Review: Niche: A Genetics Survival Game02 Oct 2017 0
Review: Niche: A Genetics Survival Game
Released 15 Sep 2017
For all the modelling going on in the strategy sphere, it’s curious that Niche: A Genetics Survival Game appears so alone. By all means, play the Paradox slider game with Victorian socio-political movements. Feel free to fine-tune the supply chain on any number of fronts. But when it comes to getting one’s hands dirty with genetic code, there’s little with which to tinker.
Developer Stray Fawn have sought to caulk the hole with their once-Kickstarted and Early Accessed playset. It’s not entirely successful, but in a realm where your options are catastrophic pretenders such as Spore, forgotten oddballs like Gene Wars and curious academic adjuncts in the vein of Biogenesis, Niche is definitely the most approachable, visible genetics primer.
It blends the aesthetics of an off-brand Pokemon with crisp, hex-gridded biomes. You begin with a single creature, all conjured from a handsome lupine eukaryote, and need to shepherd it through the turn-based rigmarole of grazing and mating. With the arrival of a suitable candidate of the opposite sex to expand the tribe, nesting material must be gathered or reclaimed from old weaves. From there, it’s a case of priming the genetic code in animals before they get busy; tilting for traits like stronger immunity or pelt camouflage.
There’s a broad swathe of traits – dominant and recessive – floating through any animal, with the entire library growing with each generation. Horns, claws, snouts; flow-on effects from physical attributes like stronger foraging abilities, better eyesight or stealth. It’s not all positive, as the downside to mixing and matching, particularly via inbreeding, can weaken immunity, or induce haemophilia. One thing that won’t ever happen is speciation, but within Niche’s scope, it would sit outside of the timeframe.
Animals are born, mature and expire. Within the abstracted fourteen-odd days of a creature’s life, their necessities revolves around food, survival and migration. Migration isn’t totally necessary, but there’s a sort of stagnating homeostasis to each island biome, and genetic growth won’t occur nearly as fast if the tribe stays put. New foods, new creature clades and new terrain come with uprooting the clan for the unknown. Squat next to a cairn in a field of flowers on every map allows you to permanently shift those in proximity to new lands. The horizon doesn’t always offer up a better biome along the archipelago, which makes the act a rather pivotal moment in a herd’s existence. Nature’s bounty might await, or the goliath maw of an apex Bearyena.
Each turn, every animal has three action points with which to do whatever the player wants. Forage, mate, explore, defend and so on. Once the three action points are expended, the creature goes dormant, awaiting the press of a spacebar to signal the end of the day. Niche’s big problem is not that the game is turn-based, but that it requires constant attention.
Troop molly-coddling partially undermines the point of seeing the genetic traits in action. This lack of autonomy, where every action requires direct player action and initiative, is the sticking point in an otherwise decent experience. If the self-sufficiency of ye olde Creatures is what you’re chasing, Niche isn’t that. At its best, this is a satisfying survival strategy with a biological toolset not often explored. At worst, a recipe for ennui that takes root if the core conceit isn’t wholly your bag.
The game feels caught in a tough spot, stretched between its Mendelian aspirations and huggable aesthetic. Those drawn to the family-friendly world of malleable mammals might find themselves wanting something more visually dynamic, evoking a living, breathing terrarium that can be left alone to prosper or perish. Those wanting to drill down into the alleles, mining and mutating cellular strands, might find the experience burdened by busy-work.
By that same token, though, Niche is a game that lets you play happily as a low-impact forager as much as it does a meticulous genetic designer. Players can let the genetic chips fall where they may, breeding for all seasons and just toeing the requisite survival line. If you want to dive deeper, the evolutionary mechanics do support a rather robust investigation of drift and morphology.
As long as the biology students are willing to put up with positional grunt-work -- neighbourly grab for berries, grass, a splash for fish in the shallows, ad nauseam -- Niche is a welcoming sandbox whose educational aspirations aren’t at odds with its fun factor. However, its insistence of complete player control feels like it leashes a game that could otherwise benefit from going a little wild.