Habitat Rescue: Lion’s Pride is a sim reminiscent of Virtual Villagers in that it gives you control over a group of roving characters—here, members of a lion tribe with a name of your choosing—to whom you delegate specific responsibilities. It sets off on the right foot, but ultimately proves to be an unsatisfying experience.
The story is that the lion spirit Asadi, who once ensured the spiritual harmony of the savanna, was overwhelmed by industry. Pollution laid waste to the land, and the lions are now tasked with restoring their home and their pride. The introductory screens are well illustrated and the captions are clear and compelling. You start the game understanding exactly your motivation for playing.
You lose this motivation gradually, however, as the gameplay begins to crack under its own pressure. For example, when the game opens, you have two lions pacing around a dry patch of land that contains a striking totem, a set of bushes, and a dead tree. You direct your lions to inspect the totem and learn what it is for, to prepare the totem so that it can be activated, to clear the bushes so that their berries can be eaten, and to fell the dead tree to make a convenient bridge opening up the next area.
To play, you click a lion, causing your floating hand-cursor to pick it up by the scruff, and drop it where you want it to work. Areas of interest might include totems to prepare or obstacles to clear. Lions have specific attributes (e.g., Handy, Social, Aggressive) that make them good at different tasks. You’ll want to keep an eye out for food sources, as the lions drop in health whenever they are working and will need to be shown where they can eat. You also need to be wary of cracks in the land that spontaneously appear and harm your lions if they walk over them. Click on a crack and it will disappear in a satisfying burst of flowers.
As you clear obstacles, more areas of the map open up; and as you fix totems, you can activate them for bonuses like extra Spirit Energy or enhanced fertility. The former is used for activating totems, and the latter encourages lions to pair off and produce cubs you can eventually add to your workforce.
At least, that’s how it works on paper. In practice, Habitat Rescue is a daunting task that will likely frustrate you despite your best intentions. As your pride of lions grows, and the playable area expands, you’ll be managing upwards of a dozen or more lions across many different screens. There is a map that conveniently indicates where your lions are, and lays out points of interest. However, the interface more often than not works against you. Navigating between screens with your mouse is very clunky, as the view changes slowly and haltingly. You’ll find yourself losing track of lions between screens even if you are watching them like a hawk.
You won’t want to let the lions out of your reach, because they have the attention spans of MTV commercials. Your lions never work on a task for more than about five seconds at a time. They’ll start clawing at a pile of garbage, or gesticulating affably at a group of hippos blocking their way, and almost immediately their eyes will glaze over and they’ll start to wander (literally—their status will read as “wandering.”) Worse still, every task after the first screen takes ages to accomplish. The progress bars fill up about as quickly as a tortoise crosses the street. And when they do finally fill, there are usually two more stages of progress waiting to be made.
If you want anything to truly happen in this Kafkaesque scenario, you’ll need to drag and drop the distracted lions over and over like some kind of click management game. Even at top speed, it seems to take an inappropriately long time for you to move things forward.
Let the lions go at their own pace, and they’ll often get hooked on some other task or on eating. While it is good that the lions feed themselves—they die otherwise—you will have to pull them away from the fruit tree, as they tend to stuff themselves up to 150% health and then forget what they were supposed to be doing.
Having more lions helps things go more quickly. But it is very difficult to physically manage them. You can forget about picking out specific lions when many are crowded together. And while cute, the cubs only get in the way. Though they are supposed to mature while the game is off, the cubs never seem to grow into helpful adults.
Habitat Rescue may have had potential as a resource management game with an environmentally conscious twist. You don’t exploit the environment here; you work with and slowly restore it. But unless you have the patience of a saint, that remains a pipe dream here.