Shooting, stabbing, soaring and truck simulating? That stuff's old hat. These days soil-tiling - possibly while wearing an old hat - is where it's at. This week, two early access farming games, My Time At Portia and Staxel, both launched into Steam's top 10.
Once upon a time, hardcore users of platforms such as Steam looked upon farming games with derision, perhaps harbouring nostalgia for their halcyon Harvest Moon days, but scoffing at the explosion of Farmville-alikes that came to characterise the genre. Flash forward a handful of years, though, and farming games are experiencing a renaissance thanks to farming elements across a variety of survival games and, of course, Harvest-Moon-inspired juggernaut Stardew Valley. My Time At Portia and Staxel blend those lineages to take you back to nature in their own unique ways, but neither one is entirely doing it for me so far.
My Time At Portia touts animal-rearing and crop-tending on its Steam page, but after a few hours with it, I've yet to do any actual farming. Instead the game, which takes place in a Ghibli-inspired adventure paradise (but also everyone keeps talking about an apocalypse that apparently happened), spends its opening funneling you through a series of construction-based quests that centre around rebuilding your long-lost dad's old workshop.
This involves chopping down trees, hacking at rocks, and delving into mines to collect materials, which you can then craft into items such as a stone furnace, which you can then use to craft other items, WHICH WILL IN TURN finally, mercifully allow you to craft the items you actually need to, say, build a bridge and explore new areas. Items such as the furnace also take a number of in-game hours to spit out each item you tell them to craft, delaying payoff even further. In the meantime, you can run into town and chat with an impressively large cast of quirky characters, with whom you can build relationships, exchange gifts, and get into friendly fistfights, because why not.
My main issue with Portia so far is the number of roadblocks it tosses up. The basic structure of the game can be summed up as "Wanna do thing X? Well, first you've gotta spend multiple in-game days doing things Y and Z." The mine, for instance, isn't just open for business straight out the gate. First you've gotta do chores until you can scrape together enough money to essentially subscribe to it. And maybe this is an especially personal nitpick, but for me, the payoff of assembling a bunch of cold, lifeless objects pales in comparison to cultivating a farm overrun with plants and animals that I grew and raised and named. One of those things is a home. The other is a factory.
I ended up getting so desperate for some kind of company that I stole one of my neighbours' baby chickens. It, uh, didn't work out.
That isn't to say My Time At Portia lacks personality or warmth. Again, the villagers seem like a fun bunch, and I'm only just starting to get to know them. Also, the game feels like it's on the verge of opening up and incorporating more exploration and combat - becoming more engaging on a moment-to-moment basis, in other words. It just hasn't quite grabbed me yet.
As for Staxel, it grabbed me immediately, eschewing a long tutorial in favour of a quick tour of town in which kindly townsfolk gifted me supplies. Then the tour guide, whose name as recognised by god and the law is for some reason "Farm Fan", gave me a dog. Immediately, I clicked on the dog. My blocky character's pixelated wrist nub reached out and pet the dog. I nearly wept. (My Time At Portia has a stray cat who you cannot pet, and who hates every gift you try to give it. This, I think, sums up the vast philosophical gap between the two games.)
Staxel, however, wasn't able to hold my attention for long. After walking me through the basics of planting crops, buying animals and building structures, it tossed me out onto its dirt-paved roads with little in the way of motivation. Near as I can tell, the point of the game is just to build up your farm, make money, and wander around in the wilderness if you feel like it.
There are some rudimentary quests, but it doesn't seem like you can build relationships with townsfolk in the same way games like Stardew Valley and Portia allow you to or progress beyond whatever goals you set for yourself. The game's chill as all get out, but it might be a little too chill.
Also, I discovered I could rob cash registers and swipe bricks from people's walls without incurring much in the way of consequences. Things quickly went downhill from there.
I stole with abandon, entering stores and households and leaving behind mere skeletons. Now I'm rich, so why even expand my farm? On the upside, at least now I know for sure that my dog and chicken will never go hungry.
My Time At Portia and Staxel both strike me as fairly polished for early access games; for example, Portia's almost fully voice acted, and Staxel's a masterclass in how to streamline a game's early goings. Much like the Staxel general store whose walls I stole, however, both have some gaping holes that badly need filling. If you're all Stardew-ed out, you could do a lot worse than these two, but I can't recommend them wholeheartedly yet.