Metropolismania is a city-building sim released in the US by Natsume in 2002 and developed by a tiny Japanese house called Indi Software. It was originally released here at a budget price ($19.99, I believe), and received an upgraded version in Japan, released under D3′s Simple 2000 line, with licensed shops and businesses.
The game seems pretty similar to the SimCity model at first: you drag roads across virgin landscape, place buildings, and try to keep your citizens happy. That’s about where the similarities end, though. Every citizen in your town can be visited, spoken to, interacted with, and so on, and has a meter that shows how much they like you. You can get them to like you more – increasing your overall approval rating – by speaking to them, listening to what they have to say, bringing up subjects of conversation they’re interested in, giving them gifts appropriate to their personality or interests, and by solving any request they may have.
Instead of a single “sandbox,” the game has a level-to-level progression with successively higher population requirements and varying goals. The first two levels took me two to four hours each to complete, and I can see the third down taking nearly as long to complete. It seems that only the first five scenarios have distinct goals, after which the requirements simply increase toward infinity.
The player’s ability to build anything at all also depends on the citizens of the town. You need an introduction to be able to give the go-ahead for any type of building, and these introductions can be obtained by getting on residents’ good side and asking nicely. The type of recommendations a citizen gives can vary depending on the person’s line of work and how socially-oriented he or she is. Bartenders and gossipy middle-aged women have the advantage in this area, and both can give you a good push in the right direction for any kind of recommendation you need. And vice-versa, nerdy people are never very helpful.
The game can get hectic when you’re constantly juggling citizens’ requests and trying to find the right recommendations to satisfy them, but once I got familiar with exactly which sorts of buildings depends on which, I became able to plan my towns better, and figuring out what kinds of people were best for helping me find introductions saved me a lot of legwork. Also, once a citizen is friendly enough toward you to be counted as a “friend,” their phone number is listed in your address book and you can call them up at any time without having to hoof it to their house. This works even when you’ve moved on to another town. If you call up a friend in a previous town and ask for an introduction, usually they’ll volunteer to up and move to your town right away. This makes it easier to fill requests in later, larger cities and saves a lot of legwork.
That brings up something that’s both kind of neat and kind of a pain about the game. The towns you build and their surrounding terrain are fully rendered in 3D and can be viewed from several different perspectives. This lets you plan and lay out your cities from a bird’s-eye view (obviously the most useful for this) and then walk through them from a street-level or first-person point of view. The trouble comes with the control scheme: it seems to have been built with an emphasis on walking around town with the view at street-level. The left analog stick moves your character forward and backward and turns left and right, while the right stick makes him sidestep left and right as well as moving him forward and backward. It could be argued that the left stick is meant for close-up navigation, while the right is for the aerial view, but this scheme takes some getting used to and is a bit unintuitive. And since the cursor in the overhead views is just your character, its speed is dependent on the character’s speed, and it can be a drag getting from one end of the map to another.
Still, it’s satisfying to be able to walk around in your town, seeing all the buildings you’ve invited in and meeting the citizens walking from place to place. Each resident has his or her own schedule, and during the course of a day a citizen might wake up, go to work, head to the bar or mahjong parlor for some relaxation, and then head home to spend some time with the family before going to bed. This lends a lot of life and personality to the game that I can’t really recall seeing too often in Western sims of this type.
There are little things here and there that make me think a lot of care went into this game. Each type of building looks different from other types, and often different buildings of a single type even have different exteriors. There are specific businesses in the game that allow some unexpected customization, too. Music stores let you purchase additional music to listen to in-game (one track per store, it seems), and a tailor will let you change out of that garish yellow suit you start with and into something a little more stylish. Some store sell decorations that can be placed in empty spots on the map, and a real estate agency will allow you to purchase your own residence – from a simple wooden house to a huge mansion.
The game’s lighting and detail go a long way toward making it look nicer than one might expect from a PS2 game originally from 2001, and the framerate (a constant sixty frames per second) never gets in the way. Terrain starts out lushly-forested and almost tropical, and as you lay down sections of pavement the surrounding vegetation is automatically cleared out bit by bit and the topsoil is graded and terraced in real time.
Natsume’s translation is charmingly quirky and unpolished, as per usual with their releases, and the randomization (and the way the game accounts for it) can be a little sloppy sometimes. Male characters sometimes receive female names, and genders are swapped in conversation now and again. Anyone who’s nostalgic for the translation the first Harvest Moon received might do well to try this game out. The only voice acting in the game is in rendered CG videos that introduce the game, and while the English acting there is hammy and awkward, it gets out of the way pretty quickly.
I was completely addicted to the game during the first two stages, while I was still learning the ins and outs of the game and running from place to place solving requests. But…after seven to ten hours or so of playtime, I feel like I’ve seen every face, name, and personality combination several times over. The personality of the game seems diminished a bit, now that everybody in my towns seems so generic and archetypal now, when they seemed unique and interesting before. And while I have a good idea now of how to keep my citizens happy, I still have to go through the grind involved in getting new introductions for new buildings so that I can keep expanding and meeting those goals. The game isn’t really difficult at all – in fact, I’m not sure what I’d have to do to lose at the game – and so I find myself wishing the game would play itself and save me the repetition.
It’s clear that the developers wanted to mix things up a little bit, and so on several of the levels there are challenges – burglars, cults, etc. – that you have to overcome that aren’t directly related to pleasing your citizens. Stage 2′s burglar causes a citizen to become angry and leave town every so often. Stage 3′s crazy cult brainwashes citizens and makes it so you can’t talk to them unless you’ve already got their phone number. The trouble with these is that they aren’t related to your performance. They just show up arbitrarily because they’re part of the “level,” and in all cases you just have to wait them out and let the scripting take its course. They aren’t challenges, really. They’re hassles.
I don’t know why the developers chose to split the game into levels – causing the problem of repetition in the first place – and tried to ameliorate the problems created with irritating events like that, instead of simply making the game a SimCity-style sandbox from the beginning. If they’d taken the latter route, the sense of progression would be entirely dependent on the player, and the game would have enough time to introduce a layer of challenges and events that do depend on player performance. As the game is, it exhausts itself – and the player – before it has a chance to really get going.