Playing god comes with a certain set of expectations; limitless power, incredible freedom, and vast knowledge are but a few of the perks. Games like Sim City and Civilization earn the moniker of "god game" not just because you're an unknown force of change, but because of the power you are given. It's only assumed that a game entitled Babel Rising would provide similarly empowering abilities.
If only that were the case. Babel Rising pits you, as God, against a relentless army of human construction workers as they build the famous Tower of Babel. Using the power of earth, wind, water, and fire, you must squash their attempts before they build to the top. It's a great concept for a simple game, but a laundry list of issues make it a hard sell.
Babel Rising is essentially tower defense without the towers. You get your choice of two out of the four elements before a new mission. Each element has two abilities each with different uses and cooldown timers. A basic onscreen cursor is used to aim your destructive powers at the tiny workers, who all walk along one or two lanes on the tower.
If it sounds simple, that's because it is. Unlike a typical tower defense game, there really isn't much strategy beyond watching your cooldown timers and reacting to certain special enemies. It's rare that the game requires you to do more than bounce between the two lanes of enemies and unleash whatever powers you have at the time. The faster you can do that, the more success you'll have.
Each mission has a different goal beyond preventing the construction of the tower. These goals include destroying certain special units, reaching score goals, or simply lasting a predetermined amount of time. These parameters often stretch missions beyond ten or even fifteen minutes.
There are several problems with Babel Rising's lengthy missions. Because this is such a simple game, the approach to each mission is easily determined in the first few minutes. This leaves you to perform the same actions over and over for the duration. Failing a mission ten or twelve minutes in can be incredibly frustrating, especially since the reason you failed is almost never clear. The solution is almost always to simply go faster, which doesn't make replaying the same ten minutes any more fun.
These problems are exacerbated by Babel Rising's most fundamental issue — the core gameplay simply isn't very fun or satisfying. For all the claims of destructive, god-like powers, your abilities aren't impressive. Only a couple abilities allow you to damage the tower itself, and even that seems to be incredibly finicky. It's hard to believe any god would have time for cooldown timers either. Watching gauges fill up is a staple of strategy games, but when those gauges are literally the only barrier between you and success, well, it's not really much of a strategy game then, is it?
The gameplay of Babel Rising almost always boils down to you jumping between two areas of the map, unleashing powers as soon as they become available, and rarely ever thinking it through. A handful of special enemies pop in to mix things up, but the game runs out of clever ideas far too quickly. The developers were so short on ideas, in fact, that they occasionally divert your attention from the core gameplay to blow up sailboats in a simple shooting sequence. Success or failure in this sequence doesn't have a clear effect on the main game, it's simply a quick break from the monotony.
It's also worth noting that the game features Kinect support on 360. The simplicity of the gameplay is more understandable considering this, but not exactly excusable. Playing Babel Rising with Kinect simply isn't responsive enough to add to the experience. With one hand controlling the cursor and the other unleashing powers through simple gestures, it doesn't seem like the game has a lot to keep track of, yet playing this way is more work than it is worth. The game only registers your gestures correctly about half of the time, and as the missions become more difficult the constant mistakes really limit your chances for success. The game plays infinitely better with a controller, and yet it isn't much fun that way either.
A good premise is wasted on Babel Rising. This $10 Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network release isn't broken (other than the Kinect support), it's simply a drag to play. Great games, and even okay games, must do more than tick off all the checkpoints on the back of the box. They should make you feel, even if that feeling is a tiny bit of empowerment or a little endorphin kick from a satisfying move. It's that secret sauce that Babel Rising is lacking, and while the end product is well-assembled, it's hard to not feel a bit dead inside while playing it.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]