"CAN YOU IMAGINE A PUZZLE AND SIMULATION GAME ABOUT URBAN PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY?" asks Ovolo Entertainment, in all caps. "Can you imagine someone who would pay money for that?" I respond.
City Rain makes no attempt to hide the fact that it wants you to think about pollution and conservation so as a player you go in fully warned that there'll be a little preaching. If "URBAN PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY" are up your alley then perhaps you'll be interested in this game directly because of your environmental interests. I suspect, however, that it's far more likely that you're reading this review not because of eco-friendly leanings but as a result of a love for the lost art of city builder games.
Do not be fooled - City Rain is not a conventional city builder. It's marketed as a hybrid of SimCity and Tetris; two titles that would probably be up there in almost every experienced gamer's "Greatest Games Of All Time" lists. It's a little optimistic of Ovolo to try to shuffle into their spotlight.
Here's how it works. You're given an isometric grid of between 25 and 121 squares and buildings fall from the sky. As they fall you can scroll your mousewheel to choose from a handful of different structures - housing, police station, hospital, etc. In the bottom-left corner of the screen is a range of stats describing how your city's population feels about sustainability, jobs, health, leisure, security, and education and it's your job as an agent of the "Rescue And Intervention Non-profit organization" (R.A.I.N) to choose the right buildings and the right placement on the grid to turn your city into a shining example of "URBAN PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY."
Reading back over that paragraph it sounds like an appealing concept but then I remember that I've played it and have no desire to repeat the experience. There are elements of SimCity and Tetris there but I think the problem is that they don't go together. Tetris is all about rapidly testing your spatial reasoning skills and then testing them again two seconds later, and again, and again. It's frenetic! SimCity, conversely, asks the player to be methodical and take time to consider their actions and carefully choose the right construction options. When you put the two together you get a situation where your gaming instincts are in a tug of war against each other. You know that a building is quickly falling to the ground regardless of whether you've selected the right type or manoeuvred it to the right location in time so you're racing against the clock. At the same time you want to check your approval meters and assess the city's layout but you can't. It would be frustrating if the game wasn't almost impossible to lose.
City Rain is designed to deliver a message and there isn't a great track record for that sort of game. What tends to save them is the fact that they're free to play as flash games on charity websites. City Rain costs £6.95. It isn't much in comparison with most PC releases but it still strikes me as an unusual strategy. The game is actually very simple in comparison with many that you'll find on flash game sites like Armor Games and Kontraband and I get the feeling that they would have been far better venues for City Rain, assuming the goal of the project was to make as many people as possible think about environmental issues and not to compete with the real games on the PC and Xbox for our money.
I imagine Ovolo would argue that the 20 level campaign justifies the game's price but each is over in a minute or two and there's very little variation in mission goals - usually just a substitution of which particular buildings are required to meet completion criteria. There are also quick play and "blockmania" modes but neither is likely to keep you coming back. This isn't really a game for gamers and is probably closer to the sort of thing you'd put in a classroom for kids to play with but it's so full of severe spelling and grammatical errors that it's not even appropriate for that purpose. Sorry, Ovolo, nice idea but I just don't see who's going to buy this.