When I first downloaded Slime Rancher on my Xbox, last August, I had gotten out of a blurry and immensely addictive period of playing Stardew Valley and was not sure if I really wanted another similar experience to that. I was wrong. Slime Rancher is a very different experience from Stardew Valley and other Farming Sims, in some key ways that make the game stand out but also make it an experience that-in the long run- is built for a very specific niche. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but as I was playing the game, I quickly started envisioning the game becoming an experience where I could lose 10 minutes or hours to, zoning out in the relaxing environment of the game and doing what I felt like doing for as long as I felt like doing it. It came agonisingly close to that, however a few drawbacks kept the game from becoming that experience for me.
I want to start with the feature that made me keep coming back on a daily basis for a month, that made the game feel fresh, unique and differentiates the game from most other games; the feature that also made me stop after a month and every time I came back to it pushed me further away. The insistence to allow the player complete freedom by NOT presenting them with an overarching goal, a thing to strive for besides in-game financial progression, upgrades to the character’s equipment, cosmetics and the player’s own will to keep playing. This to me, at first, was a little jarring; no goal means no incentive and no reasoning behind what I do with my time playing the game. At first, it made me feel weird and kind of sceptical but then, I realized, that I had spent 2 hours just exploring and doing what I wanted; I was free to do what I wanted! My decisions on how to progress within the game were made entirely from me; at first I was just exploring, then I started building and growing my ranch and eventually I started setting arbitrary goals for each session. Then, my goals became more defined and spanned multiple sessions, as I grew my ambitions from making my character more mobile by upgrading my jetpack to saving up to unlock more areas with extra capabilities in my Ranch. As I kept meeting my goals and setting new ones, I felt consistently rewarded but then my engagement started to diminish. I no longer felt the urge to explore or keep order and follow the routine I meticulously planned. That isn’t to say that progression and reward mechanics are non-existent or not good enough, on the contrary I think they are a positive experience in general. However, I did start to feel uninspired to keep progressing and keep engaging with the game due to the lack of a clear grand goal.
For me a game like Stardew Valley that actually has that end-goal, may not be as liberating as Slime Rancher but it kept me engaged far longer because of it. For example, I wanted the Community Center completed for my own satisfaction but if there wasn’t a reward at the end of it- whether that would be the narrative, my own character’s satisfaction or the grandfather quest- I don’t know if I would had finished it. It was these rewards that helped me engage with the game beyond the mechanics and keep going far beyond the end point of quests and story; I was already invested in my character and looking forward to completing my version of my farm, even if the game’s narrative was not going to reflect that. Unfortunately Slime Rancher didn’t have the same staying power with me (although I occasionally return to the game).
Slime Rancher is also a unique blend of many systems and mechanics, which are all executed fairly well. The mix of first person exploration and farming/life sim gameplay is surprisingly effective as every time I explored a new area I felt rewarded for my efforts, sometimes by finding and collecting new slimes, other times by discovering pods containing ingredients and other goodies, as well as finding Gordo Slimes which when fed enough would give me slime keys used to unlock new paths or reveal teleporters. The farming/life sim portion of the game is done extremely well too, with the Ranch acting as a hub where I grew crops, fruit and animals, feed and house slimes and engage with science to drill for materials and research blueprints for teleporters and other gameplay relevant stuff or new cosmetic items such as a Slime lamp (a lava lamp with a slime in it. It is as cute as it sounds).
All of these features are half of the reason I really like Slime Rancher, with the other half being the aesthetics of the game. The first time I saw and heard a Slime gave me the feeling 5-year old me had when he first watched Pokemon on the TV; I was smiling the whole time and just felt happy. The slime’s animations and sound design makes them cute and whimsical and the whole game’s vibe is to be an easy-going, fun and cutesy experience, which I absolutely loved. Furthermore, the music enhances the vibe of the game, with the track playing in the background being fun and relaxing, while the track that signifies danger is distinct enough to be a sound cue but also fun and charming. Group those elements in with the design of the world, the sound design such as your jetpack sounding like blowing bubbles through a straw in a milkshake and you have a world I enjoyed every sound and sight in it. In addition, I enjoyed moving around in it, with the aforementioned jetpack providing mobility options and movement feeling fast enough that getting around was a joy not a drag. Add to all that the vacuum tool that allows you to suck and blow out slimes, water and other objects and you have a very solid foundation for a game.
But for me the real treat of the experience is the systems heavy mechanics interacting with each other. Every breed of slimes has its own unique needs and wants, and pursues them in a defined manner. For example, the tabby slimes need food, and they only eat meat, but they favour stony hens while rock slimes need vegetables, and they favour heart beets. There are dozens of such mechanics that when interacting with each other create controlled chaos that is enthralling to observe and interact with. For example, all slimes after feeding drop plorts and these plorts are edible from all other slimes (Don’t think about it too much or do it’s hilarious anyway). If a pink slime eats a boom slime plort they become Largo-slime combination of the two types but if they eat another type of plort unlike their own they become the tarr and prey on other slimes to turn them into tarr as well. The first time I encountered this on the wild I was amazed and didn’t know what to do; I tried saving the slimes by sucking the tarr in and launching it away. The first time it happened on my ranch I was devastated; all my hard work and all the slimes I bred was under threat. This is but one example of how the world simply amazed me and how each time I encountered such interactions I could stare at them for dozens of minutes and just laugh or make up stories about them.
In the heart of all the mechanics and systems of Slime Rancher is the exploration and discovery aspects; you get an upgraded jetpack so you can manoeuvre to that peculiar-looking island you saw earlier or to that hill you couldn’t before. Through exploring you stumble upon new areas with new slimes to breed, new resources to grow or you discover something about the world of Far, Far Range and this aspect of the game is by far the strongest feature of Slime Rancher. Figuring out what you need to do to get to new areas by simply being inquisitive about the world, the landscapes and the sights is always satisfying and rewarding, although there are a few missteps here. For instance, I could never tell if I explored each area completely because each area has a distinct visual style-which is welcome-thus making every avenue look the same. Furthermore, there is no indication that there is something to discover; making that apparent would go against the sense of exploration and discovery of the game and the lack of such a hint made the times I did discover something truly magical. However, many times I just stuck to my routine-which given the way I play games was getting busier and harder to maintain because I had to have one of each slime and one of each resource etc.- because it was not clear that there was more to discover in the areas I had found; which is why I stopped playing the game multiple times and only returned when there was an update or a bug fix.
Nonetheless, there are still a couple of issues I have with the game. Firstly, the technical performance on the Xbox One was not ideal. In each playthrough the frame rate would drop on multiple occasions and while it was never game-breaking it was always jarring and took me out of the experience. Lastly and most importantly, the reward and progression systems, while acceptable needed a bit more. The standard progression stuff is there with extra inventory slots and jetpack upgrades and although they are meaningful and desirable, I was done with character progression a lot sooner than I expected, which left me with a lot of playtime where no significant, tangible progress was made for my character. Then there is the ranch progression which consists of gates that when unlocked, open up different segments of the ranch allowing access to more pads and areas of the map, as well as an intricate and carefully thought out economy system with plorts having dynamic values depending on how many you have sold. These systems are fun and rewarding but due to money being meaningful in only a few places (unlocking new areas of the ranch, blueprints and a rewards club that unlocks new skins for the ranch and equipment) and the changes to the economy never being significant enough that it required me to change the way I play or which slimes I kept on the ranch, they never felt meaningful or rewarding enough; they felt like a typical unlock that didn’t really change the game.
Thus, in conclusion, Slime Rancher feels like a game mostly tailor made for me. The stuff that I think the game does well, I absolutely love. However, even if I did disregard the few technical issues and the progression systems which were not bad but, felt like it needed a bit more to remain engaging, I still feel a bit let down by the game. That’s because the game’s biggest strength, the complete freedom it allows that made the game so appealing and so fresh, is also its biggest flaw, making the game in the long run feel meaningless. That may be because the niche that the game tries to cover is maybe not the niche I’m into; but I still enjoyed my 20 hours with it and I intent to put more into it because, even though it does not cover everything I want from a game in this genre, Slime Rancher is still a unique, relaxing and fun experience.