Slime Rancher from Monomi Park
Here is how I think you should approach Slime Rancher: it’s really good. It is fun and addictive. Armed with that, go play it without knowing much more, and enjoy the journey of discovering it for yourself. Then you can come back and read the rest of my review which may be a little spoiler-y. There aren’t big reveals or anything, but a lot of my initial fun was derived from going in cold and laughing out loud as things dawned on me and I discovered the way of things, like the protagonist.
Take Your Slime Time
That said, there is a LOT of material here, so reading about the first phase or two won’t ruin anything, if you really just want to know what this game is all about.
I reviewed and edited reviews for a LOT of games this year. I played even more than that, because we don’t and can’t review everything we play, and I saw even more submissions and outright rejections than that. Maybe in the low thousands. So when any game has me playing three or more hours (barring games that short by design) in the very first sitting, I know the devs got something right.
At the final hour, when I am supposed to be looking back over the best of the year, I get stuck playing Slime Rancher all night long. I forget to drink water and I forget to stretch. I forget to pee. I even forget, at moments, to breathe. My legs hurt, my feet are numb and I can’t tear myself away, even though it’s a solo game, and all I have to do is hit pause to take a break.
Obviously, developers Monomi Park under the vision and direction of lead designer Nick Popovich have gotten something right.
In Slime Rancher, you begin with the most meager information – you have essentially inherited a Slime Ranch in the Far, Far Place from an aging rancher who, in the final days of his life, decided he could no longer wait to venture out and see what else was out there.
An Inverse Vacuum Cleaner: It Doesn’t Suck
Equipped with an inverse leaf blower – or, yeah, a cosmic vacuum cleaner with four discrete storage compartments – you are encouraged to -using the left trigger – suck up some cute, smiley slimeys (say that three times fast) and drop ’em into a corral. You use the right trigger to shoot whatever is in the currently selected storage slot back out. And this get-and-put mechanic is how you interact with every interface in the game.
I didn’t want to hurt them – the slimes – at first, but they seemed happy enough about it. Until I didn’t give them food. I discovered that when I did, they pooped out little Slimer poops that are the Bitcoin of this universe. In fact, there is an entire marketplace for trading and selling such cosmic slime poop and the many different ISOs (um…Initial Slime Offerings?), which rise and fall based on supply and demand and upon new alliances that you may form among other ranchers and traders. In the game, this currency is called a Plort. There are many colors and values of Plort, each coming from a different species or hybrid species.
I am cautioned by the welcoming committee not to venture too far out at night – totally Minecraft-style – but of course this means that I do, just like real life. Therein do I discover that there is an alternate universe of bioluminescent mobs with extra value!
Seizing the Means of Poo-duction
Well ho, ho: my polite days of caring about the slimes’ well-being or interest quickly ends as I now realize that I can corral these pretties into electro-kennels and feed them stuff to sell their poop so I can get more cool stuff so i can catch more slimes and feed them so I can sell their poop. Before I know it I am a heartless, slime-sucking Capitalist monster, exploiting all the local wildlife for my own mad dash towards filthy lucre.
There’s a catch, though. Each species has food it likes and food that will cause it to mutate. If it eats the off-diet, the results may be good; for example, it may now become omnivorous and output two different kinds of Plort. Or if it is already a Largo – which is its bloated hybrid form – well, like Gremlins at night, anything can happen. And trust me, you don’t want to find out. (Except of course you do!) The rule is: two food types good, three food types BAD. Oh, and spring for a water hose (pun intended).
And then the tutorial sets me free to explore.
Additional Spoilers to Follow
You can and must also eventually build gardens, silos, chicken coops in order to optimize your operation. Quests pop up: mostly gather and fetch, and at first they are a little grind-y, but then once you get to the industrialized and mostly automated phase of your upward climb as a notorious rancher, the game takes a series of new turns.
There are so many nuances that help this game transcend typical fare. The slimes all have moods. They follow you when you approach their corral, hungry for food. They climb on top of each other, desperate to find a way out of their holding cells. They like music to soothe them. Others are sensitive to sunlight and only eat vegetables.
The Horrors of Factory Farming
I had to start taking notes so I could mix different specimens into the same corral, should they share the same food preferences, for example. But again, you don’t want to get this wrong or bad things will happen. Again, you don’t want to see the terrible things I have seen by feeding vegetarian Largos a Stone Hen or even the wrong Plort by accident. Especially a whole pen full of them.
I also can’t overstate how disturbing it is to corral all of this happy free-roaming wildlife into overstuffed cages, deprived of all the lush scenery endemic to their native homes, only for the purpose of extracting their detritus so that I can become a more powerful rancher. Great stuff. Conscience and social commentary thinly disguised under the veneer of a Super Mario 64 tribute.
Interestingly, Popovich admits that this sort of storytelling is almost unintentionally emergent; in fact, the slimes have a built-in imperative to stack, but not because they have an AI that is desperate to escape, though it is slightly interested in swarming towards food sources.
Regardless, the overarching effect is organic and suggestive. I have always believed that in order to unlock our full imagination, we have to be merely suggestive and never overt.
Free Range or GMO
Fortunately, the new areas you can unlock for your lab allow your herds to free roam and envoy their natural habitat whilst in captivity. (I still feel guilty about this, and will probably not eat a cheeseburger this week. I may not even eat carrots this week.)
Oh, and did I mention there is a lab you can unlock for carrying out some Crispr-style experiments? Just when you think you have this thing on lock a completely new build mechanic and skill-tree opens up. I’m talking at the 23-hour mark.
Of course you can also upgrade your quality-of-life elements: run faster, carry more, sustain your energy bursts longer, even get a jet pack etc. Slime Rancher gets all of this right. None of this is by accident; Slime Rancher went into Early Access the right way, by having a fully rich game already and then sticking to their promise without deviating from what early adopters were investing in.
Instead, they used this time to observe, get real feedback and implement all the players wanted more of while dialing down what didn’t work. So it was a seemingly seamless process while using rapid recursion and iteration to push the train along the track to full release.
Scenes from a Ranch
Technically: the day/night cycles are smooth and nicely lit, and the shaders use some eye-catching reflective and specular glitter effects, in spite of the game being very low-poly. I must admit that in spite of its low-poly look, I had some graphical slowdown moments when things got super gnarly. Granted, I ran this on an older graphics card, but still.
I eventually dialed down the anti-aliasing and bloom effects. I was surprised, though, even at full resolution, how alias-y the text looked. When I went back up to a higher resolution, everything looked smooth, crisp and shiny, and to be honest, it wasn’t any slower than at the lower rez. In other words: more bad guys made things more crunchy. That said, this game is PERFECT for a VR port. Just swap out the glide motion with 45-degree turns and a DOOM VFR locomotion approach, and I would never leave.
The sound design is also meticulously crafted – all sound sources are spatialized – another argument for a VR port – and despite the fact that you are surrounded by wads of slime being force-fed and pooping, it is always inviting and fun (and not vomit-inducing). You know: joyful Soylent Green. The music is a mix of old-timey and console platformer, mellow when playfully exploring and heightened when things get a little more intense. It’s a lovely mix of muted horns and contemplative woodwinds, string section swells and occasional electro plonkiness for sci-fi’s sake.
I first played Slime Rancher when it was a 0.2 beta. It was very basic. That was then.
Slime Rancher ticks all the boxes you might need to create a gleeful addictive home game. Grab your controller, and you will be faced with all the dopamine-mashing pleasure that could be found in Tamagotchis, Katamari, Pokemon, Portal, Stardew Valley, Harvest Moon, Don’t Starve (and its damn dogs) and Bitcoin trading….as an N64 title.
This scratched my Everquest (oh how I miss you) and World of Warcraft (miss you like cigarettes) exploring itch, it made me laugh, and it made question my moral compass. Pepper in some interesting stories, faction-building, some strange alien world-building, and you don’t stand a chance. Or at least I didn’t.
The game will appeal to FPS and action gamers as you pick your target out of a bobbing mass of candidates. It will appeal to casual gamers who enjoy puzzles, collecting and crafting; platformer fans who like fast-paced maneuvering; strategy and sim fans as you make quick and long-term decisions about resources, growth patterns and scarcity models; adventures and explorers of all ages as you unfold new relationships, backstory and context about the world in which you are running about.
I would go so far as to say that Slime Rancher will be one of those massive break-out hits that we will look back upon and wonder how it became a total overnight smash hit. Maybe not at Cuphead speed, but big.
A game should have some challenge, intrigue, engagement, a lesson or two, and also sometimes even be really fun. Slime Rancher may appear as lofty as its cousin Jolly on first blush, but the way it touches on industry, servitude and dominion, biomechanics and enterprise should be noted.
Cute until It Isn’t
I saw the word “supercute” tossed around about Slime Rancher game by the public, journos and even the game’s own marketing materials, also implying it would be great for kids. I found it also evoked emotions like horror, remorse, disgust and shock just as often. It’s got a wonderful dark side that’s beautifully implicit and insidious – never overtly stated by the devs. This one had a way of getting under my skin, all the while winking through its brightly-colored veneer.
Slime Rancher is a trip to a far, far away place you don’t want to miss.
Slime Rancher is available via Steam.
Watch the official trailer for Slime Rancher below: