Virtual Villagers 5: New Believers is enjoyable but requires patience

Captured! Virtual Villagers 5: New Believers, the fifth entry in the Last Day of Work’s popular village simulation series, begins with the player’s hand-picked quintet of brave explorers being ambushed and taken prisoner by masked natives while investigating the dense jungle at the heart of the island of Isola. Acting as their god, it’s up to you to help them survive the strange new village in which they find themselves and, just maybe, convert their heathen captors into true believers along the way.

Before getting into the ins and outs of the game’s cultural conflict—not to mention the player’s powerful new Old Testament-style smack-down powers—series fans should rest assured that, despite some innovative new features, New Believers retains the same formula, design, and style they came to appreciate in its predecessors, including lush graphics, amusing character animations, and a soothing score.

You’ll begin the game by having your villagers build a food bin out of the branches that make up their cage. Then, in many ways, it’s business as usual. Players can begin construction of a hut and a love shack (yes, baby production and parenting return) by dragging and dropping their villagers onto piles of building materials. Meanwhile, the kids can be dragged and dropped onto mushrooms to collect food and onto science items and relics to add to the player’s collection and provide bonuses to technology and the energy required to unleash godly powers.

As you scroll around the map—which, if you press the map button, can now be viewed in its entirety, giving players a better idea of where their villagers are and important events are taking place—you’ll find plenty of curiosities, including a lab, a hospital, a dry lake bed, and a broken down aqueduct. Many of these locations act as learning grounds where your villagers can learn useful skills carried over from earlier games in the franchise, including healing (necessary for curing the sick), research (helps villagers discern some of the game’s mysteries), and farming (a must to keep the population alive, healthy, and working). Devotion, a new skill exclusive to this entry, helps villagers in converting their captors to their beliefs—more on that in a moment.

Sadly, most of the village’s areas are inaccessible to start. Totems and heathens in red and orange masks guard them. In fact, getting past these obstacles makes up a significant portion of the game’s puzzles.

Totems must be dismantled, but in order to do so you’ll need to clear the area of heathens. This is typically done by using one of the game’s new god powers, which are slowly unlocked with time. You can summon a lightning strike, for example, to electrocute and scare off the masked guards for a moment, which gives you a chance to drag and dropping your villagers onto the totem to deconstruct it. With no totem to guard, the heathens will migrate to another spot in the village and you’ll gain access to whatever area lies beyond—like, say, a life-giving fruit bush. Each totem requires a different tactic.

But heathens aren’t just pests to be shooed away. Some—those wearing blue masks—are open to reason. Drag villagers onto a blue mask and he or she might be willing to listen to them “speak the truth,” which could result in the heathen seeing the light, removing his or her mask, and being inducted into the tribe. It’s a clever means of increasing population without having all of your female villagers occupied nursing babies.

As in previous Virtual Villagers games, New Believers requires a good measure of patience. You can drag and drop your villagers onto new tasks all you like, but it doesn’t significantly increase the rate at which they accomplish tasks or learn new skills. In fact, since the simulation continues while you’re away, the greatest leaps in progress tend to take place when the game is switched off. When you come back to it the next morning you’ll be greeted with newborn tribe members, finished projects, and new game messages.

That means your job isn’t to micromanage your workers, but rather to decipher the game’s puzzles and plan your villagers’ activities accordingly. Indeed, failure to do this can make your job much more difficult or even bring the game to a premature close.

I lost early on in my first try because I focused on gaining access to the lab rather than the fruit bush. My villagers starved to death overnight. In my second go I became all but stymied because I had most of my villagers working on building projects. Construction efforts finished more quickly, but none of my villagers earned much building experience in the process. This proved problematic later on when I needed a master builder to solve more puzzles and there were no more construction projects on which my villagers could hone their building skills. My only options were to restart the game or spend hours dragging and dropping my best builder onto a completed hut to fix it, causing him to gain tiny bits of building experience.

I’ve started a new tribe three times so far. Working through the opening puzzles again and again—and knowing there’s no way to speed up the process—has proven a little wearisome.

I’ve had a lot of fun with Virtual Villagers 5: New Believers, and I expect I’ll continue to enjoy it in the weeks to come—there are dozens of trophies that can only be attained through steady, long-term play—but I’m a little more frustrated with this one than I have been with the series’ previous games. It earns an easy recommendation for long-term fans, but newbies might want to start with earlier entries in the franchise.