The watering can is the new assault rifle, and we’re pretty happy with the change. We’ve spent the majority of the summer idly watering crops, from Garden Story to Disney Dreamlight Valley and now Ooblets, and we’re increasingly confident that is becoming something of a ‘movement’. Nurturing sims are definitely on the up, growing from the seeds of Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, and we’re of the opinion that it’s a positive, inclusive shift.
Roughly three-quarters of Ooblets is the same farming loop that you will have come to love from other titles. You start with a stubby little farm that no-one wants, but then you acquire seeds, grow crops, and then sell the harvested goods to buy better seeds, larger plots, and even bigger farms. Farming lends itself perfectly to an engaging and addictive game loop, and it’s no different in Ooblets.
But the other quarter of Ooblets draws from a different series of games. There’s a definite Pokemon edge to it, with creatures not caught, but grown in your farming patches. It’s a “duh, of course!” eureka moment that makes perfect sense, and fits the genre like a gardening glove. The cute little ooblets then follow behind you in a train, as you ‘fight’ other ooblets (in inverted commas as the fight is portrayed as a dance-off), and even participate in Route-like battles against other ooblet trainers.
Battles aren’t quite the turn-based JRPG-lite encounters that you know from Pokemon. They are deckbuilding card games, because everything is a deckbuilding card game right now, with each ooblet in your team contributing some cards to randomly be pulled from a larger deck. The aim is to reach a total point score by pulling off dance moves that might do a number of things: add points to your score, increase your capability for generating points, or limit your opponents’ capability. Win against another team, and the seed of their head-ooblet is yours, plucked from their jacksie in a disconcerting manner.
As you can see, Ooblets is a melting pot of ideas and concepts, picking ingredients from several games. But the resulting blend works extremely well, and is nowhere near as dislocated as it sounds: there’s no issue with how the systems integrate, as they all feel like they were grown or designed for the purpose. Farming and Pokemon feels like a marriage that should have happened before now, while Pokemon and Slay the Spire-style deckbuilding is another fantastic partnership. Both genres have you building, upgrading and refining an arsenal, so there’s less difference between them than you might think.
Everything is lubricated by an adorable game world that looks gorgeous (everyone bops and sways, as if they’re all experiencing the same silent disco), and is littered with real characters, all written as fourth-wall-breaking, distracted and offbeat. Occasionally they lapse into being too twee, too self-knowing, but generally chatting to everyone is a breezy and hilarious experience. Just don’t expect anything like a high-stakes storyline: this is a slice of (odd) life that’s got more in common with the puddle-like depth of Katamari Damacy.
Ooblets’ secret weapon is how it partners all of this stuff, all of these things you can do and grow, with a relatively limited timeframe. You can’t actually do everything you want in a given day. That’s not only because of a day-night cycle; it’s also because you have a small pool of energy to spend on actions. Each day throws up new ooblets, new characters to be spoken with and new missions to complete, but you’re going to have to pick and choose. Perhaps today will be a farming day, as you get your plot in order and water what needs to be watered. Perhaps another day is a get-to-know-you day, as you visit every house and person, furthering your relationships and picking up twinkly collectibles.
Learning that Ooblets is to be played this way is integral to your enjoyment of it. Try to do everything – and feel pressured that you are missing something – and you will find the limited energy bar to be an albatross. It doesn’t help that the energy bar is short in the opening levels, and only really gets workably long as you reach the mid-game. But chunk up your objectives, saving some for a later date, and you will get the most out of Ooblets.
It goes against modern design, but my favourite aspect of Ooblets is how delayed the gratification is. You are always setting up something that will pay off in a few days’ time. Got an order for thirty Hyperglobs? You’ll be saving up for the seeds, then planting them to grow in a few days’ time, and a few hours’ of play to boot. Complete a mission, and the reward might not arrive until the next day. There’s a plodding patience to Ooblets, and once we got in sync with it, we lapped it up. We were constantly thanking Past-Us for putting something into motion yesterday that paid off today.
We suspect that not everyone will feel the same way about Ooblets. It attempts a lot. It keeps loading the wheelbarrow with more and more systems, like tournaments and clubhouses, but precious few of them are deep. Min-maxers and strategy-fiends will splash about in its shallow waters for a bit and then wonder where the game has gone.
They wouldn’t be altogether wrong. For example, the deckbuilding card game is a chase to a points total between two opponents, but there’s not a huge amount of interaction between the two teams. Sure, you can debuff your opponent, but these are generally secondary to amassing as many points as you can. It makes the card-playing more one-dimensional than it needs to be. Even more so, Ooblets isn’t confident about letting you fiddle with the deck. You can switch out ooblets and therefore the cards that are attached to them, but you can’t do much in the way of fine-tuning by adding or removing cards. If you’re used to a diet of Slay the Spire or Magic: The Gathering, then this will feel paltry.
So much of Ooblets feels this way. There will be the glimmer of an idea, but not much else behind it. A Wilderness offers an asynchronous game mode, where you can leave unwanted animals to mooch about. But it’s mostly just a holding pen that you occasionally clean up. A Blathers-like character rewards you for collecting sets of ooblets, but it’s nothing more than a vehicle for rewards. The story is as lightweight as a dandelion seed, dressing your ooblets is purely cosmetic, and the boss sections, if they can be called that, are remixes of conventional ooblet encounters.
We should be more critical of the wafer-thinness of Ooblets, but we can’t be angry at it for long. Because Ooblets is a mood: it’s a relaxing potter through a village of eccentrics, working through shopping lists of tasks, for the simple satisfaction of completing them. If we had a choice in the matter, we would have sacrificed a few of its frilly game systems to deepen some of the better ones, but – overall – Ooblets grew on us.
When we wanted to unwind and actually achieve something, however unimportant or menial, we found ourselves playing Ooblets. It has become a colourful meditation, a little slice of wellness in our day. Other times, we tickled ourselves by sticking a monocle on our Namnam.
You can buy Ooblets from the Xbox Store