The goal of Vilmonic is to take care of creatures and keep them from dying. Sounds familiar, right? Well, don't let this seemingly simple synopsis fool you; this artificial life simulator is a lot more than a glorified Tamagotchi.
Vilmonic starts off with an introduction to the game's controls and how the systems work. This intro is quick and easy and you'll get your first creature in no time. You'll probably watch it go extinct in no time as well. After all, Vilmonic is unforgiving, as there's no reviving deceased creatures, and with the auto-save system, there's also no going back to previously saved games for a second chance.
There is no backstory either, be it a sad death or sudden heritage from an estranged family - you just happen to have an island along with the task assigned, which is to breed peculiar creatures and keep them from extinction.
The lack of storyline isn't an obstacle at all though, as instead, we found it quite refreshing to play around with virtual life without having to worry about farming crops, dealing with neighbours, brushing livestock, or finding a partner to start a virtual family with. The base game gave us enough to focus on and kept us engaged without wanting to get sidetracked by side quests.
You traverse your newly acquired pixelated world in the shoes of your character, which you can somewhat customise in what is called 'the Dollhouse'. However, there are no real traits to your alter ego: you are a faceless bundle of pixels and besides colour and shape there isn't much to your new you.
You are provided with creatures known as animatroids and a food source known as fungols, with the task at hand being solely to keep your Animatroids alive. You do this by changing the terrain, as you can dig to make the soil more suitable for fungols to grow, or create rivers and pools for your Animatroids to drink. By clicking on the binoculars, you get information about a specific creature - like whether it prefers dry land or water and whether it's aggressive - and you get to see its genes too. While they're a bundle of pixels, you soon find these little creatures have a surprising amount of depth to them, as everything from their colour to their shape tells you what every unique species craves. The bigger the creature, the more work it is to keep it alive too, as you might imagine.
Besides the creatures, you can also tweak their food source, as depending on where you plant them, fungols can evolve into different subspecies unique in colour and shape. You can also use the binoculars on fungols to see in which environment they grow best, but before you cover your entire island in fungols, keep in mind that not all fungols survive in crowded areas or every terrain, and when you run out food, you will also run out of animatroids. To avoid mass extinction you should, therefore, care about your fungols as much as your animatroids.
What's more is that animatroids can be herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores, but these terms are somewhat loose in Vilmonic; their preference for food is entirely based on motion and scent. Herbivores, for example, are mostly attracted to little movement and lots of scent, so they are more attracted to fungols.
We were witness to acts of cannibalism where parents ate their young and vice versa, simply because animatroids will be attracted to whatever is closest. You do have the power to move animatroids around, granted, but this requires fast reactions because as soon as we saw one of our creatures lay an egg, we ran towards it hoping the parent didn't get a craving for scrambled eggs before we got there. It took some strategic terrain building and the provision of several different food sources to stop the cannibalism, but you can also choose to allow your animatroids to feast on each other if you so wish. It certainly adds to the challenge of keeping your species alive.
If they live long enough, animatroids will automatically breed without help. Their genetic code is passed down to its offspring with a chance of mutation, which means animatroids will automatically evolve over many generations. However, similar to fungols, you can also tweak their evolution. For example, if you want to create a species that doesn't require a lot of water, move them to an area that has little water. We learned the hard way that sudden big changes don't work though, as creatures that aren't equipped for a specific environment die off fast, meaning you'll have to gradually implement changes if you want to keep your species alive.
In the menu, you can find your notebook which tells you how many and which species of creatures are alive and how many you have made extinct. There are also badges to be earned which give you achievements on Steam, like one for planting fungols in every colour or breeding new species.
Besides the animatroids and fungols, you will find something else on your island: zombitons. These are ancient inhabitants of Vilmonic, and whilst they leave your creatures and fungols alone, they are attracted to your movement and will follow you and attack you when you get too close. A big heart in the bottom of the screen shows your health, and when zombitons attack your health goes down quick. You can run away (they hate water and won't follow you there) or you can fight back, but be warned, when fighting back they get angrier and will start building their own dungeons. When we attacked our first zombiton, we immediately saw them building and getting more aggressive. You can attack and destroy them and whatever they build, but other zombitons will take their place and defend their buildings.
As of yet, there is no option to remove zombitons from the game, although it has been suggested by players to implement this option. We didn't find them to have a negative effect on our experience, especially because a pool of water or blowing bubbles (yes, really) fends them off quite easily, and as long as you don't engage them, they will mostly leave you alone.
Luckily, you can build too. Vilmonic has a crafting system that lets you make tools, build walls and fences, and even craft sugary soda drinks that can help you heal faster when you take too much damage. Crafting is quick and simple, as you aren't overwhelmed with choice although there's enough to keep you busy. You can also build dungeons yourself (which are nothing more than brick walls and stone floors, but which attract zombitons to wherever you build them), fences can keep certain fungols from being eaten, or you can put animatroids in a fenced area if you wish to breed that specific species. Building pools will keep zombitons away and if you dig up junk, that may even help you craft some items as well. If you stumble upon toxic waste you can even risk playing around with that too, but beware of the negative consequences that may have...
It isn't a question of if, but when you will experience your first mass extinction. When that happens, you simply wait around for a drone to drop off a box containing a new animatroid. You get to keep your island and everything on it, so besides the shame and guilt there's little penalty for failing at the one job you had.
Similarly, when your health drops to zero, you stay in the game but can only move incredibly slowly. You have to wait until you're healed up before you can move around freely again, or speed this process up by drinking sugary drinks. Luckily you get to keep all your items and creatures, but the impaired movement does make you think twice before enraging a zombiton.
Vilmonic is an open-ended game where you can keep breeding, feeding, and landscaping to your heart's desire. You can play even play on different difficulty levels, as the bigger the island you choose, the more difficult the game gets. This all helps to make the game very replayable, and similar to titles like Stardew Valley, Vilmonic is also a one-man-project. The developer is very hands-on with Vilmonic, communicating with players via Steam and Twitter and adding features to the game such as exchanging creatures online.
The cute graphics may seem a bit simple at first, but soon you will find yourself caring about your pixelated wildlife. It didn't take us long to be engaged and charmed by our ever-evolving plethora of pixels, and the music and sound effects are also kept simple.
Despite the danger of mass extinction and with zombitons always lurking, Vilmonic is a relaxing and enjoyable game with an amount of depth you may not expect at first glance. With its unique take on the genre, this genetics sandbox game is especially interesting for players who enjoy virtual life simulators, and if that sounds like you we'd recommend you take a closer look.