Time keeps on slippin’
Forager might just be the coziest, most laid-back video game I end up playing this year.
I didn’t exactly know what it was coming in – there’s farming and crafting and skeleton slashing, based on the screens – but I knew I’d be into it, and that this was the right time and place. The PC version is well-established, but Forager is only now on Nintendo Switch and PS4. That’s all I needed to hear.
Before the big video games come for us this fall and don’t let up until we’re well into winter, you might want to carve out room for something lower-key. Something far less stressful, but no less engaging. Something you can really sink into. Forager is that game. It knows the value of a good grind.
Forager (Nintendo Switch [reviewed], PC, PS4)
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Released: April 18, 2019 (PC) / July 30, 2019 (Switch, PS4)
If there’s one element above all else that defines Forager, it’s that – it’s the grind.
From the very first moment to the 15-hour mark and beyond, you’re always making progress in Forager. Starting off, you’ll poke around a tiny island, busting open rocks, plants, and other natural resources to collect bits and pieces of stuff with which to craft a base and shiny new equipment. You all know how this loop goes by now. The better your gear, the faster you can work, and so on and so forth, endlessly.
What sets Forager apart is its open-ended structure. As money rolls in, you’ll be able to spend it to expand your map piece by piece. The world is made up of individual landmasses laid out on a giant grid (grouped by biomes), and each space has an associated price tag. So long as you have the funds, you can buy a new island – nothing else is holding you back. It’s such a smart design choice for this type of game. It sets the pace just right. My map is sheer chaos at this point, but because I gradually grew into it over the course of many hours, its resource- and building-packed layout makes total sense to me.
That freedom to progress as you see fit also extends to the skill tree, which – aside from upgradable gear like a backpack, sword, and shovel – is the driving force. It’s the thing you’ll want to fill out most.
Everything you do in Forager earns XP for your little adventurer, and with each level-up, you can pick out a new skill. Doing so will reveal adjacent skills on the chart, and since they’re grouped in themed quadrants (Foraging, Magic, Economy, and Industry), it’s easy to lean in a particular direction that suits your preferred playstyle. I took a balanced approach, but I could’ve focused on farming, or alchemy, or mining automation. Skills, in general, are passive. They mostly unlock recipes and improve efficiency.
It all feels so dang satisfying in the moment. This is a game you can play for hours at a time, and one that works particularly well on Nintendo Switch if you’re the kind of person who likes to multitask. Aside from one specific instance where the frame rate dipped while I was exploring a dungeon, the Switch version performs better than expected. I don’t have any other technical complaints whatsoever.
Much of your time in Forager will be spent roaming from biome to biome, sweeping the land clean only to return again and again as resources repopulate, but harvesting and crafting don’t make up the entire experience. There are also dungeons, (fetch) quests, and puzzles sprinkled around the map.
Dungeons take a Zelda-lite approach, and I do mean lite. Rooms branch off with simple puzzles and foes to keep you occupied, and culminate in an eventual boss, all of which drop an elemental rod weapon. (There are four dungeons in total). If action-adventuring is your priority, I’d advise caution – combat is the weakest aspect of Forager, by far. It isn’t bad, but it feels like a means to an end. I think I only died once, and I didn’t play all that carefully, either. You start off with only a few hit points to your name, but Spirit Orbs – one of the regularly occurring rewards – can be used to get more HP, increase your stamina, or earn an instant level-up for skill-unlocking purposes. Further in, you’ll feel untouchable.
The world puzzles are more memorable. As you unlock islands, you’ll start to come across strange obelisks, color-coded pedestals, and a very conspicuous rainbow, among other discoveries. I had a fun time figuring out how (and in some cases when) to interact with them to uncover their secrets.
Forager keeps going like this until, well, you finally quit. There isn’t a definitive endpoint.
In the 18 hours I played before I had my fill and decided to tap out (at least for the time being), I maxed out my weapons and gear (with one exception) and left a few skills unclaimed. The developer has described Forager as an “idle game that you want to actively keep playing,” but I’d only really call the final hours – deep into the game – “idle.” That’s the point at which leveling suddenly takes for-ev-er.
The way Forager unceremoniously fizzles out leaves a bad aftertaste, though I do understand that it kind of comes with the territory. This is a game about grinding, straight up. And, to HopFrog’s credit, there are plans to expand Forager and address some of the criticisms I’ve mentioned here. The current roadmap stretches into 2020 with a new biome, refined combat, and multiplayer on the update docket.
I’m not sure I have it in me to come back anytime soon – I’m through the “incremental progress” looking glass – but a better endgame experience might do the trick. As is, the grind has lost all meaning.
Despite some unevenness, Forager is absolutely worth a look. If anyone ever asks me for a relaxing game that they can throw themselves into and become obsessed with for a week, this is my pick.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]