It’s difficult to know how to feel when confronted with a game like Slime Rancher. It’s filled to overflowing with cutesy little cartoon blobs who go around squeaking in such on overly upbeat tone that you don’t feel so bad about launching them off a cliff en-masse. On one hand, it’s bright, upbeat and colourful, and on the other, it’s a worse animal cruelty simulator than Pokemon.
A lot of your time in Slime Rancher is spent sucking up adorable little balls of goo, locking them in futuristic cages and sucking out all of their beautiful/delicious/irradiated plort to sell on the space stock market. The rest of your time in Slime Rancher is spent exploring and unlocking the landscape so you can find rarer slimes to forcibly breed (sort of) so that you have the most efficient slime farm in the galaxy. Not that the slimes seem to mind all that much, they mostly just hop around making squeaking noises with blank smiles on their faces.
Unlike a lot of other life simulator games, Slime Rancher actually has a story along with the campaign. You play as Beatrix LeBeau, a young woman who has moved thousands of light-years into space to a place called the ‘Far, Far Range’, a place renowned for its many different species of slimes. These slimes can be farmed for their plort, which is sold across the galaxy for huge profits. Along the way you’ll find messages from the former owner of the ranch, messages from other ranchers or friends back on Earth and discover the many secrets that the ‘Far, Far Range’ has to offer.
A big part of the appeal of Slime Rancher comes from the exploration. You need to spend a lot of time exploring the landscape to find the rarer and more valuable types of slime so you can make as much money as possible. You also have to explore all of the nooks and crannies in the landscape to come across special keys to unlock doors, open teleporters back to your ranch as the explorable area expands, and even solve puzzles to continue deeper into the tougher regions of the map.
For the most part, Slime Rancher is pretty peaceful and relaxing. With most of your time spent looking at the different vibrant scenery and occasionally sucking up small squeaky animals while calm music plays, your heartbeat will barely tick over. That isn’t to say that there isn’t danger out there. You can come across more aggressive slimes who will try to do you harm, and there is always the danger of falling into the sea and losing anything you’ve managed to gather in traditional survival game style.
While Slime Rancher wears a happy face, there is darkness certainly waiting within. It is possible to completely mess up and cause major issues with your ranch or even to come across more than you can handle out in the wild. The slimes are all fun and games as they bounce across the landscape, but if they eat the wrong plort (gross), then they turn into giant rainbow/black-coloured blobs that eat everything in their path, including you. There are also several areas out there in the wilderness that are filled with the more aggressive slimes that you probably don’t want to meet. Most of the time you have 2 methods of dealing with them: one is to run as fast as possible, and the other is to upgrade your vacuum machine thing into a water pistol and give them a quick splash.
Slime Rancher is definitely something that you can end up whiling away the hours playing. It has something of a Minecraft quality to it; you can start out intending to play for 20 minutes before making dinner, only to end up looking at the clock and finding out you’ve been at it for 4 hours. Part of the reason for that quality is probably the fact that you are constantly upgrading or unlocking some new equipment for your ranch. Then these new upgrades will either enable or require the use of rarer slimes, and you’ll have to unlock more of the map so you can get the most out of your new stuff. Then when you get back, you realize you’ve made enough money to buy the next upgrade, and the cycle continues until you realize you’ve not eaten for the past 2 in-game days.
All this doesn’t mean that Slime Rancher is without its flaws though. While it is certainly engrossing, it can be confusing at first. They managed to avoid a lot of issues by including an in-game encyclopedia, but that only really gives you information on stuff that you’ve already discovered. When you first boot up the game, it’s pretty much up to you to decide how you plan on going about the whole slime farming thing. While that can be a bonus if you just ‘get’ it, if you’re a bit slower on the uptake, it can leave you a bit overwhelmed.
The other real problem is that there’s not much in the way of replayability because the world is fixed and not generated. If the world had been procedurally generated, it might have given the game some lasting power beyond the first playthrough and meant that the world was always new and mysterious. Having said that, the game clearly has a set story, and the world being procedurally generated may have interfered with that. At the end of the day, just because a lot of games out there are procedurally generated, it doesn’t mean that they all have to be, and Slime Rancher does benefit from the choice to keep the story strong and the world more tightly focused.
Slime Rancher is a game that keeps getting bigger. While the map isn’t anything to write home about, at least from a size perspective, the world is packed full in every corner. You keep discovering new areas with new things to do. Just when you think you’ve got the handle on how the game works and you think it’s going to start getting boring, you unlock some new pathway or access a new feature, leaving you with even more to learn. While the game does avoid too much use of external sources, there are a couple of times you might need to give things a Google to help you keep progressing.
In a strange twist of fate, the game also has something in common with Dark Souls. Not soul-crushing difficulty or creatures that look like they fell out of the ugly tree, instead it is the primary playthrough that is similar. Your first time through a Dark Souls game is full with both the wonder and dread of the unknown, leaving you barely able to continue at times for fear and excitement of what you might find around the corner. While Slime Rancher never approaches Dark Souls’ level of fear or challenge, the discovery is just as palpable. Whether it’s the lab or the world itself, you’re constantly making new discoveries and figuring out new ways of doing things.
The lab portion of the game is possibly the biggest feature that is introduced that you don’t already have. You gain access to a lab a few hours in, which lets you experiment with different types of plort to unlock defences for your ranch, new ways of gaining resources and, perhaps most importantly, ways of automating your plort farming. After a while this basically turns your ranch into a game of Factorio, a complex network of robots and machines that automatically collect and move your resources around for you; a clockwork machine that ticks away while you are off doing more important things.
All of this is to say that Slime Rancher is a deeply involving experience with few flaws. It really does a good job of embodying the joy of exploration and the thrill of discovery, and its persistent world goes a long way towards that. You might not be playing it forever like you can with procedurally games, but you’re much more likely to remember your experience with it. It feels like a game that would have come out back in the wilder days of the industry, when companies felt more focus and experimentation was the norm. I for one am just glad that it came to be at all. Plus, you can give all of the slimes little pirate outfits with the free DLC, so that’s pretty cool.
Developer: Monomi Park
Publisher: Monomi Park
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 21st August 2018