Based on first impressions, gamers might be fooled into thinking that Totem Tribe is just an unimaginative Virtual Villagers clone. However, aside from a few similarities in basic gameplay, the only thing that both of them share is the setting – namely, isolated islands in an unknown ocean. In reality, Totem Tribe sparkles with creativity and uniqueness that should serve as an inspiration for future casual game developers.

The player slips into the shoes of Aruku, a young woman who is chieftain of the Hawk Tribe. The world she knows has just entered into a new Epoch of the Comet, which has threatened the peace that the tribe had previously enjoyed. Aruku feels that it is her task to lead her tribe to glory and prosperity, while restoring the planet’s harmony. The first stage of this epic challenge is Tetala Island, where your first quest is to find an ancient and mighty relic called the "Tear of Heaven."

All in all you will visit 23 islands and other mystic locations during this journey. The maps range from icy winter landscapes, isles that resemble well-known holiday postcards to dangerous volcanic regions. Your tribe will meet a lot of characters too, like an old witch who turns out to be very helpful, as well as strange and hostile creatures like frightening shades. Thanks to the great variety of animals, including alligators, lady-bugs, crows, lions and turtles to name but a few, the game’s atmosphere is very lively.

At the beginning of each level, the major part of the map is usually covered by black fog and your first task is to build up a village for your people. Workers dwell in huts and are responsible for the construction of buildings and research. Scouts are trained in scout lodges and explore the island. Military units like hunters, shamans or archers protect your village against hostile creatures or tribes.

Controlling the units is rather easy – workers automatically walk to new construction assignments and scouts as well as fighters are guided by a flag that you can put anywhere. In the case of the fighters, however, this solution is sometimes annoying because it means that you cannot divide your army, which is especially critical when your village gets attacked unexpectedly while your whole army is at the other end of the island.

The ability to construct specific buildings sometimes requires other buildings – for example, a workshop is needed before you can construct the archery. Some buildings, like the Sky Hall or the Laboratory, provide you with the possibility to research more effective weapons for your fighters or new spells for the shamans. The processes of research and construction can become tedious, though, as your workers only handle one task at the same time. Again, the option to assign parts of your units to different orders would have improved and simplified the overall gameplay.

On every island you have to fulfill one main objective, but there are always some side-quests that may offer worthwhile advantages to your tribe. The diversity of the quests is simply stunning. Besides the construction and combat, there are also hidden object tasks as well as classical puzzles and riddles. On one island, for example, a hermit will beg you to free four groups of penguins which are enclosed by massive ice blocks. To solve this quest you have to build fire towers near to them, but you are only able to do so when you have finished another side quest on a previous island that grants you the knowledge to construct fire towers. As you can see, some of the quests are rather complex.

Now and then you will have to return to specific islands to finish side quests that require knowledge or a technique that you have learned later on. While other games fail to combine different genres convincingly, Totem Tribe accomplishes this lofty ambition admirably.

One major issue concerns the hidden object quests. Totem Tribe lacks any hint system, and this deficiency can get extremely frustrating in certain levels. On one island, for example, you have to find fifty ice crystals in order to cast magical spells on your enemies. Unfortunately, the whole island is covered with snow and is littered with ice structures that strongly resemble the crystals themselves. Quests like this one are as difficult and boring as trying to find a needle in a haystack. The developer would have done players a favor by including a hint system, especially because the game has a decent enough length without needing to artificially prolong it by fruitless searching.

Furthermore, it is a pity that the game only features an auto-save system. If you fail because Aruku is killed by hostile creatures, you have to start all over again at the beginning of that level, which can be a drag. It would have worked to the game’s advantage if the developer had used a save system enabling the player to save at any time.  

Apart from a few complaints, however, Totem Tribe is quite an accomplishment. Such a unique gaming experience is not easily found in the casual games market, and its production values are above average. We recommend the game to anyone who isn’t afraid of a more complex strategy game experience. You will need at least ten hours to beat the game, and significantly more if you plan on revealing every secret and reaching each of the three endings. Totem Tribe might not be as accessible at first glance as other games, but it is more than worth the effort to get into it.

Gamezebo tip: If you liked this game, try My Tribe, Escape from Paradise, and Virtual Villagers 3: The Secret City.