into a third-person perspective, but the controls and system suit the side-scrolling presentation well. The menu can also be accessed through the touch-screen and offers a number of different options that allow you to look at your map and chose a location to travel to, see your various collected items, review hints and, most importantly, eat.
Graphically, the characters are blocky and difficult to distinguish, making the paltry amount of customizable features for your Sim seem fairly futile. The set pieces are nice enough, and the water effects and background movement of the trees in the jungle are well animated, but aside from this, Castaway's appearance is sub-par. The Sims are meant to feel individual and characterized by your actions, and even though the flamboyant arm-waving of a Sim trying to convey emotion without speech is still present, the jagged edges make them all look and feel the same. Take away a major aspect of the characterization of your Sims, their appearance, and you're left with a wholly unsatisfactory gameplay experience. This may seem like a purely superficial complaint about appearances, but when all of the locations look very similar, differentiation can become difficult, and it's easy to get lost on your new island home.
The appearance of Castaway may not be completely up to scratch, but there are some moments, especially when you find lost cargo or pirate ships or when the set pieces change from the jungle and beach, where the presentation is actually very well formed. You can even forgive and overlook some of the jagged edges around the models when the nostalgia of the original Monkey Island comes flooding back, since the game's side view is very much reminiscent of the LucasArts classic. This may seem like a poor compliment, but the game genuinely starts to feel like this later on as you piece together random items in true MacGyver fashion to progress in the story, and this alone can be enough to attract some attention from old-school gamers.
As with most Sims games, the audio contains little music, but since Castaway appears more linear and requires a lot of shuffling between point A and point B, the lack of a soundtrack is noticeable. Jungle sounds are present, however, and add a certain aesthetic charm to the otherwise similar-looking locations. Even the water that laps the shores can be quite relaxing. Of course, the Sims speech makes a welcome return and automatically makes any encounters with other Sims markedly funnier than if they used normal words.
The Sims 2: Castaway for the DS is essentially a Sims title in name alone. Sure, you can decorate and dress up your character in various clothes and make some limited customization, but at its core, this is an adventure title. You have to search for items, do tasks for people and discover mysteries on your tropical paradise —all elements that are about as far removed from a regular Sims title as you can get. It's fun for a while and constantly addictive, and while I suppose decorating your island is enough impetus to keep playing, this would just be another average title if it didn't have the "Sims" label on it. Fans of the series may find something to like here, and it fulfils the idea that handheld games are time killers rather than deep or emotive game experiences on their own. You could do a lot worse if you wanted an adventure title, though, and if you search hard enough, you may be able to find the hidden treasure in Castaway.
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