As someone who has lost weeks to Stardew Valley and a lockdown to Animal Crossing, we know there’s an audience for Bit Orchard: Animal Valley because we are that audience. As much as we’d love a farming/gardening game that has the production levels of a Red Dead Redemption 2, we know that some basic sprites and a few growth stages for the plants is all we need. You could stick Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Gameboy and we’d be first in the queue.
Lucky for us, then, as ‘Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Gameboy’ is precisely Bit Orchard: Animal Valley’s pitch. It’s all the fun of the farming fair, mixed with the charm of an 8-bit cartridge game.
Not that it’s fun in its first moments. Bit Orchard: Animal Valley is about as welcoming as a 5am wake-up, and only gradually gets more fun until it finally reveals the game it should have been. It’s a huge investment, and you should be aware that you need to peel away several layers of ‘work’ before you can get to ‘fun’.
The opening moments have you in a claustrophobic little field, planting seeds and waiting several in-game days for them to grow into apple trees that will generate apples and, finally, some cash. These moments are about your capability for patience, as saving up for even a single seed can be a grind.
Things aren’t helped by a bonkers, counter-intuitive approach to growing stuff. Produce grows over the course of days, but there’s nothing else to do in your farm beyond, say 9am. So you’re stuck twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the next day. That’s what we thought after the first hour of play, anyway. As it turns out, you’re meant to go to bed at 11am each day (Bit Orchard: Animal Valley won’t let you go to sleep before then) to speed up the growing process. Who knew that farmers woke up at 6am and went to bed at 11am?
Once this cheat/intended mechanic becomes clear, things speed up a bit. Bit Orchard: Animal Valley has a neat little mission system to guide you through the game, pasted in the top-left of the game screen. It’s not always as informative as it should be (some hints are in the next paragraph), but it acts as some scaffolding to a largely structureless game, and you at least have something to aim for.
Okay, here are the hints, as the internet is barren of them. Skip to the next para if you want to come to it clean: the rabbit can be scared into trees so you can pet it multiple days; the frog needs to be worn out by chasing it, again for multiple days; and, yes, big apples and golden apples are completely random. We found sprinklers and scarecrows helped make them more likely to appear, but that might just be a coincidence.
This last hint is itself a clue to Bit Orchard: Animal Valley’s second failing. This is a game that loves a bit of RNG. It positively revels in it, and it’s not even randomness that you can ignore. Objectives need you to grab twenty golden apples, which are ultra-rare, or catch bass that only seem to swim in random corners of the map (Bit Orchard: Animal Valley has a fishing minigame that hits in the last third of the game). All you can do is reset the day at 11am, over and over again, and cross your green fingers that a golden apple is waiting for you.
The first two farms that you will own in the opening hours of the game are too small, giving you few options. We found ourselves absolutely cramming them with apple trees for a better chance of scrumping the elusive golden apple, but it only made movement and visibility all too cramped. We needed fibre that grew on the ground to make scarecrows, but couldn’t see the fibre for the trees.
It all seems a bit rubbish, and we were mentally jotting down low scores, but then the skies clear and everything gets rather good. It’s way too late and demands far too much from the player, but roughly at the point where fishing becomes an activity, Bit Orchard: Animal Valley becomes the pocket Stardew Valley that it should have been.
Clearer and better objectives start raining down, giving you enough to do in a day to take you till bedtime, rather than giving up at 11am. The addition of people, with their own characters and whims, makes up for the lack of personality that came before them. And the randomness hurts less, simply because you can be doing other things instead of waiting for something to happen.
And you have room to grow things, as space allows you to create the optimal patterns of trees, sprinklers and scarecrows. Old Sim City reflexes kicked in, and we were city-planning but with apple trees, and we had a great time.
This section isn’t perfect – the mechanics behind fishing are still opaque to us, as we have no idea how to fling our bait near or far. But it’s the condensed farming sim that we wanted and got crazily hungry for. If only it didn’t starve us of it for a good hour or two before it arrived on our plate.
There is a bonsai farming game in Bit Orchard: Animal Valley. It’s just as cute, bite-size and satisfying as you’d hope it would be. But, by golly, do you have to work for it, with an opening that’s slow, grindy, tiny and random. Accept two hours of unsatisfying farming and Bit Orchard: Animal Valley will bear fruit. If that sounds like a sound investment, then grab a spade.
You can buy Bit Orchard: Animal Valley from the Xbox Store