Developer(s): Monomi Park
Publisher(s): Monomi Park
Platform(s): Windows (reviewed), Mac OS, Linux, and Xbox One
Release date: August 1, 2017 (WW)
Much like crowd funding, Steam’s Early Access program has a bad reputation. Both formats are risks for consumers and through Early Access, we’ve seen a plethora of unworthy games making it to Steam’s storefront. Many of them are brought into the program in a satisfactory state that makes the development ride worth it, but there are only a handful of success stories and fewer that managed to cut through the seemingly unreachable stardom of indie darlings. Unlike the majority of cases of promising projects that turn out to be catastrophic, Slime Rancher was a self-fulfilled prophecy from the start. Developed and published by Monomi Park as their debut title, Slime Rancher achieved the “overwhelmingly positive” review mark on its first days of Early Access back in 2016, a rare feat for an unknown studio working on an entirely new IP. At first glance, one could assume the cute slimes are the sole reason for such a positive reception. However, with the game’s full release, it’s clear after only a few hours that its potential stretches beyond the gooey creatures.
Officially released on August 1, Slime Rancher puts players in control of Beatrix LeBeau, a young explorer-slash-rancher who settles in the Far, Far Range—a place a thousand light years away from Earth. This sci-fi adventure is unlike any other space opera in a time post-Mass Effect. Instead of fending off intergalactic threats and discovering new vistas and cultures, Beatrix (Bea for short) is tasked with nothing but tending her newly acquired ranch. There are no set objectives and no concrete story to follow. Instead, Bea learns about the life of the previous rancher through messages left by him whilst reminiscing about her earthly past through email exchanges with a previous lover. This woman is free to explore her corner of the Far, Far Range as she sees fit, collecting and breeding all kinds of slimes and upgrading her humble settlement into a high-tech farm in the process.
It’s a simple premise that could’ve gone very, very wrong but instead worked out wonderfully. The backdrop, while potentially affected by the presence of a pre-established character (an uncommon feature in sandbox open world titles such as this) doesn’t keep players on any chains. It’s perfectly fine to completely ignore the message logs spread through the biomes or those arriving through the starmail system. Bea has her reasons to travel this deep into space, yet none are necessary for full enjoyment of her journey. This leaves space for an open-ended adventure in which you progress at your own leisure. Whatever slimes you want to raise, whatever upgrades you want to purchase, and in which order you unlock paths to deeper areas of the Far, Far Range is entirely up to you and none of them affect any sort of plot since the only exposure players have is Bea’s past.
The lack of traditional linearity allows for a surprising amount of content. Despite its simple looks and simple mechanics, Slime Rancher thrives with places to go, things to do, and no one to see (not that that’s a bad thing anyway). Whereas the tutorial and beginning hours make you feel as if you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, the more you expand the ranch and unlock slime doors, the more areas and content become available. For instance, the addition of the laboratory to the back of the ranch opens a world of possibilities with the prospect of crafting. Fully integrated with plorts (in other words, valuable slime poop), which is how ranchers make a buck this far from home, the crafting system includes a variety of utilities from drills to teleporters and even decoration items to make this alien rock feel more like home. In the same manner, while the ranch seems like an uninteresting place at first, the more upgrades you pay for, the more it looks like something worth traveling light years for.
Monomi Park hit a mine of gold slimes with their debut title. Slime Rancher is a simple yet incredibly fun game that can keep one entertained for well over ten or twenty hours. It deserved the “overwhelmingly positive” reviews when it released in Early Access and it’s much more deserving now at its final state. That’s not to say it’s void of flaws. Yes, the unending cuteness and addictive breeding have a few holes that could’ve been easily covered.
As mentioned, the presence of a pre-established character can be detrimental to the experience depending on who’s playing. Much like other friendly sandbox games, Sime Rancher is all about taking life at your own pace. Creating your own character to live a whole new life is a pivotal point of the genre. Imagine how outrageous it would be if Stardew Valley forced you to play as Stweart, the sweetest guy who’s ever lived; or if Animal Crossing: New Leaf didn’t allow you to pick which face you want on your avatar or even change your hairstyle. It’s understandable that the developers wanted to tell a story—Beatrix’s story—about a capable woman who’s exploring a whole new world all on her own, but it isn’t difficult to see anyone else in her shoes. There is no character development since the only relevant exposure comes from Casey—the potential ex-boyfriend who’s still deadly in love with the woman. His emails always seem to put her on a pedestal, telling of how adventurous and how lovely a person she is. It makes Bea less of a character and more of a concept, which betrays the purpose of this type of open-ended sandbox. I wouldn’t blame anyone who’s thrown off by the fact that they can’t play as their original characters or even themselves if that’s what they’re into. It’s much easier to defend established or gender-locked characters when they’re in games such as Grand Theft Auto or even the critically acclaimed Portal and its sequel, both of which don’t require player-made characters to be fully immersive.
Slime Rancher‘s most notable issue, however, has nothing to do with its unusual storytelling. Whereas Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles presents a well built seamless open world hindered by the lack of an optimal fast travel system and map markers, the Far, Far Range is a poorly constructed world with a lot of corridor-like sections that make it feel awfully linear. Just like Yonder, exploration is a core aspect of Slime Rancher and the developers made sure players engaged in it by providing no maps, no mini-maps, no compasses, and an unnecessarily convoluted world layout that makes this crucial aspect difficult. At the end of most maps, there is a teleporter that takes Beatrix back home, but finding them can be problematic in the most tangled areas. It’s also possible to unlock teleporters to new areas by upgrading the ranch, yet the process of trekking through the jungles, ruins, and quarries is irritating. It doesn’t make much sense that these people can travel more than a thousand light years into space and yet have absolutely no way of mapping the planet they’re settling in. It’s possible to build pairs of teleporters after unlocking the laboratory but the process takes more time than it should given the number of plorts and materials one requires to create these tools.
Looking at the logo art alone, it should be no surprise that this game was so well received by the community. It will either become one of the most adored indie releases of its generation or garner a cult following. Much like those who came before it, Slime Rancher isn’t a game for everyone not only because of its premise, but also the problems that greatly impact the overall experience. In the end, this is a great game to anyone who enjoys this type of open world sandboxes. Yet caution is advised regarding its problems.