Fun fact: I was actually one of the backers on Niche by Stray Fawn Studios. What can I say? After being raised by Pokemon, just hearing the word "Evolution" has the same effect on me as a heavy narcotic (I'd imagine). I also was a fan of that old Creatures game and I am one of those that Spore disappointed. If you're like me, you're probably thinking to yourself that a turn-based strategy game is an odd choice of genre for this sort of game. Normally these games tend to be a bit more adventure-centric or try to emulate the old Tomagotchi pets. If you go in expecting something more like a virtual pet, you'll be a bit taken aback by what is actually super complex strategy making up the core gameplay of Niche. It may not be what you expect, but in many ways it's better. I take some issues with the rather static graphics and the lack of world map, but overall I find the game has a real charm with the designs and sound effects put on the backdrop of a cruel, unforgiving world.
Niche – A Genetics Survival Game can be found on Steam for $17.99.
The story is described as "The Story of Adam," in which you play as a creature of the same name, and yes that is a barely-veiled biblical allegory. As a baby you are ripped from your family by a bird of prey, but you manage to escape. You land on an empty island with one goal: survival. Adam meets Eve, and soon you will be playing as their progeny, adopting strays into your tribe for their genetic diversity, having bastards spring up from rogue males with terrible genes, and all that. This is a game like Dwarf Fortress, where the stories come in after the fact in the anecdotes you tell rather than scripted in the game. That said, I do wish there was a bit more overarching story in the story mode, but I can imagine that would be difficult when your main characters keep dying so I can give Stray Fawn Studios a pass on that gripe of mine.
As I said before, Niche is a turn-based strategy game with elements of roguelikes and some real genetic concepts that seem rather authentic to me given I know no more about genetics than what they teach in high school.
There is a story mode and a sandbox mode. Neither of them seemed much different than the other. If there were any plot points or anything in the story mode I may have just not gotten to them, but if I played hours upon hours of this game and never managed to uncover the story then me being bad at the game is no longer a valid excuse. I guess in the sandbox mode you can control your difficulty a bit more by going into some specific maps to start off, but aside from that it doesn't change much. Story mode could just as easily be an easy mode in the sandbox option.
Exploring the maps
From when I first picked up the Niche in the kickstarter, the only thing that has really changed is the variety of maps and the ability to switch between them. What I like about this ability to change maps is that you can only take a few of the creatures with you and the rest will no longer be a part of your tribe, so it is a great way to cull weak genetics from the bloodline without performing a genocide or wasting valuable food. The map variety goes from your normal grassy fields and forests to jungles and tundra. I primarily played in the forests because the story mode, which I tried desperately to get through, kept me there for a long time. It seemed as though there was a specific pattern of islands in the story mode, but there is no way of knowing because there is no greater world map. That isn't a huge complaint, but if you're going to rip a lot of slow and hard-earned progress from me, I'd like to have an easy way to remember which islands are where.
The building blocks of life
The backbone of this game is the realistic genetics system, and the system Stray Faun Studios came up with makes for one a strong core experience. Each creature you have has a specific genetic code that determines everything, from their jaws and hands to the color and type of their horns if any. These are sorted into dominant and recessive genes, which can be really annoying when you want to breed out the derp jaw but it just keeps finding its way into your bloodline, but its a road block that can be overcome with reasonable effort.
Breeding is probably the most important thing you do in this game, but can also be the biggest pain. One of the things they have had since I played in the earliest development was mutations, which are certain traits that you can add a chance of giving to the offspring of something that may have not had that trait at first. Here's an example: I had two parents with pure derp jaw and deformed paw traits. The derp jaw is passable at best and the deformed paw is worse than useless. To try to have offspring I would use, I gave them both the chance that their offspring would mutate a cracker jaw and nimble fingers so they would be able to gather nuts and berries. It took a few chances, but the strategy eventually worked. No matter how messed up you game may get and how much it may set you back, you will never be completely SOL.
This is also incredibly based on luck. Once I had a run of great creatures with stellar genes that were exactly what I wanted. My problem? They were all female! While I was hoping some creature may wander by that I could recruit, some rogue male barged in and impregnated one with his blind, derpy, stumpy-pawed, useless genes. I get that it's realistic, but the game is hard enough without needing to clutter the gene pool. On a side note, I'm not a fan of how this game makes me sound like a eugenics advocate. The mutations give you some control, but you still roll the dice whenever you breed. Oh, and try to not breed relatives. Though it's possible, each creature does have two immunity genes. If they get two of the same, your creature is sick and dies twice as fast. It can also get your whole tribe sick spelling out an early doomsday, so you sometimes may need to bring in an outsider just so you're not inbreeding too much.
Most strategy games have enemy armies to fight against, this game just has the inexorable passage of time and the cruel harshness of an uncaring world. Your creatures won't live forever, but how long they live is completely dependent on how well you treat them. Treating these creatures well can be difficult when ravenous Bearyenas come by to wreck your nest or when weather makes it difficult for your creatures to live. The problem with any of these is that in order to combat the threat you would need to make a complete change in your genetics. You could replace your herbivore jaws with poison fangs, but then you can't crack open nuts. Perhaps you could take claws, but then you could no longer dig for roots. It's really a matter of (WARNING: TITLE DROP AHEAD) finding your niche in the ecosystem then evolving to be the best at that you can be.
And if you should die? (You will)
And should you fail to survive, don't worry it isn't the end of your species. You start over with a male and a female with traits determined from the gene pool you had before and you keep all available mutation possibilities you had before. This helps ensure that death means you haven't lost everything, and trust me you will come to the brink of extinction many times. You won't always have exactly the traits you need. Maybe your creatures had claws and could hunt and fish like champs, but the fish ran low and so they all starved for lack of gathering ability. You could just go for broke and try to gather all you can to unlock the nimble paws so next time around you won't be caught unprepared. This helps ensure that death holds a penalty without ripping away all of your progress.
Graphics and audio
The graphics oddly enough haven't changed much from the earlier versions of the game and to tell the truth are the reasons I only played it sporadically throughout development. See, for a game about organic life everything feels stunningly inorganic. It feels more like I'm playing a board game than controlling the genetics of an entire species. The only things that really move are the heads of the creatures you have yet to move, and even then they just follow your mouse around. The other animals around like the Bearyenas and foxes look more like miniatures than living things. That isn't to say they're designed badly, I just found it difficult to be immersed when I felt less like a god and more like someone playing a video game.
The music is fine, but the ambient sounds are incredible. Where the graphics have difficulty conveying a living world, the sound effects have no such problems. In the background you can hear whatever you may hear in that environment. Running water, singing birds, chirping crickets, and even more. If my white noise machine ever breaks down, I could just play the ambient sounds from this game. The sound effects are, for lack of a better word, freaking adorable. Your creatures make the occasional squeak, purr, or yowl that just made me want to reach into my screen, pluck one out, and adopt it as a pet because this world is too unforgiving for my sweet little genetic monstrosity.
I would say that I definitely got my money's worth when I backed Niche. All I can really complain about is the lack of overarching world map, the luck factor, and the static graphics, everything else was either good or great. The genetics mechanics are as brutal as they are fun, the environments are diverse, the sound effects are fantastic, and of course your creatures are adorable. I can heartily recommend Niche to anyone looking for a strategy game that shakes up the usual mechanics enough to give a strategy game veteran something a bit different to think about.
|+ Realistic genetics||– Static graphics|
|+ Map variety||– No world map|
|+ Amazing sound effects and ambiance|
– No cohesive story in the story mode
|+ Can be brutal, but always fair|