If, like us, you were lured into playing Niche based on its polygon-esque art-style and cutesy critters, and you were expecting an easy and relaxing game, you're in for a wild ride. Not long after our first attempt to establish a happy herd, our entire flock of feline-looking creatures died.
Nobody tell PETA.
Citing games such as Spore and Creatures as influence, Niche revolves around building tribes with creatures you can genetically modify. In order to make your tribe thrive, you'll need to breed, feed, explore and expand. However, death lurks around every corner: you will have to deal with predators, famine, adverse weather conditions- and just when you think you've beaten all odds, your creature dies of old age.
Using a turn-based tile system that reminds of Civilization, each adult animal can make three moves - mate, gather food, attack potential predators, or simply move across the board. Each move costs food, mostly gathered from bushes with luscious looking purple berries. If your entire tribe is out of moves, you can hit the night-button to give your creatures a good night's rest and reset their moves.
Every new game starts on a randomly generated island, making each play a unique experience. At the start of every new game, you will have control over two creatures, suitably called Adam and Eve. Your first move would be breeding the two lovebirds - a simple click followed by a contented purr will mark your first step towards establishing a tribe. When exploring, you may occasionally find stray animals who will automatically be added to your flock, which certainly comes in handy to expand the gene pool.
Playing around with genetics is where the real fun starts: in the menu, you will find all the options available to tinker with. Some will benefit your tribe, such as antlers to attack predators or claws for better food gathering (yes, your creature can even die when gathering berries from a prickly bush). Others are purely cosmetic, such as fur patterns or eye colour. You may drag and drop up to two things at once, which will influence the next spawning offspring. Mixing & matching may unlock new features which, even if your current tribe goes extinct, remain available for all new following games.
At the time of writing, the available genes feel a bit limited - especially for a game revolving around around genetically altering animals. Keeping in mind Niche is still in Early Access, the chances are that many more options will be added over time. That isn't to say the game isn't enjoyable in its current state - there are still plenty of options to play around with.
Selecting an animal will tell you its name, sex, and health. There is however no family tree, meaning you may accidentally inbreed animals. Inbreeding doesn't hold a penalty - apart from your own moral conscience perhaps.
Despite being a merciless survival game that annihilates more animals than rain forest deforestation, the background music is remarkably zen. This is likely to soothe the emotional strain when, after you just got attached to your animals with all their adorable purrs and squeaks, they are wiped out within seconds. And it's all your fault.
A minor downside about Niche is the overall shortage of food. Berry bushes are scarce, some even drain the health of your animals with sharp spikes. On rare occasions you may find rabbit-like rodents which provide a good source of protein when your creature devours it, assuming your animal has the right genetic setup to do so. But in general, both berries and bunnies are scarce.
Limited resources mean you are also limited to experiment with genetics, as the unforgiving environment forces you to build the strongest tribe possible. Whilst it is fun to create a pack of crooked critters with wonky eyes and stubby legs, the fact they become extinct almost instantly is discouraging. Having almost no other option than creating superior beasts takes away the fun of the otherwise appealing aspect of dabbling in your tribes' DNA. We hope that in future updates, there will be more food to fight famine.
Niche is a challenging, unsparing survival game. The turn-based system compels strategic thinking, whilst dabbling in DNA modification adds a god-like aspect to the game. Niche makes this unlikely mixture of genres work, creating an innovative game that holds much potential. We are eager to find out what this enigma wrapped in fuzzy cuteness holds for us in the future.