Darwinia refuses to fit comfortably into any one genre, and doesn't make a lot of sense until you play it for yourself. By the time you do, however, the chances are that it'll have you hooked.
Wrapped in the colourful, vector-based visuals of classic titles like The Sentinel and Virus, and cherry-picking game elements from a dozen others, Darwinia looks and sounds deliberately retro, and will have anyone who's old enough to remember playing games on the Speccie or C64 dabbing at their eyes in misty nostalgia.
The game's premise is (relatively) simple. Dr Sepulveda is a scientist specialising in artificial intelligence, and Darwinia is the environment he created to play host to his virtual people - the Darwinians - all of whom have "souls" that return to the core after their death. But Sepulveda's paradise is being attacked by a virus that's stealing these souls and laying waste to the landscape. As an observer who was stranded during the first wave, you're given the task of co-ordinating the resistance from the inside, while Sepulveda helps in the form of gradual system and weapon upgrades from the outside.
You have a number of units and weapons at your disposal, which are created by drawing symbols in the game's task manager (a la Black and White's spellcaster). You can create as many squads as you like, but the game only lets you command a few at any one time, so applying the right mix is vital. More important is the harvesting of souls that are released upon a creature's death, as these can be turned into new Darwinians - whom you'll need to operate machinery and re-populate some levels. Those that aren't collected in time simply float into the sky, sometimes along with candles from mourning Darwinians nearby, and are lost forever.
But there's no description of the game mechanics that will adequately describe what this title offers. One moment you're playing Syndicate, the next it's Command and Conquer, then Lemmings, then Centipede, and so on. Gameplay is marred slightly by occasional slowdowns and crashes, and a waypoint function would go a long way towards fixing the often dreadful character intelligence, but it's an easy game to forgive.
Look beyond the retro presentation and you'll find a well-balanced, challenging product that's surprisingly engaging. It may not appeal to the console generation, but anyone who watched the film Tron more than once should make this a part of their game collection. You'll find the demo on the cover DVD.
Visuals: Beautifully-styled combination of sprite-based retro game elements and modern graphics. Clever use of classic motifs like space invaders.
Audio: Again, an evocative mix of the old and the new. In-game effects work well.
Gameplay: An original mix of game concepts that's more than the sum of its parts. Entertaining and challenging, if a little short.
Score: 4 1/2
Developer: Introversion Software
Distributor: Introversion Software
Price: £20 (approx $50)