In Verdant Skies you take on the role of a genderless protagonist who is recruited to create a space colony on the faraway planet Viridis Primus, as their resident farmer. Developer, Howling Moon Software takes the familiar formula of the farm sim but rather than focus on the farming, puts far more of a focus on the social sim side of things. Between good writing and some interesting farming mechanics, Verdant Skies is a joy to play but it’s, without a doubt, built for a narrow niche.
A Note About Diversity
Howling Moon is vocal about their dedication to making Verdant Skies a socially responsible game and it permeates every aspect of it. The game never asks you to specify a gender for their PC. This is intentional. Rather than a binary understanding of gender, the game allows players to roleplay whatever gender they want. As such, the NPCs don’t use gendered pronouns to refer to the player.
What is possible, is customizing your character to present as whoever you want them to present as. And, there are a multitude of hair options including options for Black hairstyles, something missing from most games.
The colonists, themselves, run the gamut of human expression. The majority of them are non-white, there are women, men, a gender-non-binary person, fat people, skinny people, disabled people, they are all suggested to be Queer, and many of them are non-monogamous. If that upsets you, then, there’s your warning. The SJW boogeyman is alive and well in Verdant Skies. Okay? Okay.
Verdant Skies, in many ways, keeps with the typical farm sim formula. The player arrives on Viridis Primus as the new colonist on the block and is tasked with building themselves a house, cultivating a farm, and upgrading the settlement. The reward is unlocking new colonists, gear, and equipment. Like games like Story of Seasons and Stardew Valley, Verdant Skies’ formula is successful in keeping you engaged. But I found myself feeling compelled to keep playing for different reasons in VS than in SV and SoS.
This is where the target audience for VS begins to narrow. Rather than a Farm sim with social sim elements, VS feels more like a social sim with farm sim elements. This has to do with the very foundation on which the game is built on, mainly, its map. Verdant Skies’ world is all rendered on one, continuous, map, with the exception of interiors. Instead of a concentrated area where the player is meant to farm, fields are littered across Virdus Primus’ three biodomes, some far from civilization, some in the marshlands, and others right next to fellow colonists’ homes. Each with, usually, four squares to plant crops and no more than eight.
This means players will need to run all over the map instead of spending the majority of their time isolated on their farm if they want to expand beyond eight plots. I am on the fence on whether this is a bad decision or a clever one. But it does change how the game flows by making farming a pain in the ass and forcing the player to often cross paths with every colonist in the course of a day. This makes farming less enticing overall but makes it easier, by leaps and bounds, to raise the colonists’ friendship meters. Which, is ultimately one of the more rewarding methods of progression in the game.
Fly Social Butterfly
There are 14 unlockable colonists, with 9 relationship levels each, denoted by purple, blue, and, pink hearts, respectively. By talking to a colonist every day you gradually fill a colonist’s relationship bar. Once full there is a cutscene to advance to the next level. This means there are over 126 cutscenes which flesh out the backgrounds, motivations, and personalities of the colonists, without counting any of the randomized cutscenes or story related stuff. I say this to say, Verdant Skies is a reading intensive game. Gamers looking for good character development and storytelling will find a lot to like.
The diverse cast of characters are created with a lot of care and intention. Their stories are relatable and well thought out. Their personalities and personality quirks are compelling and believable. I appreciated getting to know characters like Jade Washington, the woman in charge of the colony, and discovering her weird love of chocolate pudding, her insecurities, and her relationship with her brother, Anthony, who later becomes part of the colony as well.
I could feel how much the writer cares about the little details and their dedication to continuity. Details I learned from Jade would later appear in my conversations with her brother who would flesh out his side of things, independent of her. It feels nuanced and even when the characters tiptoed into cliche it’s not written badly.
Relationships of all natures are allowed to have subtlety and that is a great thing. Rather than in other games where the difficult issues of divorce, commitment, and break-ups are ignored or glossed over, Verdant Skies tackles them with tact. When a colonist develops a crush on the PC, and they can’t or won’t date them, rather than stop the friendship, they learn to value that friendship instead. Break-ups are allowed to happen amicably. Dimensions of human relationships, that aren’t usually shown in video games, are shown in Verdant Skies. That complexity of narrative is a good enough reason to stick out some of the game’s glaring flaws.
Additionally, I should mention that these cutscenes often give new cooking recipes, new tracks you can play using a boombox, or furniture. Howling Moon tied a lot incentives to the social mechanics of the game. So it’s really very fortunate that the writing is compelling.
The Means to the End
So the colonists are cool and charismatic and the real motivation for playing the game. There are 14 of them and you start with 2 unlocked, so obviously there’s some unlocking to do. You do this in a few ways: make improvements to the settlement and complete quests (called jobs in-game.) Here is where the actual gaming happens. Littered around the world are various points with improvements to make for the settlement, such as a gathering place, or a bridge which opens up a new area of the map.
These improvements are what necessitates the player’s involvement in the other systems of the game because you need money and materials. By far the best way to make money is to farm and sell fresh ingredients. The farming is pretty simple: you pick a field, till the soil, plant seeds, and water them but there are a few things that set VS apart. Firstly, instead of having a watering can you have to fill up over and over again, the first method available to water crops is a stationary water tank you can put next to a field. These operate like a hose. It’s an interesting way to get around having to refill a damn watering can over and over again.
The second way farming is set apart is in the ability to genetically modify seeds using a machine to splice the DNA of two seeds of the same type’s. You can breed for things like more yield, growing faster or regrowing after harvesting. On the flipside, there are also unfavorable traits like needing fertilizer to grow or needing more water than other crops. I only got into it very late in my time with VS. I wish I got into it sooner. It makes farming much more interesting. And the same thing is possible with animals once you unlock ranching.
There’s a wealth of flowers, trees, stone, and scrap to collect between the spread out fields. These constitute the primary building blocks for everything you craft as well as a mine. An addition to these useful distractions are some less useful things to do such as: painting, making ceramics, bug catching, and fishing.
One of my primary complaints about the game is how pointless some of the activities are. You can catch bugs for one specific quest line, and then never use it again. Same thing with painting. It would have been nice to see these have more practical uses. Selling them is pointless since you don’t make that much money.
Small Improvements/Huge Flaws
There are a few clever sentiments woven through VS that make it a good experience. When you ship goods, you get money immediately, instead of having to wait a day. You have gene splicing, and you don’t have to give a specific gift to a certain person to raise their friendship. You just talk to them once. And you can customize your house quite a bit from the outside paint job, to the roofing, to the rug in each room. Your character is also super customizable which is always a plus. These quality of life things make me really like Verdant Skies. But that doesn’t mean the game is without major flaws.
Starting with the biggest flaw, and the one that leaves the worst taste in my mouth, my main save file is missing an entire colonist, Skye Miller. According to the Wiki, I should have unlocked her when I completed the Pioneer Plaza. I believe it was because I completed Plaza before I got the quest to do so. I never got the quest to unlock Skye. She just isn’t there and there’s nothing I can do about that. Oh but, one of the other colonists did refer to her in one of his casual dialogue lines, it just appeared as, “???”.
That is just one in many weird glitches littered throughout the game. When I had a wedding, the colonists who attended congratulated me, which made sense. However, when new colonists arrived on the planet, afterwards, they also congratulated me and told me how nice a ceremony it was… even though they weren’t there. And this was a theme throughout the game, little glitches everywhere: a pot I can’t move from the middle of my house like I’m supposed to be able to, graphical hiccups, events not triggering as they should, etc. It’s not a short list. But the game was generally stable, I never experienced any crashes just, free floating bugs. It’s aggravating because Verdant Skies is a great game by some standards but, functionally a mess, inhibiting it from reaching its potential.
Should you buy it?
Yes, even after all of the bugs and some of the game’s weaknesses, this is a game that should be played. Verdant Skies, the epitome of indie, a diamond in the rough but at the same time, as I said at the beginning of this review, extremely niche and it’s only going to appeal to that niche.
Update 3/06/2018: I mentioned my problem with one of the colonists not showing up in the Steam forums and Howling Moon reached out and offered to take a look at my save file. They are going to try and fix the bug. No news on how that’s going yet but it was nice that they offered!
Available from: Steam