Tuesday, 26 September 2017 05:01

Niche - a genetics survival game Review

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Niche aspires to (stylized) realism and even educational value, but it actually only provides an effective model of “if you were the last man on Earth” sexual selection.

Your lime green, platypus-billed kangaroo is dying. He's got parasites, he's bleeding, and he hasn't had kids. You fear his bloodline is doomed. Suddenly, a red lioness with a giant head emerges from the brush. Under the circumstances, you decide, this is a match made in heaven. You end up with a spiky, toxic-blooded quadruped you aren't comfortable calling a kitten. Looks like your Niche [1] playthrough is safe for now, you think, and you breathe a sigh of relief—only to choke when you notice that your newborn baby not-kitten inherited the father's low fertility gene. That sucker's what got you into this no-kids mess to begin with. Darwin, Dawkins, and Douglas Adams [2], please stop this madness; have mercy.

Niche – a genetics survival game, the first release by indie developers Stray Fawn Studio, has been available on Steam as an Early Access product for about a year. It's proven popular with streamers and let's-players, so an already substantial following celebrates the title's ceremonial shedding of the blue ribbon of Early Access this September 21st. Niche's subtitle describes it succinctly: a species sim with roguelike progression, played in turns on a hex grid. You guide your creatures to forage, fight, mate, and migrate, in your choice of story or sandbox mode.

The most innovative feature of Niche is its sense view system. Your creatures' genes give them stats for sight, smell, and hearing, and you can switch between these three modes of perception at will, using a hotkey for each. You can hear or smell predators or prey around you, even though visually they're hidden in the underbrush. You can even detect moles that way and dig them up for snacks. It's satisfying, and it encourages you to think like your creatures. Granted, I'm more a fan of the whole using-multiple-senses idea than Niche's toggle implementation — I would much have preferred an aggregate or overlaid perception — but it's good, and exactly what we need more of in survival and evolution sims.

The problem, of course, is getting those eyes, ears, and nose traits. You gotta breed 'em before you can use 'em. It's almost impossible to find mates with the genes you want in the wild. You're lucky if you find one new potential pack member per island to enrich your pool. Niche aspires to (stylized) realism and even educational value, but it actually only provides an effective model of “if you were the last man on Earth” sexual selection.

If you do manage to either start out with or stumble across a gene you want to perpetuate, incest is mandatory.

Yes, inbreeding and backbreeding are common practice [3] if you want to perpetuate certain traits in any species of stock, but that's realistically represented artificial selection, not natural selection. Creature lifespans at once too short and too long pressure you to breed them faster than rabbits, so that even when you achieve the results you want in a couple kangaroo-kittens, you've also got useless cousins hanging around for a long time to come.

Once you pick your breeding pairs, you must immediately begin producing as many offspring as possible in the hopes you'll get at least one male and many, many females with the genes you want to pass on. At the very least, you want carriers for such gems as Poison Fangs, Ram Horns, and Stinky Tail. Best case scenario: you score male-female twins and can breed them with each other.

About this time, you'd expect mutation to throw wrenches [4] into your plans, messing you up but also maybe giving you something better than what you originally set out to create. Theoretically, if you know anything about evolution, you might think that at any time, your offspring might come out with a disastrous or miraculous gene it didn't get from either of its parents. However, Niche implements mutation in a simplistic fashion that eliminates the possibility of genetic surprises. You select one of your creatures, click on a gene you've unlocked in that playthrough by satisfying ‘do this x times’ conditions, and viola, when that creature breeds, it has a fifty percent chance to pass on the ‘mutant’ gene. That's the extent of mutation's fun and randomness in Niche. It's more accurate to think of the few-and-far-between wanderers you can recruit as mutations, since the genes they bring appear to be random, and they're about as rare and unreliable as mutations ought to be a gene survival sim's population.

The tutorial suffices to get you started, but you'll have to die a few times before you feel like you 'get it,' which can discourage new players.

Food and nest material storage apparently has no upper limit, allowing for ridiculous stockpiling before you move on to new and uncertain areas. Granted, it's stockpiling you can't play successfully without, even on islands where your pack is well established, since the ridiculous quantities of offspring you must produce also have to eat. That is, they eat until you kill most of them off to prevent them from taking food from the siblings you select to create your next generation. There are rank and banishment mechanics, but I find it more effective to direct my rejects to dive in deep waters and gather oysters and fish for the pack before they drown. It doesn't matter whether your hunters and fishers make it home safe; you still get their goodies if they perish in the sea.

It's difficult to tell which animal you currently have selected. It's easy to misclick. Overlapping icons obscure strategic possibilities. The trait view at the bottom of the screen's a bit cluttered, and text in the family tree view is too small. The tutorial suffices to get you started, but you'll have to die a few times before you feel like you 'get it,' which can discourage new players. Frankly, the players who stick around through initial failure won't be any happier once they know the tricks: breed dozens of generations for this one gene for this kind of island, get big strong ram horns if you can, mutate purple eyes for kicks, repeat on the next island.

Progression relies on repetition alone; the genes you want are pretty obvious, so you spend five seconds being interested in evolution and then a half hour with its busy work. And how you personally feel about that — relaxed by the rhythm or simply frustrated — will determine how much enjoyment you gain from Niche.

1-Niche on Steam

2-Douglas Adams

3- Adam Ruins Purebreds

4-If you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball


The Verdict: Fair

Niche – a genetics survival game is a species sim with roguelike progression, played in turns on a hex grid. It includes enough novelty to charm fans still searching for the children of Creatures or Spore, but gambles with repetitive and predictable gameplay. It's as likely to frustrate you as it is to relax you, and small annoyances tip the scale in favor of the prior. Approach with reasonable expectations about its depth and variety, and you'll raise your chances of garnering an enjoyable experience.

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Kelsey Erwin

Kelsey seeks out RPGs with the narrative clout of Greek tragedy and strategy sims more punishing than QWOP. Their favorite part about being a gender neutral PC gamer and reviewer is that it's probably the only thing no one else on the site will put in a biography. Super saiyan special snowflake originality! Kelsey always keeps a pot of hot tea close at hand, and the sign of a truly great game is when it can monopolize Kelsey's attention so completely that the tea grows cold. While a dedicated believer in the PC Master Race, Kelsey also still spends time with their old favorite console, a cinderblock size Playstation 2.