Dawn of Discovery (DS) review
"What sets Dawn of Discovery apart from many of its peers is the focus on multiple regions. It's never enough to just settle a single island, since certain resources are always out of reach until you expand to another island. This wrinkle adds a surprising amount of depth and forces a level of strategy that feels quite unique. The big difference isn't so much that you sail around the oceanówhich sounds significant but ultimately isn'tóbut rather that you have to account for delays and you have to prioritize how you expand your empire."
On Wii, Dawn of Discovery was really good. On DS, the same is true. There are a few reasons for that, but the most striking one is this: they're almost exactly the same game.
The basic premise behind Dawn of Discovery is that you're one of two princes competing for your father's approval at a time when your nation is facing its greatest crisis. The lands your kingdom occupies are in chaos. Famines and crowding push your people ever northward, toward unfriendly borders and possible military conflict. You could certainly strive for hostile expansion, but the last thing anyone needs on top of the current hardships is the even greater one that would be caused by war.
With your kingdom facing such a predicament, you make a suggestion that your father quite likes: why not settle all of those islands you've been neglecting? They already are in your possession, so putting them to use shouldn't spark conflict. Surely there is fertile land that you can turn into salvation for your starving people? Surely.
After establishing its reasonable premise, Dawn of Discovery sets about becoming the sort of game that its title implies, one where exploration and management will lead you to success and warfare is no more than an afterthought. In design, it shares much in common with the likes of SimCity and Civilization IV, but with the added aspect of sailing. The mix is a sweet concoction, just as it was on Wii, and the fact that it comes to the handheld with only a few concessions to the platform makes everything that much sweeter.
The heart of the game is its story campaign. Here, everything is divided into a total of seven chapters. Most of those further divided into three segments. You begin a chapter by sailing toward a set of islands on a map. Landing on one turns your ship into a warehouse. From there, you expand across the island as resources allow, building houses for your settlers and providing your people with resources so that they can evolve. The more citizens you manage to fit within your space, the more income you can acquire in the form of taxes, but that expansion doesn't come without cost. You also have to feed, clothe, entertain and protect everyone, an expensive proposition that forces you to balance everything carefully lest you suddenly find yourself tremendously overextended and fighting just to stay financially afloat.
What sets Dawn of Discovery apart from many of its peers is the focus on multiple regions. It's never enough to just settle a single island, since certain resources are always out of reach until you expand to another island. This wrinkle adds a surprising amount of depth and forces a level of strategy that feels quite unique. The big difference isn't so much that you sail around the ocean--which sounds significant but ultimately isn't--but rather that you have to account for delays and you have to prioritize how you expand your empire. This is particularly true of later segments in the game.
Since "Discovery" is featured prominently in the title, there's also the element of mystery. When you first approach a map, you'll know only a little bit about what the region contains. Working your way through the chapter reveals new islands--and sometimes threats--that force you to react quickly as new information becomes available. This nicely captures at least some of the sense that your salvation or ruination could be resting behind an elusive scrap of parchment. However, that exciting twist is also what makes the game sometimes turn irritating. It's frustrating to a surprising extreme to set everything up perfectly most of the way through a chapter, then find yourself facing some last-minute change that turns almost every profitable thing you've done into a disaster. And since the game doesn't really have an option to pause anything, you can't just tear down damaging buildings and the like at your leisure; fixing what suddenly has evolved into a mess takes on a frantic nature that then highlights the game's technical shortcomings.
The chief shortcoming is that moving around the islands and finding the issue that needs to be rectified is a hassle. There are in-game mechanics to make it easier to switch from one island to another, but the tutorials never really touch on those in a thorough fashion. As such, some of the techniques at your disposal may elude you for awhile until you start experimenting. Even when you do, though, it can take too many steps to find a problem that is creating a shortage of funds or resources. The process of skipping from one island to another might eventually grow comfortable for you, but then you have to drag your way around the map to find an issue or you have to zoom in and out a lot. Dawn of Discovery is a victim of its own success in that sense. You have the tools to produce sprawling empires, but the results are inconvenient enough that you'll likely strive to avoid doing so unless scenarios demand it.
Even with the exemplary Wii edition, that was a bit of an issue. With the DS, though, the problem is magnified because of the screen real estate. Everything is smaller--as you'd expect--and so things can feel more cramped as a result. The most surprising limitation, though, is that the awkward Wii remote actually turns out to be more proficient for construction than the handheld stylus. Dragging roads and dropping buildings on that system was a snap, while on the DS it seems to take an extra few steps (particularly with streets). The result is that it's much more convenient to do just about everything on Wii.
Another concern is that the Wii version also looks better. That system allowed you to zoom in closer than the DS one does and the buildings had a more three-dimensional feel to them. Nintendo's little handheld just doesn't have that sort of horsepower, so you have to settle with something that feels a bit less lively. Playing for extended sessions also seems to be harder on the eyes, which could lead to gamer fatigue (never a pleasant prospect when you'd really like to keep playing but your body is protesting).
Your ears won't mind any of the changes, though. Dawn of Discovery featured a fair amount of voice acting, something that--along with rousing music--hasn't been scaled back for the DS nearly as much as you might expect. The actual story segments are still fully voiced. Only the in-between instructions for mission and the like have been reduced to a text-only state. That's a perfectly acceptable change that leaves the characters in the plot with their personalities fully intact.
Simulation titles along the lines of Dawn of Discovery don't come to consoles and handheld systems nearly as often as perhaps they should. On Wii, the game was addictive and engaging for many hours at a time. The DS version doesn't possess either of those qualities to the same degree, but it's a much closer reproduction than you might expect. Fitting everything onto the tiny little cartridge must have been a mammoth undertaking, but for the most part the results justify that effort. You're still better off with the console version if you can find it, but the handheld version will do in a pinch.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 26, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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