Monday, February 12, 2024

To Ubiquity And Beyond

Steam's Winter Next Fest ends today, so if you were thinking about giving any of the demos a try, you're most likely already too late. Based on what I saw and on the reviews I read, I wouldn't say you missed much. Anyway, another Next Fest will be along in a few months. Maybe there'll be something more interesting in that one.

I did, as threatened, manage to make time for one more demo, so of course I feel honor-bound to post about it, even though I don't really have much to say. It's yet another survival game, of a sort, and at this stage I feel a few screenshots are about all anyone needs to make up their mind. They're all just the same game with a  different skin, after all.

It could be said of all genres, I suppose, but it does seem particularly hard to disguise with survival games. If you're lucky, you might get one "unique" feature - unique until a dozen other developers copy it, that is.  Palworld has its Pals, for example, although the multiple reasons why Pals are neither original in appearance or function would fill a lengthy post.

Still, it was different enough to catch the attention of several million people. The developers of Lightyear Frontier presumably hope having a tractor on legs for a player-character will be enough to make it stand out from an increasingly cluttered field.

It isn't quite as straightforward as that, although from what I'd read that was what I was expecting. I thought I'd be playing as a Mech; some kind of AI housed in a clunking, bipedal chassis. In fact, the player character is a small humanoid, who sits inside the Mech and drives it pretty much exactly like you'd drive a piece of industrial machinery.

The demo begins with you, the player character, wandering around some lush, verdant meadowland, looking for your Mech. You have to find it, get inside it and then go looking for all the bits that dropped off when your spaceship crashed. Or something. 

I wasn't really paying attention because I was too busy trying to work out what accent the AI's voice-over was supposed to be. At first I thought it was a southern drawl but then it seemed to veer into Australian before ending up somewhere closer to a South African twang. Talk about distracting!

Over the half-hour I played, that voice never settled on anything I could definitively recognize. If it hadn't been for the information it conveyed, I'd have switched it off. I can often become very fond of a voiced companion in a game but not this one. There's a very fine line between endearing and annoying and this crossed that line for me.

The other big problem I had with Lightyear Frontier was motion sickness. I don't think I'm particularly sensitive to it first person perspective - I played EverQuest in first for years - but here I started to feel a little queasy within moments. In or out of the Mech, it was the only option I could find. Although the list of controls did mention something about Third Person View, nothing I could do would activate it. 

Following Krikket's lead, I changed the Field of View to the closest it would go and that mostly solved the problem. I could feel a little twinge of nausea once in a while but it was quite easy to ignore. 

That meant I was able to play for long enough to decide Lightyear Frontier is not a game I'll be wishlisting. It's perfectly fine and it certainly looks pretty and plays smoothly. I just found it bland.

I realise that's a very unfair assessment after just thirty minutes' play but that's exactly what both demos in general and Next Fest in particular are forfor, isn't it? To let you have a quick look at something you might be interested in, so you can find out if it's all you'd hoped it would be, before you spend any money on it. 

In a good demo, if a game has a USP, it needs to hammer it home in the first few minutes and to be fair to Lightyear Frontier, that's exactly what you get. It's all about the Mech. If, like me, you aren't all that excited (Or at all excited.) by the prospect of stomping around in a metal box on legs, splitting rocks with a whirring metal drill, then fitting different attachments for logging, farming, mining and engineering, this particular survival game demo doesn't have a lot to offer.

From the start, the progression mechanics are apparent. New materials, new crafting stations and recipes, and so on down the line. For once, I received each new discovery with a sense of dread. More stuff to make! Deep joy!

A big drawback for me about this particular line of progression is that my main motivation in these games is seeing what my character looks like in the next thing I make for them. I don't know what customization options open up as you play in this game. I imagine there must be some. For me, though, it's very hard to connect with a pre-made character sitting in a pre-made vehicle. There's no character creation whatsoever and since the perspective is First Person you don't even really get to see who you're supposed to be.

Fortunately, at least for the purposes of this post, there's a fairly comprehensive Photo Mode. Using that, I was able to get a decent look at myself. I appear to be a short, dumpy individual of indeterminate species, gender or anything else. Wearing thick, protective clothing and a reflective, full-face helmet, through which no face or features can be seen, I could be pretty much anything or anyone.

As for the Mech, it's very dull. And very red. It looks someone welded some of those robotic limbs that work assembly lines onto the front end of a tractor. I've never been much interested in either farm machinery or industrial robots so that look doesn't do much for me.

Gameplay, at least the little I saw in the demo, is exactly the same as every survival game ever. Once you find your Mech and climb inside, it's off to punch some trees (With a mechanical tool designed for the job, not with your fists, so that's something, at least), make a workbench (Actually a Workshed, to be strictly accurate.) before building yourself somewhere to shelter through the hours of darkness (In this case, a tiny tent you can't even see the inside of.)

All of this is very well done. The UI is also excellent, intuitive to use and aesthetically pleasing. I have no issues whatsoever with the execution. I just don't want the gameplay, at least not just for the sake of it. Not any more. 

To draw me in, now I'm becoming so over-familiar with the genre, it takes something more than slick, well-executed mechanics and a lot of generically pretty scenery. Something, specifically, like a character over which I feel I have ownership and about whom I might grow to care.

There does seem to be some sort of narrative. It might even be an interesting one. It might have pulled me in, had it not been for that grating voice delivering it, a sound that never got any less annoying, the longer I listened to it.

When I tipped my Mech over for the third time and couldn't get it upright again, I took it as my cue to quit. I'm not quite sure what that mechanic adds to the game, anyway, other than a very mild element of risk, something otherwise, entirely intentionally I believe, absent from the game. After thirty minutes I felt I'd given the thing a fair run. It was difficult to imagine what more I was likely to discover that would change my first impression.

I think that if this was the first survival game I'd tried, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic. I suppose, strictly speaking, it isn't a survival game at all, there being no hunger, thirst or exhaustion and no external threat or danger. It's probably classed as a "Farming Sim", which as far as I can tell is just a Survival game where your survival is taken as read, leaving you to focus all your time and effort on much the same, endless, repetitive tasks, only without having to waste any energy on feeding or clothing yourself first.

In that sense, it would quite possibly make for a good, gentle introduction to the mechanics common to both genres. Certainly more so than waking up almost naked, in a pitch-black wood, at midnight in a thunderstorm to be killed by skeletons, which was pretty much my introduction to the genre in Valheim

I ended up playing Valheim for more than three hundred hours, though. Thirty minutes was enough with Lightyear Frontier. 

Every wave has its crest. Are we there, yet?


  1. Funny how different people can have such different reactions to the same games. This was almost exactly my reaction to Nightingale -- been there, done that, don't care anymore -- but Lightyear Frontier felt genuinely fresh to me.

    I would disagree that the mech is the main selling feature. I'd say that the hook of the game is its wholesome vibe and its focus on environmental restoration. Viewing the wilderness as something to be healed and cherished rather than an opponent to be defeated is a good way to set it apart from traditional survival games, IMO, and it's something I've wanted to see from the genre for a long time.

    Still don't know if I'm 100% sold on the game -- non-combat sandboxes are pretty outside my usual interests -- but I certainly appreciate what it's trying to do.

    1. I don't think the environmental restoration theme appeared at all in the half-hour I played, although it's possible it came up and I missed it because of that incredibly distracting voiceover. Ironically, I actually found myself wondering why I was driving a piece of industrial machinery through an unspoilt paradise, hacking down trees and smashing up rocks for no good reason.

      On the general concept of wholesome games oriented around creation and curation rather than destruction, there seem to be plenty of those already. There's a whole Cosy genre dedicated to them, into which this would seem to fit quite nicely. I'd convinced myself by the end of the post that it was probably a mistake to have called Lightyear Frontier a "survival" game in the first place but I was too lazy to go back and re-write the whole thing. A genuinely cosy, peaceful, game that also employs full Survival mechanics, though... now that might be interesting.

      As for Nightingale, they really didn't do themselves any favors by setting the stress test in a completely typical fantasy MMO forest. It felt like any number of games I'd played before. From my perspective, though, it felt like games I'd enjoyed, whereas this one felt more like games I didn't get a lot out of and lost interest in fast - like Palia, for example. LF looks to be extremely well put together, though, so I hope it finds an audience. I suspect it will.


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