I swear that every other game I’ve played this year has me kneeling in the dirt to plant strawberries. If it’s not my recurring addiction to Disney Dreamlight Valley, it’s Garden Story, Ooblets, Slime Rancher 2, Hokko Life, Bit Orchard…the list goes on. The amount of time I’ve spent in virtual soil this year could have been spent on my own backyard. It could be Kew Garden-worthy right now.
Blame Animal Crossing, of course, with a little bit of splash-blame being applied to Stardew Valley. These games absolutely killed it over lockdown, as shut-in players wanted to feel like they were growing or progressing in some way. The life-sim genre is also one of the most welcoming and inclusive of all game genres. Everyone can get involved, no matter what the flavour, and that is a very much a good thing.
But what’s encouraging is that we’re into the weirdo stage of the copycat games. To really stand out, the influx of similar games need to do something new, and Lonesome Village is indeed doing something new. It’s a life-sim stapled to the Crystal Maze, and we are absolutely, one-hundred per-cent in for that.
Lonesome Village isn’t coy about the first of its reference points. You play Wes, a coyote, who has come to a village as a stranger but also its potential hero. There are heavy notes of Legend of Zelda here, and you even unlock an outfit that makes you undeniably like Link, as if you missed the previous homages.
The village is empty, aside from a mentor owl, who takes you through the learning-ropes. The villagers have been captured and encased in stone within a nearby tower. That tower is thirty-odd floors high, and there is a statue on every level, waiting for you to free its imprisoned frog, badger, hippo and many more.
This is the Crystal Maze bit. You enter this towering building, and on each floor is a portal, and through that portal is a puzzle. The puzzle, to parrot Richard O’Brien, is often skill-based, physical, mystery or mental. A few are on the skillful or physical side, as you navigate a boat through some rapids, or slide around a maze without the ability to stop. Others are more on the mystery side, as you attempt to figure out what the room wants with you. The vast majority are more ‘mental’, though. There are sliding puzzles, pipe manias, reflecting puzzles and many more.
The abiding feeling that we get from these puzzles is familiarity and abruptness. Very rarely can Lonesome Village muster a puzzle that really surprises us. It’s a big ask, to be fair: with Professor Layton, POWGI, hidden object games and many more all hunting for new puzzle variants, it can be difficult for anyone to stand out. But these puzzles are extremely familiar. Did we really need to be completing jigsaw puzzles or playing memory card games? They are benign to the point of being mildly insulting.
That’s if you’re an older player, of course. It brings us to something which would have been well-placed as a footnote, if our site did footnotes. Lonesome Village is incredibly accessible, at least in the gameplay sense. There is no combat here, not a whiff of it, and there’s very little reading too. So, if you’re considering Lonesome Village for someone who isn’t an experienced middle-aged game reviewer, then well, there’s a lot to recommend here.
Back to the puzzles. There is a strange abruptness to them. Just as you understand and even start enjoying a given problem, it ends. Where other games would follow the rule of threes and deliver multiple versions of one puzzle, Lonesome Village often doesn’t bother, You are kicked out of the room full minutes before you wanted to be, and just before the challenge arrived, too. Lonesome Village is exceptionally easy, and that may well be a recommendation to some, and a caveat to others.
The puzzle-tower of Lonesome Village is fine, but it’s not where the nuggets of enjoyment are to be found. The tower helps to solidify the game’s structure, as you reach floors that are impassable unless you have a specific item or number of hearts – effectively booting you out of the tower to play the other stuff – but on its own, it’s unremarkable. Although it is core to the game (perhaps the core) we found ourselves ignoring it whenever we could.
That’s because the good stuff is in the life-sim. Lonesome Village divides up into roughly six areas, and each area begins to populate with the people that you save in the tower. Think Dark Cloud, but with NPCs being earned as loot rather than buildings, and you are halfway there. When the character arrives back at their house, you can talk to them and begin to earn their affection.
There are echoes of the Black Mirror ‘Nosedive’ episode here, as you are looking to artificially improve your friendship score with each character. This means completing their often arbitrary tasks. What’s that, Hippo? You want me to go out and get you ten bananas and ten strawberries? I guess I will be farming those for you, then. Each character has three ‘hearts’ to be earned, and stacking quests will unlock them. Earn enough hearts, and you can make progress through the tower.
We might have labelled it as arbitrary, but we got suckered in. This is the good stuff. A piece of paper is always by our pad as we play, listing all of the ores we need to gather, the fruit we need to grow, and the recipes we need to complete. These all plug into Lonesome Village’s many life-sim systems, which are never more than puddle-deep. There is farming, fishing, cooking, mining, woodcutting and many other ‘My First MMO’ inclusions. None of them would raise an eyebrow in terms of mechanics – they are all borrowed from other, better games – but there is a gentle enjoyment that comes from following a process from beginning to end.
Although there are a couple of snags within those processes. Lonesome Village’s interfaces are terrible, dabbling in several issues that are personal bugbears. It’s hard to know what the UI is highlighting at a given moment, and some simple steps are just unbearably long-winded. Want to go to the top floor of the tower? Fine. Tab through every single floor. Want to buy lots of one item? Fine. Buy one at a time, with a confirmation prompt for each. The issues stretch to the core usability too, as farming takes about one second per-plant too long, and it’s exceptionally hard to highlight the one square that you want to dig.
That’s when you’re not hit by a wave of crash-bugs. There are numerous save points throughout Lonesome Village and you begin to suspect why. We crashed regularly in interfaces, in dialogue and even when moving from one screen to another. The number of times we stared at the Microsoft dashboard, rage building, were too numerous to mention.
But something kept tugging us along. The complete lack of expectations and pressure has something to do with it. The gloriously bold world, stencilled in with thick markers might have something to do with it too. And the world, deep with secrets and never too onerous to navigate, might be another reason.
But most of all, it’s Lonesome Village’s loops that kept beckoning us onward: complete a puzzle, unlock a villager, fulfil quests for the villager and become their friend. On and on, the loop would continue, and we couldn’t get off. While the puzzles are meek and unremarkable, it’s the blossoming world and its demanding residents that really shine.
We wouldn’t go so far to say that Lonesome Village is sensational, or better than the other life-sims that have graced the Xbox over the past year. We’d nudge you over to Ooblets and Disney Dreamlight Valley, if placed in a line-up. But there is certainly something compelling in the simplicity of its loops, and there’s not an ounce of combat or pressure as you enjoy the merry-go-round. This is one for life-sim fans who would rather that things like difficulty didn’t bother them.
You can buy Lonesome Village from the Xbox Store
- Beautifully bold world and characters
- The loop from tower to surface-world is hugely compelling
- So many secrets to find
- Puzzles are familiar and too short
- All the life-sim processes like fishing are too simple
- Full of crash bugs and UI issues
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Ogre Pixel
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 1 November 2022
- Launch price from - £14.99