When people say something is an acquired taste there’s a certain implication that once you acquire that taste it’ll be spectacular and worth it. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you acquire a taste for steamed broccoli or white rice. Niche is an acquired taste and if you force yourself to acquire it you’ll probably shrug and move on.
Should You Buy It?
Not really. It took me 10 hours of fairly tedious play to get to something like fun. Not even really fun, just a vague satisfaction. If you generally like casual (but not easy) games, and prefer relaxing over action or deep thought then you might like it. It certainly has a ton of fans and some have spent hundreds of hours in the game. It’s deep enough to support that if you like the core gameplay. I didn’t like it enough.
I want to share the marketing blurb that got me to buy the game:
Niche – a genetics survival game is a turn-based strategy game combined with simulation and roguelike elements. Shape your own species of animals based on real genetics. Keep your species alive against all odds, such as predators, climate change and spreading sickness.
I didn’t think I was buying a casual, clicky game. Only the roguelike hints at the game’s true nature. The rest made me think I’m buying a sciency survival game that will teach me about genetics. “Shape your own species” made me think I can end up as a poisonous worm, or a spiked owl.
Story-mode starts you out as a single hyena like animal. From there you explore a small island rogue style (one hex at a time while everything else in the world takes a hex step as well). You run into other hyena animals and for a small gift of food they join your tribe.
Food is really the only survival aspect that is physically modeled and it’s not difficult to stay fed on the first bunch of islands. Each food source and activity is tied to a skill that is tied to a physical trait. Claws make you good at attacking. Nimble fingers are good for collecting. A long snout extends the range you can smell at.
You can mate with any adult member of the opposite sex, mixing their genes and creating new weird little hyena hybrids. Once your tribe grows you’ll send the majority off to collect food and grass, nursing the ones with positive traits and mating them while avoiding too much inbreeding. I was overeager to lock in certain traits and ended up with a stubborn blindness gene that I never fully got rid of. It was interesting as the blind ones needed help moving around but were capable once placed in front of something. They earned their keep chained to a berry bush.
There’s no endgame or goals or even quests. You don’t really evolve, just flip toggles that flip traits and there’s not much pressure to adapt. You certainly don’t deal with genetics in any realistic manner beyond how they are inherited from parents.
The Genetics Are Gift Wrapped
Without an external goal I decided to set my own purpose in order to eek out some fun. I wanted to create deadly, versatile creatures. They would be black with white highlights, a racoon mask, spikes on their bodies and they would be pretty, because I am shallow.
Aside from natural inheritance each creature can choose two traits that have a 50/50 chance of being passed on. These traits are picked from a big set of icons regardless of what genes that individual actually has. You can get your all black hyena to pass on red fur traits, or spontaneously grow spikes. This one element waters down the only actually interesting thing about the game. I would have enjoyed the challenge of isolating genes while keeping my tribe alive. Instead I just froze two genes for each generation of babies and steadily marched towards the freaks I had in mind.
Another thing that should have elevated this game is just a bit of connection with your animals. It’s such an obvious direction for the designers to take with what is essentially a pet game that I was surprised and disheartened they did almost nothing with it.
For one thing your animals don’t live very long. 30 turns and they turn into a skeleton with no fanfare or even acknowledgment from their mates. It feels cold and harsh. I’ve had mothers die in their nest, their skeleton draped over their newborn baby while the father picks berries near by. Even just an animated tear when they see the corpse would have done wonders.
And they don’t move. They shift over to new hexes like board game pieces. You lose half the fun of breeding lithe, sinewy tailed ninja tigers if you don’t get to see them stalk and pounce. Everything is an icon click.
Not Really About Niches
Presumptions made me picture a much broader world where my creatures would have niches to adapt into. That game sounded cool. Instead I traveled slowly across 5 islands in 20 hours and mostly saw high grasslands. There was variety in the plants (some poisonous, some spiky, etc.) and other hyena creatures but the biomes never changed. I know there are others but I didn’t get to them.
There are also no environmental changes. No real seasons, or nighttime or disasters. Once you stabilize you can survive indefinitely on one island. Animals that achieve that in real life don’t relocate to a more inhospitable climate just to test themselves. You will out of boredom but it’s another wasted opportunity to simulate something that feels real.
The Good Bits
There were two particularly enjoyable parts. I felt genuine satisfaction once I figured out the mechanics and bred my superstar hyenas and sent them off to a new island. I froze some core traits and the genes for other traits I wanted to focus on later were in there somewhere. The spikes, the special jaws, the swimming tails – that small group represented careful thought and consideration and packed a lot of potential. That feeling lessened with each new island and group of wonder-hyenas.
Much later in the game there was a burst of predator activity which forced me out of my clicky autopilot lull. It wasn’t truly challenging, half my tribe had claws and spikes and I could surround each predator and take them down with only a bit of damage. I sent my disposable freaks, the royal breeding pairs far behind and mating like rabbits. I made plans to create a warrior caste but never felt enough pressure again to bother.
Too Much Slog
In the end the game requires too much slog to get to the good bits and is too disrespectful of its creatures to engender more affection than you create yourself through your work. I could see things being more fun in harsher, more demanding environments but it’s not like you can zoom across islands to get there. Your creatures die so quickly that you have to stop part way and breed for a while to ensure young explores for the next hop.
You’d also have to breed much hardier creatures as the game can get hard. There is disease and temperature and scarcity and lots of genetic RNG. In one stretch I had 9 boys born in a row and was concerned my last few females would die before they could create an inbred daughter to carry on the tribe. One island had plenty of berry bushes but they were toxic and I had no genetic immunity in any of my lines to cultivate. I was lucky I had not fully locked in nimble fingers and still had some claws and stealthy feet to survive off rabbits and moles.
Designers should know by now that if you give us an ugly way to play the game that conveys more useful data, that’s how we’ll play it. We played 3 gorgeous batman games in ugly blue wireframe because it showed more.
In Niche you can toggle between ears, eyes or nose and smell gives you by far the most information. Smello-vision however is ugly and black and white. I gave serious thought to only doing black and white screen shots because that’s how you’ll play your game.
I like the idea but the execution is frustrating. Senses don’t work like that. I can smell and see at the same time, an ability I lament when helping my children in the bathroom after taco tuesday. Take the lovely screenshots with a grain of salt and stare hard at this grey one.
The Score – 62
Tedium during the first 10 hours of play made me scratch my head trying to figure out how anyone (let alone over 1000 positive steam reviews) liked this game. The score was mentally locked at 50 and I was not looking forward to writing the review. Then the game got more interesting and I grew more attached to my animals. Having a larger tribe extends the turn length and makes you feel like they’re not dying as quickly.
So 62 with the caveat that it’s easy to see how people with different preferences would score it much higher. I never had a tamagotchi or pokemon. The idea of simulating evolution sounds great but I want a lot more of it simulated to be enticed. That’s what I thought I was getting from the blurb. If you’re in for a casual game then your mileage will vary. My first 10 hours were frustrating and boring but then I did get into a relaxed stupor for the next 10; but that’s not worth the effort or why I play games.