The thought that keeps coming to me as I play Ooblets, a cutesy farming/life sim with creature collection elements, is this: how could I have possibly conceived of enjoying this game as a Quake III-obsessed teenager? However often its wholesomeness tips over into sheer twee, Ooblets shows us how far we’ve come on our journey towards greater variety, tones of voice and breadth of audience in the last couple of decades of gaming.
And that’s well worth enduring the occasional sense that you’ve slipped into one of Zooey Deschanel’s daydreams. Here’s a game where survival and competition take a backseat, where friendship, self-care, and a giddily optimistic version of capitalism take center stage instead.
Back to the beginning, though. You arrive on Oob quite unaccustomed to its cultures. The people here have strange ways of greeting each other. They belong to clubs you’ve never heard of. They’re all followed around by tiny wide-eyed creatures, and they find it preposterous that you don’t have any of these creatures, these ‘Ooblets’, yourself.
But you’re here to start a new life, so you absorb the customs, introduce yourself to everyone you see, and find a community of startlingly friendly denizens.
This being a Harvest Moon-alike, you’re immediately given a rickety old farmhouse and some land by Mayor Tinstle, a chipper type with a penchant for pairing polka-dot bow ties with the rainbow top hats that crown her candyfloss hair. And that’s when the Hell Knights appear.
I’m joking of course. The most alarming things that ever happen in Badgetown are the appearance of some rusty cans, and the odd note you find on a park bench or under a book hinting at a mysterious inhabitant you haven’t met yet. There are absolutely no brutal melee takedowns, and not a single Quad Damage anywhere in the town. I’ve checked.
No, the pace of life here is serene and rejuvenating. Time’s measured in how long it takes your crops to grow, or when the next challenge is posted on the board outside the Wildlands, so that you can level up the area to make it prettier – releasing Ooblets to live free-range there. Every single NPC is delighted to see you, and would, you suspect, do anything for you. It’s a safe space.
What do you do, here? Most of the time, you tend to your farm. You can use the land to grow crops or Ooblets, which are really a kind of sentient vegetable when I stop to think about it. Those crops can be sold at the market for Gummies, and those Gummies can be traded for things to spruce up your house with, as well as fancy new clothes or a solid gold watering can. Things like that.
When you’re not watering plants, pulling up weeds or planning the most aesthetic pathways around your fields, you may be entering dance battles with your Ooblets. Channeling Gitaroo Man and Slay the Spire, these encounters are essentially card games where two teams of loose-hipped vegetable-folk race to score 20 points by playing cards in judicious order, according to the number of beats available to them per turn.
As a CCG, it’s extremely light touch and very easy to win. But that feels on-brand for Ooblets, a game where you congratulate the diminutive mushroom-person on the losing team after a match for having nonetheless done a good job.
This is where the Pokémon element lives. Varieties of Ooblets number in the dozens, and among them are super-rare Gleamies, which shimmer in a deeply exciting manner. Showing off isn’t very wholesome, but acquiring Gleamies is basically the point of the game, as best I can discern. Maybe that’s the Quake III-obsessed teenager in me talking.
Anyway, new Ooblets are acquired when you beat one in a dance battle and they subsequently reward you with a seed that lets you grow more of that variety. Only one of them, mind you. The types of Ooblets wandering around Badgetown changes from day to day, and in order to enter a dance battle you need to have a certain number of a particular resource in your inventory – plankies (wood), nurnies (basically green springs you find by cracking rocks open), sweetiebeaties (hardy root vegetables), and so on. If you want to collect all the Ooblets that are in town that day, you therefore need a pretty slick farming operation.
Then, when you’re not watering crops or watching little celeriacs dance, the RPG elements make themselves known. Town inhabitants have rich interior lives – well, except for Taffy, who spends their time sitting on the beach, swaying from side to side and talking about Taffy – and they’ll regularly involve you in their projects. Most of these projects require you to collect resources, naturally, but you do get a sense of friendship from your interactions with them. Classic Arah, you’ll say to yourself, when you see her goth bedroom. Even Bazil, uncharacteristically aloof for a Badgetown denizen, ingratiates himself with you over time. That friendship’s quantified too, with special stickers earned by doing favors for people around town.
Ooblets doesn’t go quite as deep on this personal storyline element as something like Stardew Valley, where your character relationships eventually tip over and become the point of the game. Here, they’re just one aspect of the life sim, something to do while you’re waiting for the crops to grow, the Gummies to accumulate, and the next level of missions to unlock.
Live and ‘let live
It does have a way of expanding over time in a way that’s attuned to your familiarity and curiosity, though. New areas of the island are revealed at a smart pace, new activities introduced just as you’re feeling in a bit of a rut with the current daily schedule. And by dangling the odd mysterious plot thread just ahead of you, developer Glumberland keeps you invested for more than just the sheer completionist urge to gather and enslave all varieties of Ooblet.
I’m deeply glad this game exists. I can feel my heart rate drop 10bpm when I load it up. Even though many games have beaten Ooblets to the punch when it comes to tone and aesthetic since a two-dev team revealed it in 2017 (see A Short Hike, Lake, and the OG Slime Rancher’s many updates), it retains its own sense of character in the thankfully bustling ‘wholesome games’ landscape. Sometimes it sets the teeth on edge, yes. Like the 40th time you choose between ‘Yuh’ and ‘Nuh’ on a menu, or when Padrig the urban lumberjack starts to remind you a bit too much of a Hoxton hipster telling you his pulled jackfruit recipe.
But honestly, I much prefer these minor tonal digressions to the language of your typical Major Game Release, where the same action movie platitudes are rolled out so often that you don’t even begin to engage with the world. Ooblets is not the deepest life sim, the most involving farming game, a Pokémon-killer, or a particularly fleshed out character-led RPG. But it’s good enough at all of these elements to keep me away from Quake for a bit longer yet.
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Ad creative by day, wandering mystic of 90s gaming folklore by moonlight, freelance contributor Phil started writing about games during the late Byzantine Empire era. Since then he’s picked up bylines for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, IGN, USA Today, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, VG247, Edge, Gazetta Dello Sport, Computerbild, Rock Paper Shotgun, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magaine, CVG, Games Master, TrustedReviews, Green Man Gaming, and a few others but he doesn’t want to bore you with too many. Won a GMA once.