It is late March, and the weather is weird once again here in the jolly UK. One moment it is warm, and the next, it is raining.
While I’m working on Episode 30 of the Indie Corner series, I received a lovely message from a friend on Discord, who wanted to read my views on classic games. You know what? That was an amazing idea! I’ve covered a few older games on the website before, but it got me thinking. Why not something like my Indie Corner series, but for older games only?
So here we go, the Retro Ark! It’s a play of the all-in-one emulator Retroarch, which I figured had a nice ring to it. My first game was originally going to be the Lionhead Black and White series, but I’ve covered both titles in detail already on the website. I might return to them at a later date, but there are plenty of older games I play frequently that deserve attention too. By old, I’m going to say up to 2009 as a rough guideline.
Therefore, the first game in my Retro Ark series is none other than Impossible Creatures, a fascinating RTS from the early 2000s.
I played Impossible Creatures at release and I remember my school being rather obsessed with it. Unfortunately, I lost my physical disc during that time, so I was unable to play it for years. While abandonware sites and third-party disc copies are plentiful, they were expensive back in those days. Steam offered an easy way to play Impossible Creatures again in 2015 — a remastered version of the game! With improved compatibility with modern systems and Steam Workshop support, it proved to be an excellent addition to the catalog.
I’ve always been fond of strategy games. Risk, Age of Empires, Empire Earth, and the Total War games (the early ones, anyway) are all pretty cool. And yet, the amount of customization you get in this game is pretty impressive. Releasing in 2003, I remember looking at it in the UK Game store. Thousands of combinations with combat animals? Relatively impressive graphics? Sign me up! Even in 2023, the game still looks kinda neat.
This is one of the games where I’ve had more fun in the Army Creator than I did playing the actual game. Not that the skirmish maps and campaign mode weren’t enjoyable — the concept behind creature creation (completely custom unit sets) has never been implemented as well as in this game. It has a level that very few games can hope to match, even in modern times. Even the base game has up to two thousand different combinations you can do, more with the add-ons and modded content. Yup, this game has mods as well!
The unit creator is fairly simple. With DNA-splicer technology, combine two animals together, and play around with parts. Some come with abilities, while others make up their stats. For example, the cheetah is a fast land animal, but it is fairly squishy. Combining it with an electric eel gives an extremely fast animal on land and water, with a ranged electrical attack (Electric Eel head and tail). It’s relatively easy to kill, but it is extremely versatile. And so on. There are very few limits to building a diverse army, although players are limited to nine units. While there is a lot of freedom, players do need to be cautious about how they build their forces.
There are five ages, with different creatures locked to different levels, so you can’t combine an ant with an elephant and expect to get the elephant in Level 1 Research. You can also make flying and water units, adding even more options. There’s a surprising amount of depth involved.
So, let’s get into the combat. I would describe the gameplay to be fairly simplistic and fast-paced, which is a nice thing. Unlike some strategy games, base building has less emphasis, although you’ll need to gather resources and henchmen to build stuff. Defensive structures make an appearance, but with the power armies provide, you cannot rely on them to protect a base. This is more of a macro-style RTS.
The resource system is also easy to get a handle on. Your henchmen gather coal, while electricity pylons/generators are limited, providing the other resource. The challenge in this game comes in army design and implementation. Will you make a cheap army to overrun your opponent? Will you turtle until you can pump out your max-level monstrosities? Will your army be a nuanced and balanced assortment, a swiss army knife? You have a good amount of balance that really pays off for gameplay, as the base maps for skirmish and campaign mode aren’t the best. Fortunately, Steam Workshop offers plenty of custom maps for people to try.
The campaign is fairly expansive. You take the role of Rex Chance, a dashing researcher who is studying his father’s legacy with the DNA splicer technology that allows animals to be combined into army units. Think Jurassic Park’s plot, while dealing with the big bad boss Upton Julius and his army of weird sidekicks. It has a great mix of humor and some interesting mechanics — the player has to gather research to gain technologies. It’s pretty difficult at times, too. At one point in the campaign, I had to grab technology to make air units and anti-air structures…while getting destroyed by air units. It can be a rough ride, but as RTS campaigns go? It’s not bad.
While Impossible Creatures makes for a solid RTS, it has a few downsides. My biggest gripe is the constant notifications that pop up. You leave a henchman idle for 10 seconds? You get a pop-up that cannot be disabled. And the voice acting isn’t exactly stellar, with some voice clips repeating too often.
Listening to: “THE CRITTERS ARE UNDER ATTACK!” every 10 seconds gets on my nerves. This is a minor nitpick, however.
In conclusion, while this game has its issues, it is still a refreshing experience, and no other game allows you to combine a gorilla with a Great White. That alone is worth playing. For the cheap price tag, you get a unique RTS that’s still worth playing today.