(www.plasticpals.com) Artdink is a small Japanese company that has made some of the strangest gaming experiences in the medium. From the relaxing scuba diving in Aquanaut's Holiday, to programming interplanetary war machines in Carnage Heart, they've pushed the envelope of what games can be. Tail of the Sun, an unusual caveman simulation, is no exception. It was released during a wonderful period of innovation on the original PlayStation when companies were bursting with ideas, like Parappa the Rapper (the father of all music rhythm games). The basic premise of the game is never clearly stated. Instead, players simply choose one of several odd-looking cave people, then set off beyond their little one-hut village to explore the unknown.
The world provides a large and diverse playground, so the majority of the time is spent exploring. You'll find strange ruins south of the village that enhance one of several latent physical abilities, most important of which is undoubtedly the water ruin (which allows your cave person to swim). With this ability, you can literally spend hours heading off in one direction. You'll traverse vast deserts, spelunk deep underground caves, swim across deep oceans, climb impossibly steep mountains, explore rainy rain forests, trudge across arctic tundra and more. As you do so, time passes from day to night, and it may rain or snow.
Your cave person ages (represented by a ring of fire that dwindles over time), and he can starve, so you must stop to eat all manner of tasty fruits, vegetables, plants and flowers growing out of the ground (modeled after modern day sugar treats). Your cave person also needs sleep, and will take naps whenever he needs to, often at the most inopportune moments, which may last up to 1 minute! Speaking of which, you'll encounter and hunt a variety of ferocious animals (thankfully, there are no dinosaurs), and meat gleaned from the hunt can be eaten immediately or sent back to your growing village. As you hunt, eat, swim and perform various other actions, your cave person undergoes a series of cultural level-ups, ensuring the survival of the entire tribe. After a long and eventful adventure, often ending with the death of your cave person, the player is returned to the village – which will have grown considerably thanks to your efforts – and the process begins anew.
And so on it goes. When your hunting skills have sufficiently improved, you may begin tackling larger game, and eventually you will take down the intimidating woolly mammoths, which leave behind their massive tusks. Collecting the tusks reveals the underlying goal of the game: your village plans to assemble a tower of mammoth tusks to reach the sun! As a nice aside, you can track the different animals you've hunted by examining a scroll-like cave painting. It seems the more mammoths you hunt, the longer it takes for more to spawn, leading to a troublesome dilemma. When the beasts themselves grow thin, only the most tenacious explorers will find hidden mother lodes of tusks, perhaps left behind by some other, forgotten tribe. Of course, besides these hidden treasures there are a number of payoffs to exploration besides the sheer joy of it, ranging from really cool to downright silly.
Visually the game world is angular, there is some draw-in at the horizon (which rolls into view similar to Animal Crossing) and the characters and animals you encounter are very low-poly. This is to be expected given the PlayStation's graphical limitations, though immersing oneself into the caveman atmosphere, you might be inclined to believe this was a stylistic choice. The animals, made up of strange colours and angular lines, evoke the style of cave paintings. The numerous strange stars wheeling through the heavens, while unrealistic in their depiction, suggest the wonder they must have stirred in our ancestors. The change from day to night and dusk to dawn are magical moments worth stopping for, and the seemingly endless variation of the tribe members themselves is interesting if nothing else. An almost complete lack of interface removes unsightly game elements from the screen.
Wisely, the designers have chosen to reflect the peacefulness of their untouched world through ambient sounds. Now and then, an unexpected, playful burst of techno keeps you going, if never to discover its origin. While the inclusion of electronica in a caveman simulation may seem strange, it seems less so when you consider how tribal the monotonous, bass-heavy rhythms can be.
Tail of the Sun is remarkable not because of its controls, graphics or sound (all of which are decidedly unremarkable), but because of its endless curiosity, its engaging theme, its pure atmosphere, and its soaring ambition; traits which surface to those that give it a chance. As it stands, Tail of the Sun is one of only a handful of caveman games, and is easily my favourite one.
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