Genre: strategy
The past few years have seen the rise in "casual" games. These are games that are easy to download, reasonably priced, easy to play, and usually focus on a fun experience rather than flashy presentation. You don't need a bleeding edge system to enjoy them, and they fill the few minutes during the day most busy adults call "free time". Of course, I think the name "casual" is a misnomer, because some games can really suck you in and demand your attention.

Oasis, from Mind Control Software, fits in the "casual game" category. In this game you control a Pharaoh trying to collect 12 glyphs of power. Each glyph is hidden in an oasis in a level covered with a dark, foreboding cloud. As you dissipate the dark cloud, you can stumble across a city, find an oasis, explore a nomad camp, or find the attack point for a barbarian invasion. Lots to do on a map that doesn't even scroll beyond the screen boundaries.

At its core, Oasis is a stripped-down strategy game. You have a limited number of turns to explore the grid-like map and collect and manage resources before the barbarians invade. Exploring most spaces gives you followers who can be used to build roads or to mine mountains. Exploring nomad camps gives you even more followers. Building roads allows you to connect cities, which allow them to grow in size. Mining gives you technology as time passes which will help in the fight against the barbarians. Excess followers can be used to reinforce a city before the barbarian invasion. Searching cities turns up treasures which help combat, bonus items, or advisors which give you special benefits starting on the next level. Your ultimate goal in the exploration phase is to find the oasis and the obelisk hiding the glyph of power in it. Exploring the oasis also gives you "scarab power" which helps if the barbarians overrun all your cities.

After you use all your turns exploring and gathering resources, the barbarians invade. You get a few seconds to allocate troops, assigning your extra followers and moving troops from one city to another connected via roads. The barbarians attack from areas marked with a cairn of blue stones or from a fort and will attack in a fairly predictable pattern. Multiple waves can attack you, originating from different locations, or multiple waves from one location. The resources you gathered during the previous phase help fight off the barbarians: city populations grown by connecting cities become troops for defense, technology helps your troops hit more often, etc. If all your cities fall, your main character makes a last-ditch stand to fend off the remaining barbarians by using the glyph and power accumulated. Unfortunately, using the glyph destroys it, so you have to play one more level in order to try to collect a new version of that glyph. If you run out of scarab power during the final stand, you lose the game and must start over.

The game is simple and very fast-paced, but there is enough variety to keep things interesting. Usually the barbarians attack from a space along the edge marked with a cairn, but in some levels they attack from fortresses that aren't along the edge. Advisors give you special powers to make your job easier: the alchemist provides an extra mine location in the mountains and allows you to develop technology faster; the general gives your cities a combat bonus and allows you to redistribute troops between waves of enemies. Each group of missions generally also has a theme and special conditions. One group of missions tells the standard tale of a rise to power. Another tells the story of a priestess that angered the gods and must deal with their curses each level. Yet another tells of the Pharaoh that suffered the Old Testament plagues.

In addition, the game is very easy to get into. After a quick tutorial you can play the missions on "easy" and go through them quickly. You'll get various tips and information after each level that gives you information about the basic mechanics of the game. After completing the easy level, you are offered the opportunity to play the same missions on harder difficulties. If you solve one mission in a new difficulty level, the next higher difficulty becomes available.

The learning curve is fairly gentle, but you might lose a game or two until you understand the strategies once you play a harder level. As you progress, the game adds a bit more strategy to the mix: do you focus your troops in the first city to be attacked, or do you sacrifice a few cities, and give the barbarians a combat bonus, in order to focus your troops on a city with a higher combat bonus? Should you bother putting miners into a mine found late in the level, knowing they won't contribute much to the technology?

However, the increase in difficulty is surprisingly steep. Easy is almost too easy for an experienced gamer. Normal has a few challenges, but is surmountable. Hard, however, becomes very difficult and there is little room for mistakes. Limitations on the number of troops per city that don't affect you in the easier modes become a huge problem in the harder difficulties and require strategies very different from what you were used to. After Hard is Insane that is, well, just insane.

However, the biggest problem is that at higher difficulty levels it feels like luck plays more of a part in the game instead of skill. Did you find the cities fast enough and link them with roads to grow them faster? Were the cities placed close enough for you to join them by roads easily? Did you find the mines fast enough and have enough followers to put to work to develop needed technology? Did the cities that the barbarians will attack first have good treasures which give good combat bonuses? Did you get a good advisor with an ability that was actually useful in the levels? (Getting the alchemist in the levels with no mountains really sucks.) Even though I played the game to the best of my ability and made the best decisions I could, sometimes I felt that my situation was just beyond my control due to random elements in the game. This fate determined by randomness becomes more obnoxious as the difficulty increases.

Graphics: Excellent. The 2D graphics are colorful and clear and the user interface is very clean. I was never confused by any of the visuals, and the attention to detail is nice. This is probably some of the best 2D art I've seen in a while from a game. The quality art really helps make the game more appealing.

Sound/Music: Very good. The music is mostly in the background and isn't particularly memorable. The sounds are very well done, with different events each having a different sound. My favorite sounds are the tones that play as you uncover the oasis. If you clear the oasis quickly, it plays a little Egyptian-sounding melody. The sounds complement the game without overwhelming it.

Control: Good. You can control your character either via mouse or arrow keys. The mouse lets you teleport around easier, but the arrow keys let you clear lines of dark clouds easier. Clicking on an exposed space usually does some action. The only problem is that sometimes you click on an already exposed by accident and it performs an action, usually road building; building a road uses a significant number of followers, and there's no way to undo this mistake. Having the option to undo a mistake would have been nice.

Gameplay: Good. The game is really fun at the Normal level; it's challenging, but you feel that you can master the level with a smart strategy. Yet, as the game gets harder you feel more at the mercy of the random number generator and your own dumb luck. Winning the level at harder difficulties unfortunately requires more than just smart strategy, but also a lot of luck. This significantly affects the enjoyment of the game in a negative way for me, at least.

Extras: This game is available in a box in retail stores. However, save your time and download the game. The only thing you get from buying the box is, well, the box that you will end up recycling anyway and a bit of cardboard to help the box keep its shape. Although, having the CD is nice in case you want to re-install.

Advertising: This might seem a bit strange for a review, but the game does some advertising for other casual games from the publisher, PlayFirst. It gets a bit annoying to have to click through the intro screen full of advertisements every time you play, but people with basic Windows knowledge can reset the shortcut to point directly to the game executable. However, during the installation process the program also installs installers for four other game into the Oasis game directory. Hard-core gamers with multi-gigabyte hard drives might not mind, but the 38 MB of space might be missed my older gamers on less robust machines. These installers could have been run off of the CD just as easily.

Overall: Oasis is a great example of a casual game: small, simple, fun. The $20 price point is reasonable for the quality of the game. However, the long-term appeal is somewhat uncertain given the strong focus on luck. I still enjoy firing up a game now and then, but I doubt the game will keep me coming back for months on end.

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About the Author, Brian Green (A.K.A Psychochild)

I'm an introvert that extroverts well (especially online). I'm a pretty typical computer geek, able to spend long hours in front of a computer focusing on a project or game.

I was born to be a gamer. Some of my most vivid earliest memories are of creating games to play while I was bored. As a child, I was naturally drawn to computer games. Even though my conservative religious friends thought D&D was "evil", we still got into fantasy role-playing through computer games. I played on the computers at school when I could, and played on the game consoles I could afford to buy at home.

It was my love of games that lead to me to programming. I finished my assignments in class and then spent the rest of the hour working on little games. This continued into college, where I learned about text MUDs. I started coding on them and spent many late nights in the computer lab.

It was around graduation in college when I realized that a career in the game industry might be a good fit for me. After working in a boring corporate job for a bit and thoroughly hating it, I started looking for work in the industry. I was hired on at 3DO to maintain an online game called "Meridian 59".

After working at 3DO then working at Communities.com (both currently out of business through no fault of my own!), I helped start Near Death Studios, Inc. We bought the rights to Meridian 59 from 3DO and have relaunched the game commercially. (Details at: http://www.meridian59.com/)

I'm currently doing design and programming work on Meridian 59 while sneaking in as much gaming of all types (computer, board, paper RPGs, etc) that I can.