Game Title: Niche: A Genetics Survival Game
Developed By: Stray Fawn Studios
Published By: Stray Fawn Studios
Released: September 15, 2016
Available On: Windows, Linux, and macOS
Genre: Strategy, Survival, Simulator
ESRB Rating: No rating
Number of Players: Single player
Strong Points: Stellar Gameplay; Relaxing Pace
Weak Points: Confusing Organization; A Lacking Tutorial
Moral Warnings: Forced Mating; Symbolized Violence
[This review was written after the 1.0.6. patch.]
Thank you Stray Fawn Studios for sending us your game.
DNA - the strands by which God knit the universe; they are as marvelous as they are fascinating. They determine how someone looks, their physicality, and links them to their parentage. Geneticists have strived to explain how these wonders are passed on or skip a generation, but even with what can be learned, it’s impossible to gain complete understanding of God’s hidden ways. DNA is the most universally recognized source of human diversity. Same truth goes in the animal kingdom. Now, imagine you were in charge of genetic distribution, tasked with the creation of a new species. Which animals would you mate? Which genes would you mutate? Well, Stray Fawn Studios sets to put your biological wisdom to the test with their game, Niche: A Genetics Survival Game.
Before we dive into this review, let’s take a quick pause, because a basic understanding of genetics is helpful to better understand Niche. Now some of you might recall your old school biology class and remember terms like genes, dominant alleles, and recessive alleles. If that’s you, then great. Feel free to skip this paragraph, but any of you who wants a refresher course, here’s a quick sum up. Genes in DNA are inherited units that define physical traits (hair, eyes, etc.), and alleles are specific kinds of genes that specify the characteristics of said physical traits (long hair, green eyes, etc.). There are two types of alleles: dominant and recessive. The difference results in the commonality or rarity of certain traits. A person only needs one dominant allele for it to be active, but recessive alleles require two. To reiterate, if brown hair alleles are dominant and blonde hair alleles are recessive, then a child would need two blonde alleles to have golden locks, while a brunette would only need one brown allele. If said brunette does posses an inactive blonde allele and marries a spouse who’s the same, then there’s a slim chance for said couple to birth a blonde baby. That’s the main gist. Now, obviously, this topic is actually way more complicated than that, but if this elementary explanation works for you, then you’re well enough prepped for Niche.
Okay. So with the mini biology course done, let’s talk about the game. Niche has two main modes: story mode and sandbox mode. There isn’t much difference between them, though. Story mode’s itsy-bitsy, non-consequential plot just serves as a decent beginner springboard, and sandbox mode essentially lets you pick which difficulty level you want to begin with. Your goal in either mode is the same. Take an island-bound pair of fictitious animals, one male and one female, and breed a stable species. You can travel from island to island if you want. It is the sole way to experience Niche’s full range of ecosystems, but once you settle, those critters of yours must be able to cope accordingly. Try to stay alive. That said, I think Niche’s setup is excellent. Evolving your own species your way taps into the human desire to personalize. It’s one of the strongest motivators there is. At the same time, the game challenges you to pursue your dream creature and make it work. Form shouldn’t sacrifice function, and in my personal taste, designs that combine beauty with usefulness differentiates a grand design from a good design. Thus, the brilliance of Niche is that it’s the survival challenge itself that actually improves the award. Give Niche’s designers a big hand. That was well thought out.
Presentation wise, Niche has a pleasantly simple cartoonish look. Your animals don’t get much in terms of detail or shading, which one would think would be important in a game about evolutionary customization. However, Niche makes up for it with the plethora of stripes, spots, body types, and facial structures you can combine. No two animals are alike. The variances between the islands’ flora and fauna are satisfying too. Ecosystems range from desert savannas to arctic tundras, lush swamps to exotic jungles, or pleasant meadows to mountain ranges. Their color schemes are also pretty simplistic, mostly sticking to solid colors, but the plants have more shading detail done on them. Your current biome will also effect your gameplay with their own unique predators and food sources. Some ecosystems are easy to adapt to. Others house pretty harsh conditions, but we’ll elaborate on survival in just a bit. Niche’s music was noticeably minimalistic. It just repeated a single piece that lacked a clear melody. It’s nice that it added different instruments based on your current island, but it didn’t do much for me. I suppose it helps the whole ‘enjoying nature’ experience not to belt out big instrumentals, though. Overall, Niche did decently. It doesn’t have the most fabulous scenery or models, but there’s a lot of both for a dense number of possibilities. Think of it as a matter of quantity over quality.
Niche follows the turn-based strategy game formula. Each day acts as a single turn, and as previously mentioned, expanding the family tree isn’t the only important matter. Hazards from weather conditions to predators must be answered, and there is berry collecting and hunting to be done. Now, it’s important to consider your critter’s lifespan - yes, their lifespan. Animals age and will die after so many turns, so it’s crucial to avoid attacks, illness, and starvation. Otherwise, their life is shortened by one day, and an island full of bones equals Game Over. Day to day survival needs will vary. However, there must be at least one piece of food per animal per day in your food counter. That fact is invariable. You’ll also need to collect at least ten bits of tall grass for a nest to birth your babies in. Your animals can only accomplish tasks within their reach, so you can move mammals like chess pieces around your island. Take note, though, that what can be done in a single day is limited. Each animal, depending on their age, will have one to three gems on their chest that indicate their action tally. Have a critter move, pick fruit, fight, etc. and its gem will dim. Once all gems go out, that animal will fall asleep until the next day. This restriction certainly asks the player to weigh their choices carefully, but it doesn’t rush them, since the day won’t end without the player’s say-so.
Alright. That covers the bare basics of the survival mechanics, but as we’ve established, animals grow old and die. To put Mr. Stork on hold for too long spells failure too. Multiplying and surviving requires equal attention. So, about wildlife breeding - your first instinct would likely say (Papa + Mama = Baby) times ten. Clearly, mating your Adam and Eve is an obvious must. Fact is, though, tiny tots become big tots, and big tots need mates too. That’s where your family tree can tangle into an overripe mess. You don’t want desirable genes fading out nor unwanted genes infecting your gene pool. The key is to: (A.) know what your animals need; (B.) know what they inherently have; and (C.) pair ideal couples that optimize genes of interest. Now, different attributes impact your animals in various ways. Some attributes, like body types, can naturally enable side effects like heightened senses, temperature resistance, camouflage, and so on. Other attributes determine your animal’s abilities. Got digging claws? They can unearth roots. Born with strong jaws? Nuts are theirs to crack, and it’s possible for a baby to have more than one attribute at the same time. However, that’s just talking about what they can do, not how good they are at it. That’s why all abilities are graded with a number. These numbers inform you on how effective that animal is at that specific job. (Can they pick more than one fruit at a time? Is their attack strength strong enough for big prey?) The higher the number, the better the ability. Of course, achieving higher numbers in a desired gene can be done by simply mating similarly attributed animals. That will work, but to pair animals that are best in their business is the far more efficient option.
However, breeders beware. Evolutionary risks are always involved when chromosomes combine. Even with the perfect couples, you aren’t guaranteed a prime specimen. There’s a random factor to it. Sometimes the new tyke won’t augment their parents’ primary skills at all, or they’ll at least maintain them as a recessive allele. In other cases, a good gene might lose effectiveness without a complimentary gene. A gifted bottom feeder, for example, is largely useless if they can’t swim. Then there’s the chance of accidentally overlooking a bad allele. Oh, yeah. Those exist too, and these DNA dangers can severely handicap your pups. Deformed paws are a nasty deficit, since they can’t accomplish anything. There’s also blindness, and infertility can stump a family branch altogether. However, the absolute worst thing you can possibly do is mate two critters with similar immunity alleles. These genes matter so much, that if you get a baby with a doubled immunity strand, it leaves them chronically sick and doomed to a halved lifespan. (*Sigh* Oh, the sins of rampant inbreeding.) Good thing there are often other wandering animals with their own genes to contribute in your group. Just feed them five foods, and they’re all in. I sure wish the human adoption process was that simple.
Niche’s mechanics don’t end there. It also empowers players to choose an animal’s status and activate mutations. An animal’s status can be flipped between alpha, beta, and omega. Their rank determines their share of the rations during food shortages. The alphas will get first dibs, but the omegas will lose out on the munchies followed by the betas if it’s really bad. Lower ranked animals can be exiled by their superiors too. Sad to say that it renders omegas especially banish-able. Boy, it stinks to be the runt, huh? At least your critters can’t boot each other without you knowing. Now, there are a few cases where it may benefit the whole clan to sacrifice one or two. An infertile member with two deformed paws would be nothing more than another mouth to feed. Personally speaking though, I tried avoiding that option. It can improve some situations, but I find it too cruel for my taste. As for your second tool, the mutation mechanic helps further your genetic control. All animals have an accessible mutation sub-menu. There you can select a gene to mutate to boost its chance of passing to that animal’s offspring, yet your options aren’t limited to genes they currently have. It’s possible to use it to gain entirely new traits your animals need. There are three catches, though. You can only do this twice to any given animal. A mutated gene cannot be restored, and some genes must first be unlocked via certain in-game requirements. Now, because Niche has portrayed genetics quite well so far, I partly want to ping it for misrepresenting the mutation process, since that actually removes genetic information instead of adding it, but the far bigger issue was Niche’s neglect to fully explain this mechanic. The tutorial didn’t teach me how to use mutations. The onscreen information said zip about it. I had to outsource to online guides to understand its purpose at all, and while I’m on the topic, the game doesn’t let you know which alleles are dominant and recessive either. Some specifications would have been nice, Stray Fawn. Still, Niche did great at showing me everything else. It just so happened to skip that step.
Everything is controlled by the click of a mouse. Panning the camera around can be done with arrow keys too, but I considered clicking and dragging to be more intuitive. Selecting an animal will show you their action options in the spaces around them, and their picture will appear on the bottom left corner of your screen, along with a few extra icons. These clickable icons let you see their rank, abilities, active and inactive genes, genealogy diagram, and mutation sub-menu. They can help you track who is who and who can do what - with mixed results. I still experienced difficulties keeping tabs on my animals, but in fairness, Niche without these features would be an organization nightmare. Plus, I couldn’t figure out a solution to curb the issue myself, so what the designers have done will do. On the right screen corner sits the final set of icons. They record the amount of collected food, gathered nesting materials, and current number of animals you have. Last and most importantly of all is your sensory settings. You can alternate between your animals’ senses to see all that they see, smell, and hear. I personally really loved this mechanic. It was immensely helpful for detecting food or danger I’d otherwise miss.
Time to address the elephant in the room. I’m sure some of you find the mere mention of evolution uncomfortable. Just say the word, and sparks tend to go flying. Okay. First off, please remember that this article is just a game review. It is not an essay on the creation vs. evolution debate. However, it’s also important to remind ourselves that this is a Christian game reviewing site. Which means, we, the staff, are to judge games based on a Biblical worldview. That means we’ve chosen to support God’s Word as entirely true without compromises. So, with that in mind, how does Niche’s scientific stance stack up from a Biblical standpoint? Pretty well actually. That would likely surprise some of you, so let me explain. There are two types of ‘evolution’ that tends to get used interchangeably. ‘Macro-evolution’ (changes across species like a fish to a monkey) is what’s most commonly thought of as ‘evolution’, but there is also ‘micro-evolution’ (changes within animal kinds like a wolf to a poodle). The Bible, as it is written, cannot support the macro side of evolutionary theory. However, micro-evolution not only compliments the Biblical foundation, it’s also a provable theory that explains why we have so many animal varieties today. Knowing that, what kind of ‘evolution’ does Niche promote? I’d say mostly ‘micro’ evolution. While the animals you’re breeding are fictitious, they are pretty mammal-like, and most evolutionary options in the game stay close to the mammalian gene pool. However, one option, namely gills, is very suspect, since gilled mammals have not been discovered. It’s a debatable point, though. Niche’s animals are fictional to begin with. Thus, they could be their own unique ‘kind’ of animal and technically not mammalian at all. Anyway, it’s something to think about. Other moral questions may include the whole male-female mating thing. Not to worry, parents. The impregnation process only shows little hearts floating around the happy couple. No birds and bees talk is necessary, but it is worth mentioning that an ugly mug rogue male might *ahem* ‘force’ himself on one of your feminine critters if she’s unprotected. Lastly, violence isn’t violent either. Attacks register as little red scratches or blood drop icons, and bones appear wherever an animal dies. That’s pretty much it.
Niche: A Genetics Survival Game is an interesting case. It’s both daunting and approachable. Daunting in the sense that its science is complicated and can be laced with harsh difficulty. Approachable in the sense that it doesn’t force itself upon its players. If raising furry families appeals to you, Niche won’t shove you off the easy islands. You can stick around as long as you want, but if you want Niche’s ugly side, it’s just a hop skip and a puddle jump away. I loved how it mostly avoids macro-evolution. I loved the sensory mechanic. I loved the low-key pace, and though it didn’t avoid disorganizational confusion completely, the developers’ efforts alleviated most of the trouble. The main mistake Niche makes is that it forgot to explain in-game mutations and assumes most people are familiar with genetics. It’s a good thing I retained basic memories of the study. Otherwise, I’m convinced I’d be lost. Lost or not though, I truly did enjoy Niche, despite its few scientific missteps. Creative thinkers would delight in it, I’ll bet. Like I’ve said, customization is a powerful selling point, yet Stray Fawn studios avoided an easy designer’s pitfall. They didn’t rely on one enticing motivator and call it a day. They ensured the goals encouraged gameplay, and gameplay enriched the goal. That’s quite the ‘circle of life’ in a genuinely fun game if you ask me.
Game Score - 80%
Gameplay - 19/20
Graphics - 6/10
Sound - 5/10
Stability - 5/5
Controls - 5/5
Morality Score - 87%
Violence - 3.5/10
Language - 10/10
Sexual Content - 10/10
Occult/Supernatural - 10/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10