[Review] Niche: A Genetics Survival Game – Nintendo Switch

Written by Kieran Fifield
  • Developer: Stray Fawn Studio
  • Publisher: Stray Fawn
  • Release Date: 03/09/2020
  • Price: $19.99 / £16.19
  • Review code provided by Stray Fawn

Introducing Niche: A Genetic Survival Game Switch Review

As a science teacher, I’m always curious in finding ways to make difficult topics fun. When I was asked to write a review for Niche, my interest was piqued. I had vaguely heard of the game a few years ago but nothing more than it being a genetic simulator game that had had a massively successful Kickstarter campaign. Now 4 years on, the title is being ported to the Nintendo Switch, which has been receptive to long term simulation games due to the “pick up and play” nature that the Switch allows. The big question I am now asking is, has the game adapted to the change in platform, or will natural selection send it quickly into obscurity?

Kidnapped and stranded on an island – Would you Adam and Eve it?

You start the game as “Adam”, stranded on a random island after being picked up by a predatory bird, whom you wake up and escape from mid-flight. You need to survive and work your way back to your idyllic little island. The best way of describing Adam is as some form of evolution. Although his appearance can alter from game to game, there is a general consensus that you are some kind of furry mammal. Over the course of the tutorial, Adam finds love in the form of “Eve” and their love bears fruit, producing your first, hopefully of many, offspring. The story forms the first part of the tutorial, whereby you learn the main mechanics that enable you to build your pack, and hopefully make the most of the situation poor Adam has been left in.

Mendelian Genetics were never this ap-pea-ling

The main goal of the game is survival, not necessarily of your main character (spoiler alert, he will die pretty quickly), but of the species that are born and evolve in front of you. You are set up on an hexagonal tiled island which contains a range of obstacles, food and creatures. Adam possesses three gems around his neck which serve as an action counter for the player, something that will become very useful fairly quickly when navigating between creatures. On each day (turn) your animals can perform 3 actions from a wide selection, from moving, foraging, exploring and combating. But where the game focuses the majority of its attention is in reproduction, with each animal living around 25 in game days its important to leave a legacy that you can be proud of going forward.

The main mechanics in the game follow the rules of Mendelian genetic inheritance, for those of you who remember your school days, this was “that bloke with the peas” who came up with the idea that features were passed onto their offspring in packages, which we now call genes. The game sticks to this rule really well, having dominant and recessive traits clearly displayed from the start, and introducing more complicated ideas such as co-dominance with some features. It does this through a complicated genetic mapping tool that clearly shows which traits are present in the animal you are looking at, with the ability to (possibly) force through a desired trait using the “mutations” function.

The general idea is that you choose your mates carefully to produce the ideal offspring for the area around you. The problem is you don’t necessarily have the best gene pool to select from. Meaning you will have to pick and choose which features you want your animals to inherit and which animals you want to breed with each other, remembering of course that inbreeding will increase the chance of mutations that have a detrimental effect on your creatures.

Addictive mutations for future generations

The great thing about the level design is that, in theory, there are unlimited gameplay options, making replay value incredibly high. You will always have a slightly different island, with different selection pressures and a slightly different starting creature. It could be you need to evolve flippers in order to improve swimming, or a specific shape of horn to fight off predators, or increase your immunity to diseases. The possibilities are endless.

The huge variation in gameplay is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it creates a different experience each time, it also causes one of the games biggest flaws. With so many factors to consider, it is very difficult to keep track of the traits of each of the animals within your population. The game provides handy HUD graphics to help, but there are a lot of factors that come into play with almost every situation. But the counter argument here is that the game aims to mimic real life and educate as well as entertain.

The gameplay is addictive, make no mistake, you will feel for your niche-lettes, you will try and protect them and you will be sad when they inevitably pass on. If you fail for whatever reason, there is a real drive to understand why and improve on this. The problem is that the reason for your failure could have happened a few generations back, creating a steep learning curve combined with the tutorial letting go of the reins when you are at your most vulnerable.

Aesthetics are at the shallow end of the gene pool though…

Artistically, the game won’t be winning any awards any time soon, but that doesn’t mean they are terrible. They are clearly dated, and I’d noticed not much had been done in terms of upscaling. The opening cinematic lacked real animation and felt like a digital puppet show. There is also limited animation of the characters, creating a rather static encounter that feels more like a board game than a video game. This is matched with the games audio, it fits the theming and aesthetic, its been well considered and includes realistic sound effects, but ultimately adds little to the experience. Its not bad, it’s just fine.

But what about the game’s DNA?

The game runs fine in docked and handheld mode and works fine with external controllers as opposed to Joy-Cons. Disappointingly there is no touch screen functionality in handheld mode, which ironically, would have made the game more accessible as using the analogue controls feel slow and clunky, and definitely, as if you should be using a mouse rather than a games controller.

The game takes up 1.1Gb of storage space, which puts it alongside some similar simulation and RPG titles. I was surprised when I looked, thinking that with the wide range of combinations available in assets and environment that this would take up considerably more space.

Final Thoughts

Niche is designed first and foremost as edutainment. Unfortunately I don’t think I could use this as a teaching tool simply because of the issues it has. But as a game, Niche is a fun and addictive simulation game that fans of genetics and simulation can enjoy. When you also factor in the fact this is a port of an older PC game, I really don’t feel I’m getting much value whether buying this again for the portability, or buying it for the first time. If you enjoy these types of simulation game and also want to learn a little about the science behind evolution, then it’s one to pick up, but personally, I’d wait until a sale brings this title down.

Pros

  • Cute characters you will become invested in
  • Easy to pick up the basics
  • Unlimited replay value
  • Highly educational and addictive

Cons

  • Steep learning curve
  • A lot of ball juggling needed
  • Could have benefited from some modernisation

Verdict
The game has some great potential, and doesn’t do anything bad, but needs to simplify its mechanics if it wants to evolve into a real contender.

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