A few hours in
So. Slime Rancher.
I’m very much in two minds about Slime Rancher. I often am, but this time moreso than usual. I feel I could write two reviews about this game, and if I had the time, I might have considered… but it’s 2018, and we’re all always busy.
So in lieu of that, I’m going to do this: I’ll start this review of Slime Rancher from my first mindset, describing it from a systems-driven perspective and talking about how it measures up to other ‘farming’ games. This part’s not going to have an incredibly positive tone: I mention this now so you know that that’s not all of it, and you don’t succumb to the temptation to go ‘yeah, I see where this is going’ and close up shop early. Because after that’s done, I’m going to perform what in certain board game reviewing circles is called a ‘classic mid-review turn-around’ and talk about Slime Rancher as… not a narrative game, per se, but definitely as a game that’s less concerned with systemic mastery and more about making you feel things.
So. As a farming game, Slime Rancher came off to me as a little lackluster. Not necessarily bad by any stretch of the word, just… eh.
Some groundwork: I use the term ‘farming games’ to encompass a genre of games that, yes, does encompass Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley. Farming games are characterized by a few elements: The core gameplay loop is centered on repeating sets of simple activities, often within some time-constrained framework (like a day-night cycle or a clock), with the intent of creating some sort of output or product. Obtaining the output rewards the player with some form of currency, which they can use to buy input material for a new cycle of creation — ideally more than they started with, expanding the size and eventual payout of the next cycle. They can also use the currency to buy upgrades, that fall into three broad categories: New tools or abilities, allowing the player to reach areas or take actions they couldn’t previously take; convenience upgrades, automating or reducing in intensity some aspects of maintaining the cycles; and cosmetic upgrades, which are self-explanatory.
If you’ve played farming games (or you’ve talked to people that do), you’ll know that arguably the biggest draw of these games is that they combine the almost zen-like demand of repeating simple actions with a very basic, immediately obvious correlation between effort and reward: Do work, get results, get paid. Upgrades serve to not have all options immediately, and to slowly hide away (parts of) the basic activities as they get boring — also freeing up mental energy for the player to expand operations. To sustain long-term interest, there’s also often some sort of adventuring or social component to the game at large: Think of the cave-diving in Stardew Valley or getting married in Harvest Moon. This doesn’t necessarily add to the experience super much, but can serve as sort of a game timeline: Once you’ve done all there is to go, and gotten all there is to get, and you’re starting to get bored of the day-to-day activities, the game’s lifespan might be over for you.
You can see how Slime Rancher fits within this framework, yeah? Once you set up a few slime corrals, the repeated basic activities consist of feeding your slimes, collecting the plorts, and selling them. You can upgrade your ranch with new areas, which occasionally grant completely new options, and new buildings, which let you expand your operations or do new things again. You can also upgrade your vacpac, which mostly plays into the exploration gameplay of traversing the Far Far Ranch and finding Hobson’s notes. And you can pretty up and paint your house. It can get so fancy.
Let me preface the rest of this potentially gloomy review-part by saying that the opening hours of Slime Rancher work within this framework. You go out and capture some slimes, and put them in cages, and feed them, and sell the plorts, and now you have money! You can buy new farms to grow food more easily, or more corrals so you can keep more slimes, or a chicken coop so you can keep your own chickens. Or you can buy a jetpack. Or a cave system! And maybe during exploring you’ll have found some of the mysterious locked slime doors. And some of the giant Gordo slimes, which you’ll have to feed large amounts of food to make explode. I wonder what sort of treasures those guys hide?
The biggest obvious lure in Slime Rancher is finding new slimes to ranch. Especially at first this is very cool, as you meet new friends — and maybe start thinking about what sorts of challenges they might pose. Pink slimes are easy to keep, but other slimes? Rock slimes sometimes ‘attack’ you when you get close (they’re spiky and they love hugging), so maybe you don’t want to enter that cage to pick up plorts too much. Maybe an upgrade that automatically collects plorts would help there? And an auto-feeder too. Tabby slimes are mischievous jumpers, so you’ll want extra high walls to keep them in, and maybe a music box to calm them. Phosphorous slimes can fly, and sunlight hurts them, so a combination solar shield and air net seems like a good investment. And then…
And then you’ve sort of seen all the corral upgrades Slime Rancher has to offer, really. And with it, all the interesting decisions about ranching slimes.
It turns out Slime Rancher isn’t actually all that interested in slime-wrangling. You can meet about twenty slime types during your journey, and of those, only three types can’t be handled by ‘simply’ putting them in a fully upgraded corral: The water slime, which requires a puddle to live in, the fire slime, which requires an incinerator’s ash through, and the late-game quantum slime, which presents the only real ranching challenge I’ve found — when agitated or underfed they can simply teleport out of their corral and start messing around wherever they want.
The other slimes all have different powers and behaviours and whatnot — it just doesn’t really matter. The crystal slime’s spikes, the mosaic slime’s fire stars, the honey slime’s attractiveness — just stick ’em in a good corral and keep ’em relatively well-fed and you’re good.
You might wonder if later-game slimes require fancier food to keep happy, increasing the difficulty and justifying the higher price of their plorts that way. The answer is, nope: Slimes only ever eat ‘all fruits’, ‘all vegetables’, or ‘all meat’. You can find different fruits, veggies, and chickens in later areas, and if you feed a slime their preferred food, they’ll produce more plorts. But it’s never necessary. And even it if was, growing (say) phase lemons and prickly pears isn’t any more difficult than growing carrots and pogo fruit. Just plant them in a garden and wait. I’m pretty sure all food grows equally fast.
You might wonder if the largo slimes, which are born from two different slime strains, change this equation in any way. I figured that the most interesting thing Slime Rancher could do is give each largo type an interesting behaviour or power of its own, related to its two parents… But as far as I can tell, none of that actually happens. Largo slimes are just Big Lads that are more difficult to transport, but easier to make a profit off of, since they produce two plorts when eating instead of one. They exhibit the behaviours of both their parents, but as I’ve mentioned, only the quantum slimes are conceivably difficult. So just don’t make quantum largos. As a bonus, most largos are actually easier to feed than small slimes, since they inherit the diets of both parent slime types.
In theory, largo slimes are more difficult to keep because they’re harder to move around if you want to reorganize, and because there’s the threat of your largos eating a third plort and transforming into the tarr: Oily rainbow-black monster slimes that live only to consume other slimes, reproduce into more tarr, and eat any slime ranchers they see. In practice… yeah, not so much. If you keep them even slightly well-fed, slimes just don’t escape. It doesn’t happen! In practice, largos are just the superior choice for making money — and if you reorganize, just carry them over one at a time. Or just wipe the corral clean by artificially inducing a tarr-morph, if you’re a monster.
Side note here: Tarr are much more likely to spawn while out adventuring, because slimes will often spawn in the wild in three or four different types at once. And they’ll eat ravenously, creating plorts as they do. If you’re like me, you might wonder how a species that transforms into a horrible ecosystem-eating monster has evolved to be social around other slime types. But listen: Don’t think about it too much.
I could go on for longer, but the long and the short of my issues is: Slime Rancher doesn’t have enough diversity in mechanics, upgrades, and possibilities to sustain its own farming gameplay. There is nothing to slime ranching except ‘food goes in, plorts come out’. There’s only a limited number of plots, even after you upgrade your ranch, and there are only six buildings, only three of which you’ll actually want more than one of — expect to build a lot of corrals and gardens. Every building has only a small set of possible upgrades, and there’s no reason to not just get all of them, since that’s possible and you’ll make more than enough money to just full-build corrals by the time you unlock your first ranch expansion. Character upgrades are similarly not that interesting: With the exception of the jetpack, they all either add mandatory-feeling functionality, or just fudge with the numbers in a way that doesn’t feel impactful.
Oh, and there’s the bonus issue of Slime Rancher not telling you all that much. It’s often obtuse in a way that goes beyond ‘letting you explore’ and into ‘better think to browse a wiki before you start’. For instance…
Okay, so remember the ‘supercomputer’ I mentioned way at the start? You could see it from the house?
This is basically a procedurally-generated mission board. Early on, Slime Rancher introduces you to the idea that you can get simple trade missions here: Give a character certain goods in certain quantities, and you’ll get money and other goods as a reward. Then it runs you through a series of mails and missions for each of the characters, highlighting their themes. Victor Fries, the scientist, wants rare slimes. The farmer, whose name eludes me, asks for vegetables. Mochi Miles, the banker’s daughter, wants rare plorts. Bob wants chickens. Just chickens, yeah. I recommend you don’t ask Bob about his chickens too much.
Here’s the thing: These missions are timed, like, world-play-time timed. ‘Get all these things within 16 hours of world time’, which might translate to about 20 minutes of actual play time. Less if you sleep, because that counts. And the missions are often not easy: They’ll ask for plorts you could technically access, large quantities of slimes, and vegetables you probably just fed to your largos. If you let the mission time out, any partial investment you made is gone forever. And if you do succeed, you’ll find the rewards disappointing: You can sometimes get like, rare fruits to kickstart new gardens, but otherwise it’s just a pittance of money and some garbage you could have collected yourself. If you hadn’t been so busy doing this mission. So you might logically decide that missions aren’t worth it, and just leave that gameplay element for what it is.
There are two areas on the map that can only ever be accessed if you complete a mission for one of two particular characters, after unlocking one of two particular areas on the map and buying the corresponding ranch upgrade. You can get access to Miles Manor only if you do a mission for Mochi after you unlock Indigo Quarry on the map and the Grotto on your ranch. It is excessively unlikely that you’ll have done this by the time the game first introduces missions, so even you manage to land these early ones, you’re not getting that reward yet. And there’s no way to know it exists. I only found out about these gameplay elements from checking a wiki for something unrelated. And these aren’t small things! Mochi Manor introduces a whole new set of racing-related gameplay mechanics and rewards, including a special chicken coop that I would otherwise never have known about.
So that’s that then, isn’t it? Slime Rancher doesn’t have a great deal to offer as a farming game: Its mechanics are too shallow to sustain long play, it doesn’t make full use of the implications of its design space, it doesn’t ask for interesting trade-offs or offer interesting rewards, and it doesn’t even tell you about its whole feature kit unless you’re lucky. Not even the ten thousand dollar science lab added much of a meaningful spark to my later play. If you like building efficient farms, working towards cool goals, and feeling like you’re making headway, Slime Rancher is probably not a great game for you.
You know me. Even if you don’t actually know me, I just spent several thousand words giving you insight into my personality. I’m a scientist, a systems-thinker. I like games that are systemic puzzles, not so much cracking codes and fitting pieces together as working out how different systems work together and interplay. Give me a planet full of slimes and a ranch full of upgrades and a market with fluctuating prices, and my first instinct will be to figure out how all that works. And how I can optimize it. Make it into something that looks cools and feels cool, and gives me the impression that I’ve Mastered Something.
If you actually listen to Slime Rancher, it’ll tell you that that’s not what it’s about.
Nobody ever said I had to play Slime Rancher ‘efficiently’. Not even the game itself. Play through Stardew Valley, and you’ll notice that there are a few narrative threads to gently pull you towards producing more: The community center, the various seasonal contests, the high price of expanding your house and getting married. Slime Rancher doesn’t really do this. Only the 7Zee club provides scaling bonus incentives, and the game itself explicitly calls this out as pointless vanity. The other, functional upgrades require some working towards, but again, there’s very little drive — nothing and nobody’s pushing you to get things.
And, hell, even if you do want to make money, there’s nobody saying you have to put your slimes in tiny cages. You could just as easily let them run around the ranch, eat food off the ground when they get hungry, and then vacuum up the plorts later. Probably requires a little more planning to avoid tarr outbreaks, but it’s still feasible. You’ve got a cave that phosphorous slimes can live in, a wild area that spawns chickens for your cat slimes to prey on… And if you’re not comfortable with that either, you could just travel into the world and collect wild slime plorts.
Even compared to other farming games, Slime Rancher is very laid-back and forgiving. It’s impossible to dig yourself into any kind of hole you can’t get out of: Even if all your slimes die in a tarr outbreak, you can just grab new ones. Or sell wild plorts. Even if you willfully demolish your own plots, you can always build them back up. And you as a player don’t have any ‘survival’ meter, like hunger or thirst or sleep. Keep going as long as you want. There’s an energy meter for your jetpack, but apart from that, nothing’s really stopping you.
In fact, the opposite is almost true. Through its emails, and its Hobson notes, and the occasional character beat, Slime Rancher seems very much to suggest that you slow down every now and again. Look around you. Explore a little. You’re on a planet full of slimes, isn’t that wild? And there are all these people here with you, close enough to email but so far away that they might as well not exist. Like Casey. Like Casey.
Slime Rancher‘s planet is, secretly, a beautiful collection of vistas, no less than five different biomes with their own slimes, foodstuffs, and magical layouts. There is danger here, nominally, but really, you can explore it at your leisure. Maybe find a nice slime to take home. Discover a key and open a door. Find a teleporter back to the ranch, no doubt left by Hobson. Or build your own! Bring life back to the desert, shift the doors of the ancient ruins around, solve the puzzle of the seven colours, or don’t. Just chill with the tabby slimes. Get a yarn ball and throw it around, they’ll love that.
I reached my ‘efficient’ high point in Slime Rancher after about three days of play. I played for six days. The last three days were spent… still engaging with the systems, that’s for sure. I can’t turn myself off. But I found myself less focused on doing well and more focused on having a good time. Kicked on a podcast while playing. Built some fun science gadgets, both to save myself some time and because it was fun to do so. I even dedicated the Grotto area to keeping three kinds of phosphorous largo — which is difficult to efficiently deal with and not very rewarding in money, but I just felt like it was the right thing to do.
It felt… strange, to me, to this intently let go of trying to be as good at something as I could. But also correct, whatever that means, within the context of Slime Rancher. Like the game was trying to teach me a lesson, and I just now got it.
Or partially got it, at least. Maybe I should open up those corrals…
If you’re looking for an in-depth farming-type game, with systems to optimize and interesting decisions to make, I don’t think Slime Rancher is for you. It has the mechanical trappings, for sure, and the early hours deliver the expected kind of entertainment. But low mechanical diversity and functionally ‘correct’ solutions to planning puzzles mean there’s not all that much to keep a devoted player engaged past… I’d say probably the science lab. Once you’ve entered that, and seen what kind of extra busywork for limited rewards that entails, you might be done.
But if you’re looking for a game about just existing on a weird planet full of slimes, where you can make a choice whether or not you want to make money, explore the world, or just play with bouncy friends — with no repercussions for any choice, not even so much as a digital side-eye — you could give Slime Rancher a look. The twenty dollar asking price means you might want to be sure about your predilections before you jump in — but then there is a free demo, so as always, look before you leap.
Unless you were going to leap anyway.
Jarenth is actually pretty happy with the final tone of this review! It wasn’t too sour or anything. To celebrate, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?